China has demolished around 70 per cent of all the mosques in Kashgar city in the restive Xinjiang province of the country. The total number of mosques demolished in and around the city is not clear but a report published in Radio Free Asia quotes local officials putting it to a few thousand.
In 2014 a ban on Christmas celebrations was imposed in some Chinese cities, colleges and public places. A Christian woman was arrested for carrying a banner urging Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan to turn to Christianity.
The question is: Is China anti-religion, or, in other words, an atheist country?
The answer is ‘no’. China is not an atheist country, though atheism is practised by anyone who is a member of the ruling, all-powerful Communist Party and anyone who is not an atheist cannot become the leader of the party.
There is freedom of religion in China and there are millions of people who follow any of the ‘permitted’ religions under Chinese law.
Now what are ‘permitted’ religions? China officially recognises only five religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
Followers of all other religions can practise their faith but do not have the official sanction, which means that the state can take action against them for any reason.
But even the five religions officially recognised by China do not exactly enjoy the kind of freedom you might have seen in Asian countries such as India and the countries in the West.
Article 36 of the Constitution of People’s Republic of China 1982 states this:
Reads simple, doesn’t it? No, read this part again:
“The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”
That is exactly what provides the Chinese authorities to crackdown on the activities of religions officially recognised by it.
China started outlawing Protestant Christmas celebrations in some places because it sees it as a “dangerous foreign import”. Authorities tend to believe that the Christians in China are increasingly getting influenced by the Western powers.
The Communist government in China imposes a very high number of restrictions on its people. It has studied well the fact that too much freedom of religion will directly reduce the state control over the people.
China does not actively persecute anyone for following any religion. In other words, even a Hindu can practise his faith in China even though Hinduism is not an official religion. But if Hinduism starts posing a threat to the government’s hold then authorities will take action.
This is exactly what is happening in Xinjiang. Authorities said that they demolished the mosques because their condition posed a threat to worshippers. The Uyghurs are not buying it.
Whatever the authorities may have given as a reason to demolish the mosques, fact remains that China has been coming down hard on Uyghurs in the region accusing them of participating in terrorist activities.
The state may have demolished the mosques because mosques might serve as a platform for inciting groups against the state. Otherwise if the mosques were dilapidated, they could have been repaired and not demolished.
It should also be noted that China is not anti-Islamic because while Uyghur Muslims have on them a number of restrictions, Hui Muslims, most of whom live in northwestern China, can freely practise the faith. One key reason is that China sees Hui people as their own since the Hui are ethnically Chinese. The Uyghurs, on the other hand, are Turkic.
Another major reason why the mosque demolitions happened in Kashgar could be because the city will soon serve as the starting point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The route will connect Kashgar to Gwadar. And Pakistan is where the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur militant group, had its base until recently.
Zarb-e-Azb, the military exercise launched under former Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, was aimed at eliminating the terrorists who could pose a threat to CPEC. Among them was the ETIM.
In April 2016, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain said that the group had been totally wiped out from Pakistan. Yet China may have reason to suspect that fundamentalists in Xinjiang might get influenced by fundamentalists from Pakistan. Perhaps this is why it took such an action on the mosques.
China has a State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the body which keeps an eye out for any potential threat to the party and can impose sanctions on any religion. SARA protects the leadership and the nation from religion.
In other words, security of the country and the dominance of the Communist Party is most important to the Chinese government. Since religion is the most potent tool to unite people against a government, China imposes restrictions on freedom of religion itself. This is why Buddhists in Tibet have to either follow the state-sanctioned Buddhism or go into exile.