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A mosque sits in Yanzi village of Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture. Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT


In some Chinese regions where ethnic minority groups reside, fighting poverty is a big challenge. Some experts suggested that an overwhelming sense of religious practice might hinder local economic growth and that some communities should become more modernized and live in line with the country's socialist values. A Global Times reporter recently traveled to Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Northwest China's Gansu Province to find out more.

On the way from Lanzhou, capital city of Northwest China's Gansu Province, to Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, which is south of the provincial capital, numerous mosques are hidden in small villages along the national highway.

The prefecture is home to the Hui and 30 other ethnic minority groups, which account for 59 percent of the 2.19 million-strong local population, according to the prefecture-level government's website.

Among the total 1.8 million local people who follow religions, 1.14 million are Muslim, making it the most influential religion in the region, according to Chinese ethnic minority news site, which is under the auspices of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of China.

As the heartland of the Hui ethnic minority, Linxia has built thousands of mosques with a mixture of both western and eastern styles.

There were in total 4,606 mosques in Gansu as of 2015, according to the latest data on the Beijing-based China Islamic Association. And Gansu has been ranked as the region with the second-largest number of Muslim worship venues, following Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Gansu's multicolored mosques, however, with their crescent moon symbols sitting on the top, are in sharp contrast with the surrounding mud-brick houses.

In 2014, Linxia ranked as the second to last poorest area nationwide out of the 339 monitored. However, it has been receiving a large amount of financial support from the government, according to a post published by Cai Fushun, a historian and blogger, in September 2016.

"While many children in the prefecture can't afford to go to school, Linxia, known as 'Little Mecca', has so many splendid mosques," he wrote.

Ma Fucheng, a resident in Yanzi village of Guanghe county, used to work as the village Party chief for several years.

"The hostile environment in a mountainous area is a major reason why people are so poor here," he explained to the Global Times in a recent interview.

Over the past five years, the village, like many others in the prefecture, has become one of the country's main battlefields for fighting poverty.

As the home to 452 households, Yanzi village registers 270 as poor households. But they have received a slew of favorable policies from local authorities in recent years, such as personal grant loans of up to 50,000 yuan ($7,534), and have received help on infrastructure improvement.

"Every village here has at least one mosque, and villagers voluntarily donate hundreds or thousands of yuan to build them," Ma the retired village Party chief said.

Authorities' concerns  

While some mosques in the region are Pagoda-style, reflecting traditional Chinese architecture, more and more have been shifting toward Arabian-style, which has caught the attention of authorities.

For instance, many Arabian-style mosques, which are overtly decorated and surpass original construction budgets,  have emerged across the country, from southeastern to northwestern regions, according to a seminar held by the China Islamic Association in April in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, as noted on the local government's website.

Places of worship ''should not be luxurious or oversized'' in their scale, and religion ''has to be in line'' with China's socialist values, the seminar noted.

Some Weibo users, China's Twitter-like platform, have also commented on the growing conspicuousness of mosques. 

In India, temples are predominant in villages and towns, and religions are closely connected to local lifestyles and economic activities, noted Xiong Kunxin, a professor at Beijing's Minzu University of China.

"Once a religion is overdeveloped, it will pose an impact on the wider secular society, sometimes posing a negative influence," opined Xiong to the Global Times on Monday. "We should keep it [religion] personal and it should not interfere with normal social activities," he said.

In the view of Xiong, not only Chinese Muslims, but other ethnic minority groups must get rid of feudal and superstitious practices and ideas to increase social productivity.

"From the spiritual to the material, cultural life to economic activity perspectives, they need to move toward secularism and social modernization," he remarked. 

On Weibo, some Chinese scholars have also questioned whether it is necessary to renovate some mosques with poverty alleviation funds in Linxia, something which has been allegedly occurring, according to a post published on October 29 by Xi Wuyi, an expert on Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

But as Hui people's lives get better and better, the mosques in their villages are simultaneously improving, as those people have a strong willingness to renovate them for their beliefs, Ma noted. "It's all about their beliefs," he said.

Echo core values

In Yanzi village, a villager surnamed Ma (a common surname among Hui people) has not finished renovating her mud-brick house, despite the help of the poverty alleviation fund. As a result, she has temporarily put some of her personal belongings outside under a shed. Her daughter, who is in her 20s, sits in the yard washing clothes, where her two kids play around.

The lack of education, which has led to low literacy rates, is also a major reason why this village is so poor, a local official, who prefers not to be named, told the Global Times.

"Some young girls get married in their early ages," he said, another result of poverty and poor education.

Compared to other poor villages, the local government has adopted more favorable policies for the ethnic minority group as part of its anti-poverty campaign, noted Ma, the retired village Party chief.

However, some experts have discussed whether some ethnic minority groups should enjoy more policies and whether they should practice their religion in a limited capacity.

"While Hui people in this region are enjoying priorities, the majority of Han people have been treated unfairly, which has led many talents to outflow and the local economic growth to lose momentum," Mei Xinyu, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, told the Global Times on Monday.

To drive local economic and social growth, the region should dilute ethnic and religious identities, Mei opined.

"People spend a large amount of money on religious activities, and more and more products being labeled with a Halal tag could be seen as a new form of industry monopoly, which will hinder local economic growth," he opined.

Officials in regions where ethnic minority groups live should help local communities practice religions in line with characteristics of a socialist society, and by respecting Chinese laws.

Indeed, local authorities in Linxia have been making efforts to align religious activities with core socialist values in recent years, the local official told the Global Times, so those minorities can still practice Islam.

The local Bureau of Religious Affairs in particular has been encouraging activities that promote core socialist values in places of worship, domestic news site reported in August.

Some core socialist values, including a set of moral principles, have also been integrated into the study of religions, such as patriotism, justice, the rule of law, and so on. And some officials are urged to enhance ties with leaders of religious groups, the government of Linxia said in October.