To Influence El Salvador, China Dangled Money. The U.S. Made Threats.

To Influence El Salvador, China Dangled Money. The U.S. Made Threats.
YINCHUAN, China — In China’s northwest, the government is stripping the most overt expressions of the Islamic faith from a picturesque valley where most residents are devout Muslims. The authorities have destroyed domes and minarets on mosques, including one in a small village near Linxia, a city known as “Little Mecca.”
Similar demolitions have been carried out in Inner Mongolia, Henan and Ningxia, the homeland of China’s largest Muslim ethnic minority, the Hui. In the southern province of Yunnan, three mosques were closed. From Beijing to Ningxia, officials have banned the public use of Arabic script.
This campaign represents the newest front in the Chinese Communist Party’s sweeping rollback of individual religious freedoms, after decades of relative openness that allowed more moderate forms of Islam to blossom. The harsh crackdown on Muslims that began with the Uighurs in Xinjiang is spreading to more regions and more groups.
It is driven by the party’s fear that adherence to the Muslim faith could turn into religious extremism and open defiance of its rule. Across China, the party is now imposing new restrictions on Islamic customs and practices, in line with a confidential party directive, parts of which have been seen by The New York Times.
The measures reflect the hard-line policies of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has sought to reassert the primacy of the Communist Party and its ideology in all walks of life.
The campaign has prompted concerns that the repression of Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang has begun to bleed into other parts of China, targeting Hui and other Muslims who have been better integrated than Uighurs into Chinese society. Last year, a top party official from Ningxia praised Xinjiang's government during a visit there and pledged to increase cooperation between the two regions on security matters.
Haiyun Ma, a Hui Muslim professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, said the crackdown was continuing a long history of animosity toward Islam in China that has alienated believers.
“The People’s Republic of China has become the world’s foremost purveyor of anti-Islamic ideology and hate,” he wrote in a recent essay for the Hudson Institute. “This, in turn, has translated into broad public support for the Beijing government’s intensifying oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and elsewhere in the country.”
None of the new measures, so far, have approached the brutality of Xinjiang’s mass detentions and invasive surveillance of Uighurs. But they have already stirred anxiety among the Hui, who number more than 10 million.
“We are now backtracking again,” Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet who publishes under the name An Ran, said in an interview in Jinan, south of Beijing, where he lives.
To Mr. Cui, the methods of repression that are smothering Uighur society in Xinjiang now loom over all of China. “One day this model will not only target Muslims,” he said. “Everyone will be harmed by it.”
Islam has had followers in China for centuries. There are now 22 to 23 million Muslims, a tiny minority in a country of 1.4 billion. Among them, the Hui and the Uighurs make up the largest ethnic groups. Uighurs primarily live in Xinjiang, but the Hui live in enclaves scattered around the nation.
The restrictions they now face can be traced to 2015, when Mr. Xi first raised the issue of what he called the “Sinicization of Islam,” saying all faiths should be subordinate to Chinese culture and the Communist Party. Last year, Mr. Xi’s government issued a confidential directive that ordered local officials to prevent Islam from interfering with secular life and the state’s functions.
Critics of China’s policies who are outside the country provided excerpts from the directive to The Times. The directive, titled “Reinforcing and Improving Islam Work in the New Situation,” has not been made public. It was issued by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in April of last year and classified as confidential for 20 years.
The directive warns against the “Arabization” of Islamic places, fashions and rituals in China, singling out the influence of Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites, as a cause for concern.
It prohibits the use of the Islamic financial system. It bars mosques or other private Islamic organizations from organizing kindergartens or after-school programs, and it forbids Arabic-language schools to teach religion or send students abroad to study.
The most visible aspect of the crackdown has been the targeting of mosques built with domes, minarets and other architectural details characteristic of Central Asia or the Arabic world.
Taken in isolation, some of these measures seem limited. Others seem capricious: some mosques with Arabic features have been left untouched, while others nearby have been altered or shut down.
But on a national scale, the trend is clear. Mr. Cui, the poet, calls it the harshest campaign against faith since the end of the Cultural Revolution, when so-called Red Guards unleashed by Mao Zedong destroyed mosques across the country.
In the state’s view, the spread of Islamic customs dangerously subverts social and political conformity.
In Ningxia, the provincial government banned public displays of Arabic script, even removing the word “halal” from the official seal it distributes to restaurants that follow Islamic customs for preparing food. The seals now use Chinese characters. That prohibition spread this summer to Beijing and elsewhere.
The authorities in several provinces have stopped distributing halal certificates for food, dairy and wheat producers and restaurants. Chinese state media have described this as an effort to curb a “pan-halal tendency” in which Islamic standards are being applied, in the government’s view, to too many types of foods or restaurants.
Ningxia and Gansu have also banned the traditional call to prayer. Around historical mosques there, prayer times are now announced with a grating claxon. One imam in Ningxia’s capital, Yinchuan, said the authorities had recently visited and warned him to make no public statements on religious matters.
The authorities have also targeted the mosques themselves. In Gansu, construction workers in Gazhuang, a village near Linxia, descended on a mosque in April, tearing off its golden dome. It has not yet reopened. Plainclothes policemen prevented two Times journalists from entering.
In the southern province of Yunnan, where there have long been Hui communities, the authorities last December padlocked mosques in three small villages that had been run without official permission. There were protests and brief scuffles with the police, to no avail. The county issued a statement accusing the mosques of holding illegal religious activities and classes.
In one of the villages, Huihuideng, Ma Jiwu carried his grandson outside the shuttered local mosque, which had operated inside a home.
Mr. Ma, wearing the distinctive skullcap that many Hui wear, said the imams there had ignored warnings to move their services to the village’s main mosque, where a Chinese flag hangs in the central courtyard and a large red banner exhorts worshipers, “Love your country, love your religion.”
“They did not listen,” Mr. Ma said.
Near the main mosque, a woman said the closing of the smaller one had stirred resentment, but also a feeling of resignation. She used a Chinese idiom for helplessness against a superior force, in this case the government: “The arm cannot twist the thigh.”
Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic studies at Minzu University in Beijing, defended the government’s recent actions. He said that China’s far-reaching economic changes over the last 40 years had been accompanied by a loosening of restrictions on religious practice, but that the laxity had gone too far.
“Now China’s economic development has reached a certain height,” he said, “and suddenly problems related to religious and other affairs are being discovered.”
In the case of Islam, he cited the proliferation of mosques and the spread of “halal” practices into public life, saying they conflicted with the cultural values of the majority Han Chinese population.
Official statistics indicate that there are now more mosques in China than Buddhist temples: 35,000 compared to 33,500. In the last year, scores of mosques have been altered, closed or destroyed entirely, many of them in Xinjiang, according to officials and news reports.
The party asserts that it has the right to control all organized religion. Critics ascribe that to its fear that religious organizations could challenge its political power. In the past, the party’s repression has triggered violent responses.
In 1975, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army surrounded Shadian, a mostly Hui Muslim town in Yunnan Province where residents had protested the closure of mosques. Clashes ensued, prompting a massive military intervention that razed the town and left more than 1,600 people dead.
The current pressure has also been met with unrest, though not on that scale. In August 2018 in Weizhou, a village in Ningxia, protests erupted when the authorities sent demolition workers to a newly built mosque. After a tense showdown that lasted several days, the local government promised to suspend the destruction and review the plans.
Nearly a year later, police officers still block the roads into the village, turning away foreigners, including diplomats and two Times journalists who tried to visit in May.
China claims that it allows freedom of religion, but emphasizes that the state must always come first. The Ningxia government, asked about its recent restrictions on Islam, said that China had rules on religious practice just like any other country.
Mosques that violate laws such as building codes will be closed, it said, and schools and universities will not permit religious activities.
“Arabic is a foreign language,” the government said about the restrictions on public signage, adding that they had been imposed “to make things convenient for the general public.”
In an interview, Mr. Ma, the Frostburg State scholar, said the current leadership viewed religion as “the major enemy the state faces.” He said senior officials had studied the role played by faith — particularly the Catholic Church in Poland — in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dominion in Eastern Europe.
Believers have little recourse against the intensifying crackdown. Mr. Ma predicted that it would not relent soon, but that it would ultimately fail, as other campaigns against Muslims have.
“I really doubt they can eliminate religious faith,” he said. “That is impossible.”
ISLA PERICO, El Salvador — The offer was befuddling: A little over a year ago, families living on Isla Perico, a speck of an island in a destitute corner of El Salvador, were offered $7,000 each to pack up and move to the mainland.
The islanders were told their move was necessary to help achieve China’s plan for turning a downtrodden patch of Central America into a global trade hub and manufacturing powerhouse.
But they steadfastly refused, doubting that they would benefit from any bonanza the Chinese could bring.
“Where would we go?” said Mercedes Hernández, cradling a 1-year-old baby. “We have a life here.”
Over the months that followed, the island’s roughly 35 families would become unlikely participants in a struggle between Beijing and Washington, which wants to stop the Chinese from gaining a strategic foothold in a tiny impoverished nation that sits on its doorstep.
American officials in El Salvador went on the offensive to thwart China’s foray, painting Beijing as an untrustworthy partner with hidden motives.
For most of the past decade, the United States watched with unease as much of Latin America was pulled into China’s orbit through a growing network of trade and loans — which Washington did little to confront.
As China presented itself as a partner with a vision for El Salvador’s future, President Trump may have played into China’s hands, his critics say. The Trump administration initially countered China with little beyond threats to the Central American nation and its neighbors for not doing enough to curb migration, one of the president’s signature issues.
But then the United States took another tack: trying to turn public opinion in El Salvador against the Chinese.
American officials criticized China’s legacy in the developing world in several interviews, meetings with opinion makers and posts on social media. At one point, the American ambassador went as far as suggesting China could be seeking to establish a military post in the country.
“China’s agreements with El Salvador have been negotiated by a small group of individuals, behind closed doors and without the involvement of the public or representatives from the key sectors affected by those agreements,” said Jean Manes, the recently departed American ambassador in El Salvador, who was given rare leeway to publicly criticize China’s plans.
China, she said, “advances its own agenda with little regard for the long-term economic prospects for or environmental impact on developing countries.”
The American warnings, and the resistance of Isla Perico’s families, helped thwart China’s plans — at least for the time being. Measures that would have allowed China to proceed stalled in El Salvador’s legislature.
Ou Jianhong, China’s ambassador in El Salvador, declined several interview requests and the embassy did not respond to emailed questions. In an interview with Xinhua, China’s state news agency, Ms. Ou called Washington’s warnings “irresponsible and unfounded.”
The offer to create a special zone in El Salvador, by a Chinese state-owned company called Asia-Pacific Xuanhao, was summarized in a document called “Shared Opportunities, Shared Future.” A copy was reviewed by The New York Times.
The deal would allow China to advance its quest to establish an alternative trade route to the Panama Canal, and enhance its ability to shape commerce in the region.
The special zone also would give China a valuable perch to expand its military and intelligence capabilities in Washington’s vicinity, according to American officials who have watched warily as Beijing has invested in at least 60 Latin American port projects.
For El Salvador, the deal came with significant trade-offs, and left several unanswered questions.
The Chinese requested a 100-year lease of a 1,076-square-mile area — 13 percent of the country’s landmass — and demanded tax exemptions for their companies that would last three decades. Details about the financing structure were not publicly disclosed, causing concern among some Salvadorans that their country risked becoming financially beholden to Beijing for generations.
But by the time the United States began its campaign against the Chinese in El Salvador last summer, the Americans had a lot of catching up to do.
To some Trump administration critics, it was a self-inflicted wound.
While the Chinese were offering to build manufacturing plants, invest in renewable energy and make El Salvador a tourist destination, President Trump was calling migrants “animals,” and separating children from parents at the border.
“That attitude opens up space for China,” said Roberto Rubio, director of the National Foundation for Development, a research group in San Salvador, the capital. “If the United States threatens to cut our aid, treats our people poorly and brings little investment, why not go with the Chinese?”
While the Trump administration has suspended aid programs to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Ms. Ou, the ambassador, noted that China had signed 13 cooperation agreements on infrastructure, investment, science, technology, education, culture and tourism.
“The cooperation with China will not in any way turn into a debt trap, but a cake for the benefit of its two peoples,” she said in the Xinhua interview.
In early July 2018, El Salvador’s president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, gave the legislature a bill that would establish the legal framework for a special economic zone encompassing 26 municipalities along the southeastern coast.
It soon became clear the bill had been custom-made for the plan the Chinese had been quietly promoting for months. Among other conditions, it required El Salvador to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the island off the Chinese mainland where China’s former government fled in 1949 when the Chinese Communists took power.
When Mr. Sánchez Cerén announced last August, during a televised address, that his country was breaking ties with Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with China, he envisioned an era that would bring “great benefits to the country and provide extraordinary opportunities.”
Chinese banks are now the dominant lenders in Latin America, having provided more than $140 billion between 2005 and 2018.
Trade between China and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean soared from $17 billion in 2002 to nearly $306 billion in 2018.
The Obama administration did little to publicly challenge China’s deepening engagement in Latin America after the Chinese in 2009 signaled their intention to expand investment and trade in a region rich in commodities and in dire need of infrastructure upgrades.
Soon after President Trump’s election in November 2016, the Chinese issued an updated policy vision for the region that was notably bolder.
The update conveyed China’s desire to build military alliances with Latin American nations and signaled its aspirations to become a guiding force on global challenges like climate change, sustainable development and cybersecurity.
As the deal was debated by Salvadoran lawmakers over the past year, the Chinese sought to win them over, inviting lawmakers and journalists on paid trips to Beijing.
They also began disbursing a $150 million assistance package.
The first gestures included buying 10 trucks for the water agency of San Salvador and donating 15,000 laptops to public schools.
Ana Guadalupe, a 56-year-old resident of the Santa Fe district in San Salvador, said water service had been sporadic and unreliable before the new trucks began deliveries Tuesdays and Saturdays.
“There were many places where there was no water,” she said on a recent afternoon as workers from the water agency used a large hose on a truck emblazoned with the Chinese flag to deliver water. “Without water we can’t live.”
Across town, Sara Cruz, a computer teacher at Francisco Morazan school, called the new Lenovo laptops her students had received transformational.
“In the past, things that were Chinese were looked down on, as being of bad quality,” she said. But the sleek laptops shared by the school’s 400 students have changed her mind. “Before we had to teach them theory instead of practice,” she said.
Those gestures were not enough to overcome El Salvador’s doubts about the conditions of the deal, stoked by American criticism that the port project had been negotiated secretly. Even as China funded flashy projects that generated good will, efforts to get the special economic zone bill through Congress faltered as lawmakers expressed caution in the lead-up to the presidential election in February. Lacking support, the outgoing government never brought the bill to a vote.
Salvadoran lawmakers passed a measure last August forbidding the sale of islands to foreigners, acting in response to news that Chinese entrepreneurs were trying to acquire Isla Perico and a nearby island.
Yang Bo, a Chinese businessman who has lived in El Salvador for several years, was questioned by prosecutors about his role as the middleman in the attempted purchase of the islands.
As questions about the Chinese venture mounted, the residents of Isla Perico, who make a modest living fishing and growing watermelons, received visits from prosecutors, the governor’s office and the American Embassy.
The string of powerful visitors to their cluster of shacks strengthened the residents’ resolve to stay put.
Antonio Ferman, the mayor of San Alejo, a small town near Isla Perico, said a venture of the scale proposed by the Chinese may well create some desperately needed jobs in the area, which is hollowing out as people facing unemployment and gang violence seek to migrate to the United States. But Mr. Ferman said he doubted any benefit would be worth the impact of such a project on the artisanal fishing industry, which many families rely on, and on the region’s access to clean water.
A San Alejo resident, Esleta de Jesus Sariles, 40, said few in the region were putting much faith in the prospect of Chinese jobs, which in the best of cases could take years to create.
Like many of her neighbors who live along a winding unpaved road with a growing number of abandoned houses, she decided to head north to the United States, having raised the $7,000 smugglers requested to take her and her diabetic teenage daughter to the border.
“Nearly the whole country has emptied out,” she said. “And nearly everyone has made it through.”
Shortly before taking office on June 1, the new president, Nayib Bukele, signaled he had little appetite for grand Chinese ventures despite his promises to create jobs and attract investment.
The Chinese, he said, “go in, do projects that are not feasible, then they leave the countries with huge loans they cannot repay and use that as leverage.”
Weeks after taking power, however, he struck a different note and ruled out the possibility of switching El Salvador’s allegiance back to Taiwan. “We need to recognize China’s status in the world,” he said.
And in the long run, some American officials fear that China’s willingness to build roads, railroads and ports in the region will be impossible for El Salvador and some of its neighbors to resist.
Norma Torres, a Guatemalan-born representative from California who has become a leading voice on Central America policy on Capitol Hill, said the Trump administration’s focus on keeping migrants out will benefit China.
“They are not looking at short-term, immediate results as we do here in the United States,” Ms. Torres said. “The Chinese have focused on, ‘Where are we going to be in the next 20 years?’”
While the port deal was sidetracked, at least for the time being, it is clear the Chinese are positioning to become El Salvador’s ally of choice.
“Under the careful care of each side, the China-El Salvador relationship will, without doubt, transform from a shrub into a verdant tree,” Ms. Ou, China’s ambassador, wrote in a recent opinion piece published in a local newspaper. “The bilateral cooperation will be as fragrant and delicious as Salvadoran coffee and as sweet and tasty as the sugar of this beautiful nation!”