China’s persecution of ethnic minorities culminated in a major and rare moment of backlash in the Nagu town of restive Yunnan province, over 2,400 km southwest of the capital Beijing.
The protests erupted on Saturday after the police began stepping forward to demolish a section of a 13th-century mosque.
The footage, which went viral on social media, showed crowds outside the mosque resisting the move of hundreds of policemen towards the site.
In Nagu, the Najiaying Mosque had been a key landmark. In recent years, the mosque has reportedly been expanded with a new domed roof and a number of minarets.
Yunnan protests: Why is the demolition of a section of historic mosque happening?
This is because a 2020 court judgement deemed the additions illegal. Subsequently, they were ordered to be removed.
The Chinese state is now acting to carry out that order, sparking widespread demonstrations.
Yunnan protests: What next?
The police in Tonghai County, where Nagu is located, called on protesters to surrender to police by June 6.
Dozens have been arrested so far, reports said.
“Those who voluntarily turn themselves in and truthfully confess the facts of violations and crimes may be given a lighter or mitigated punishment,” the notice by Tonghai County police can be translated as saying.
The police called Saturday’s incident “a serious obstruction of social management order”, and the authorities also asked locals to “actively report” protesters.
Yunnan protests: A target for Xi Jinping’s ‘Sinicisation of religion’?
Yunnan province is home to some 700,000 of about 10 million Hui Muslims in China.
In 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged to continue a “Sinicisation of religion”, which refers to the transformation of religious beliefs to reflect Chinese culture and society.
Yunnan protests: How unprecedented are they?
Yunnan has had a history of occasionally erupting in protests against Beijing’s increasing signs of Sinicisation of religion.
In 2018, hundreds of Hui Muslims in the Ningxia region confronted the police to prevent their mosque from being demolished.
That same year, three mosques in Yunnan were also shut down for what China said was to stop “illegal religious education”.