China has demolished thousands of mosques in Xinjiang, report says

Domestic News

A new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that over 8,000 mosques in Xinjiang have been demolished in recent years, and that most Uyghur sacred sites have been demolished, damaged, or altered in some way.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

On the heels of a major report documenting the locations of 380 detention camps in China’s Xinjiang region, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has a second report estimating that thousands of mosques and Uyghur sacred sites that have been destroyed or damaged in recent years.

The key findings, by authors Nathan Ruser, James Leibold, Kelsey Munro, and Tilla Hoja:

Using satellite imagery, we estimate that approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65% of the total) have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 have been demolished outright, and, for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once sat remains vacant. A further 30% of important Islamic sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes, including many protected under Chinese law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, mostly since 2017, and an additional 28% have been damaged or altered in some way.

A multimedia report from the New York Times draws on the ASPI findings, and verifies the desecration of multiple Uyghur mosques and sacred sites, including:

  • The Imam Asim shrine near Hotan, and the remote Ordam shrine, both of which were gradually restricted from public viewing in recent decades, but in recent satellite photos appear to be almost entirely reduced to rubble.
  • Two mosques in Kashgar — the Times has a photo of one desecrated mosque that was turned into a bar, and a photo of another mosque turned into a shop.
  • Five mosques in Hotan, four of which were turned into “new parks or bare patches of ground,” and one of which was half-torn down.

Why is this happening?

As the NYT explains, beginning in the 1990s, the Chinese government “grew increasingly nervous about the expansion of mosques and revival of shrines in Xinjiang,” and officials “saw the gathering of pilgrims as kindling for uncontrolled religious devotion and extremism.”

For a variety of reasons — scholars debate exactly which are most important — Beijing identified Uyghur Islamic piety as a problem, and the solution the government settled on was to socially “re-engineer” the Uyghurs. This massive assimilation project includes the well-documented extralegal detentions, formal incarcerations, patriotic education programs, and forced labor schemes — but it also includes separating children from their parents and sending them to state-run orphanages in an effort to “break their roots” to Uyghur culture. Destroying physical artifacts that would help Uyghur culture to persist is of a piece with these other efforts.

“You see a real and what seems to be a conscious effort at destroying places that are important to Uyghurs, precisely because they are important to Uyghurs,” the scholar Rian Thum told the NYT.

See also on SupChina, from April 2019: The future of the fight to preserve Uyghur culture.