Unfettered hate speech fuels Chinese fear of Islam | The Japan Times
2017/04/13 Leave a comment
A flood of angry anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media was the first sign of how fiercely suburban middle-class homeowners in the central Chinese city of Hefei opposed a planned mosque in their neighborhood. It quickly escalated into something more sinister.
Soon a pig’s head was buried in the ground at the future Nangang mosque, the culmination of a rally in which dozens of residents hoisted banners and circled the planned building site.
Then the mosque’s imam received a text message carrying a death threat: “In case someone in your family dies, I have a coffin for you — and more than one, if necessary.”
“How did things get stirred up to this point?” the imam, Tao Yingsheng, said in a recent interview. “Who had even heard of the Nangang mosque before?”
On the dusty plains of the Chinese heartland, the bitter fight over the mosque exemplifies how a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment online is spreading into communities across China, exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions that have in the past erupted in bloodshed. It is also posing a dilemma for the ruling Communist Party, which has allowed Islamophobia to fester online for years as part of its campaign to justify security crackdowns in the restive region of Xinjiang.
“It has let the genie out of the bottle,” said James Leibold, a professor at La Trobe University in Australia who has tracked the growth of anti-Muslim hate speech on China’s internet.
Interviews with residents and an examination of social media show how a few disparate online complaints by local homeowners evolved into a concerted campaign to spread hate.
Key to it was an unexpected yet influential backer: a Chinese propaganda official, 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) away in Xinjiang, whose inflammatory social media posts helped draw people into the streets on New Year’s Day, resulting in a police crackdown.
First mosque in 1780s
A stone inscription outside its gate shows the original Nangang mosque was established in the 1780s by members of the Hui minority, the descendants of Silk Road traders who settled across China centuries ago. In its present form, the mosque has served the area’s 4,500 Hui for decades, its domed silhouette partially hidden by overgrown shrubs in the countryside beyond Hefei’s last paved boulevards.
Over the past 10 years urbanization has come to Hefei, with sprawling development reconfiguring the landscape and its demographic flavor, and Hui leaders had been pushing for years to relocate their mosque to a more convenient urban location.
City planners in November finally selected a site adjacent to the newly built Hangkong New City condominiums, with its $200,000 two-bedroom units, faux-Mediterranean styling and a Volvo dealership across the street.
The project’s homeowners — overwhelmingly members of China’s ethnic Han majority — began complaining on China’s popular microblog Weibo. Some complained the mosque would occupy space promised for a park. Others warned that safety in the area would be compromised.
Others were more blunt: Han residents were uncomfortable that a center for Hui community life would be less than 100 meters from their building, a homeowner who later identified himself in messages to the AP by his surname, Cheng, wrote in a petition posted in December. “And the less said about what happens on Eid al-Adha, the better,” Cheng wrote, referring to the Islamic holiday in which animals are slaughtered for a sacrificial feast. “It’s absolutely shocking.”