Tension bubbled up in August in Weizhou, a dusty Muslim-majority town in China’s northwestern “Quran Belt.”
The town’s pride and joy is a gleaming white mosque with four minarets and nine domes tipped with crescent moons that dwarfs a surrounding warren of brick and concrete homes.
Officials issued a demolition order for the Grand Mosque, alleging it had been “illegally expanded” and adding that 1.07 million yuan ($154,765) from foreign sources had been received by four local mosques - financing that would be illegal under Chinese law.
Hundreds of Hui flocked to the mosque’s courtyard for a rarity in China: a political protest. City authorities detained Associated Press journalists and prevented them from conducting interviews at the mosque.
The protesters’ success was even rarer. The mosque remained unscathed, if draped in a banner reading in Chinese: “Stick to directives of Sinicized religion.”
Weeks later, a top Communist propaganda official in Ningxia blamed the incident on “an oversimplified administrative decision” by local authorities.
“It originally should not have happened,” Bai Shangcheng, director-general of the regional Communist Party department that oversees religious groups, said at a news conference in Beijing.
Dissent simmered quietly in the Hui community after the mosque incident, according to Cui, who circumvented China’s internet censorship to tweet about the protest and feed video to a Turkish television station.
In late November, the Communist Party-run Global Times reported that Ningxia had signed an anti-terrorism cooperation agreement with Xinjiang during a visit by Ningxia Communist Party head Zhang Yunsheng.
China has set up a vast security apparatus in Xinjiang with pervasive police checkpoints and surveillance cameras. By some estimates, more than 1 million Uighurs and Kazakhs have been detained in internment camps in a crackdown on extremism. Two former camp detainees have told the AP that some Hui have been swept up in the clampdown too.
The order to close the Arabic language school came early this month, the Global Times reported. An unnamed expert in Beijing told the newspaper that teaching Arabic sometimes arouses public concern if it crosses over into preaching religious content.
The article quoted China’s education law: “The State separates education from religion.”
Cui is one of the few Chinese citizens disturbed enough — and brave enough — to criticize the Communist Party openly. For that, he has experienced censorship, detention, and “home visits” by police.
He spoke to the AP at his home in Jinan, a city in eastern China where his family traces its roots back five centuries. Skyscrapers dwarf old mosques and boisterous halal restaurants with gold domes, Arabic script and crescents.
He doesn’t drink alcohol or eat pork, but neither does he pray five times a day. His bedside table is stacked with poetry and novels, not religious books. Hanging in the living room is a framed red embroidery by his mother of the Islamic profession of faith in yellow Arabic stitching.
It was underneath this tapestry that police entered his home earlier this year to demand he stop criticizing the government online. Cui posts attacks on Beijing’s policies related to Muslims in China and abroad, such as the government’s support of Myanmar despite widespread criticism of its treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
A few months later, on Nov. 27, police brought him to the local Public Security Bureau for a few hours of questioning. A recent Human Rights Watch report said that China started in November “targeting Twitter users in China as part of a nationwide crackdown on social media.” Cui refused to stop or delete his tweets.
Sixty years ago, Communist Party cadres descended on the historically Hui city of Linxia to excise “superstitions” in the city in a “struggle against the privileges of feudalism and religion,” according to a 2016 book by Matthew Erie, an Oxford University professor of modern China studies.
Red Guards lit bonfires with wood from demolished mosques and tombs, Erie writes in “China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law.” They forced Muslims to wear signs reading “enemies of the state.”
Cui fears the current crackdown on religion will return China to those days of blood.
At a teahouse in Jinan, as steam from his jasmine tea mixes with the scent from a tray of sweets, he recites from his poem “Letter from Prison:”
“It seems like I can see the bulldozer running wild in the Thousand and One Nights.
The angel upon my shoulder urges me: ‘Tell the truth under the grey sky.’”