Walking through Nagu, a small town in the mountains of southwestern China, the signs of a vibrant Muslim community are ubiquitous. Loudspeakers broadcast passages from a Chinese translation of the Quran. Women in head scarves shuttle rowdy children home from school. Arabic script decorates the outside of homes.
Towering over it all is the Najiaying Mosque, a white building topped with an emerald dome and four minarets that reach 230 feet into the air. For decades, the mosque has been the pride of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority that lives here.
Last month, it was also the scene of a confrontation.
On the morning of May 27, after the authorities drove construction cranes into the mosque’s courtyard, a crowd of residents confronted the hundreds of police officers in riot gear who had been deployed to oversee the work. As the officers blocked the mosque and used pepper spray, residents threw water bottles and bricks.
The rare clashes, described in interviews with eyewitnesses and captured on videos posted on social media, show how one aspect of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to exert greater control over religion could grow more volatile.
Since China’s leader, Xi Jinping, rose to power more than a decade ago, the party has torn down Christian churches, razed Tibetan Buddhist enclaves and put Uyghur Muslims in internment camps in the name of political security. But it has also gone after lesser-known groups, including the Hui, who make up less than 1 percent of the population and have historically assimilated well with the ethnic Han majority.
The party has systematically closed, demolished or forcibly redesigned mosques in Hui enclaves across the country, condemning Arabic architectural features, such as domes and minarets, as proof of unwanted foreign influence over Islam in China. Resistance has been limited, and the mosque in Nagu, along with another large one in the nearby town of Shadian, is among the last major ones with such architecture still standing in China.
But when local officials announced plans to remove both mosques’ domes and remake their minarets in a purportedly more “Chinese” style, people in Nagu fought back.
“This roof represents our respect and freedom. We chose it freely ourselves at the time,” said Mr. Na, a Hui resident in his 30s, who asked to be identified only by his last name for fear of government retaliation. His family, like many in town, had helped fund the mosque’s most recent renovations in the early 2000s, when the minarets were added. “Now they are saying, ‘My rule overrides your free choice.’”
The mosques in Nagu and Shadian hold particular importance in the story of Beijing’s relationship with Islam, which has fluctuated between conflict and coexistence. Yunnan Province, where both Nagu and Shadian are, is China’s most ethnically diverse, and the Hui people — most of whom speak Mandarin but are distinguished by their Muslim faith — have lived there for centuries. The earliest version of Nagu’smosque was built in the 14th century, in a traditional Chinese courtyard style. Yunnan’s Muslims prospered as merchants trading with Southeast Asia.
Then, after the Communist takeover, officials began to attack religion as counterrevolutionary, especially during the 1966-1976 period of political upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution. Muslims in Shadian resisted, and in 1975 the military razed the town and massacred as many as 1,600 residents.
After the Cultural Revolution, as China opened to the world, the government apologized for the massacre. It supported the reconstruction of Shadian and permitted locals — many of whom could travel abroad for the first time — to build the Grand Mosque, the largest in southwestern China, in its present Arabic style. Modeled after the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the building can hold 10,000 people, and its minarets are visible from miles away. Officials promoted it as a tourist site.
The Nagu mosque, 90 miles from Shadian, also grew and evolved, becoming a regional training center for imams. When locals, starting in the 1980s, added a dome and other Arabic features, the government did not interfere. In 2018, the local government designated it a cultural relic.
“These mosques symbolize that the Chinese government accepted that they were wrong during the Cultural Revolution,” said Ruslan Yusupov, a scholar of China and Islam at Harvard University. The Shadian mosque in particular, he said, serves as a reminder “both about violence but also about state-sponsored recovery.”
But in recent years, restrictions on Islam began accumulating again, especially after a 2014 attack on civilians at a train station in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, that left 31 people dead. The Chinese government said the attackers were Uyghur separatists who had spent time in Shadian.
Officials stopped promoting Shadian. In Nagu, female teachers were barred from wearing head scarves at school, residents said. A volunteer group there no longer offers free tutoring in the mosque, after officials stepped up controls on education.
In 2021, the so-called Sinicization campaign to remove Arabic features arrived in Nagu. Government officials began visiting homes, sometimes on a daily basis, to coax residents to support changes to the mosque. A town billboard shows a rendering of the government’s plan: the dome gone, the minarets decorated with pagoda-like tiers. Officials have also recently gone door-to-door in Shadian.
“Because of the sheer authority these places occupy in the imagination” of local Muslims, “they had to leave these two mosques to the very end,” Mr. Yusupov said.
To Hui residents in Nagu, which The New York Times visited shortly after the protest, the remodeling plan was a precursor to a more sweeping repression of their way of life.
A woman in her 30s, also surnamed Na — a common surname in Nagu — said she had grown up playing and studying in the mosque. Neighbors and relatives had attended university elsewhere in China, but returned to Nagu for its small-town, pious atmosphere, where they could pass Muslim values onto their children.
Ms. Na said she would be willing to accept the removal of the dome in isolation: “Our faith is in our hearts, that’s just a building.” But she worried, especially after seeing the authorities’ forceful tactics, that it would not stop there.
“The first step is exterior renovations,” she said. “The second step will be telling you to erase the Arabic script that we have on every home.”
The authorities are not backing down. Several hours after the clash began, the police retreated from the mosque, before the midday prayers. But the next day, the local authorities issued a notice denouncing the “serious disruption of social order” and promising a “severe crackdown.” In the days afterward, local officials repeatedly blared that notice over loudspeakers, including late at night.
On China’s heavily censored social media platforms, Islamophobic comments swelled, including from government-affiliated commentators.
In Nagu, residents were entering and exiting the mosque, but security remained tight, with a drone flying overhead. Plainclothes police officers approached a reporter from The Times and had her driven out of the town.
The authorities in Shadian were also on high alert, with officials intercepting the reporter at the train station. Still, they agreed to take her to the Grand Mosque.
“Of course, the Quran came from Saudi Arabia, but after arriving in China, it must adapt,” said Li Heng, an official from the local bureau of ethnic and religious affairs, as he stood in the plaza before the mosque.
“When our imams give sermons,” he said, “they must integrate the core socialist values the government is promoting.”
Mr. Li insisted that officials were not interfering with religious freedom, and that the plan would proceed only with locals’ assent.
He added: “Patriotism is the highest form of religious belief.”
Back in Nagu, the cranes still sat in the mosque courtyard several days after the clash. The demolition was likely inevitable, said Mr. Na, the Hui resident. But he hoped residents would be allowed to hold on to other freedoms that they were not willing to compromise. For him, that included the right to pass his religion onto his children.
“If you can’t guard your bottom line, then others will see you as someone without a bottom line,” he said, “and they’ll trample over it again and again.”
Li You and Joy Dong contributed research.