Hainan province is China's southernmost territory, a tropical island of white-sand beaches, stately palm trees and, now, a small population of persecuted Muslims.
The Utsuls, who number about 10,000, are the latest Muslim ethnic group targeted by the nationwide campaign conducted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to achieve "the Sinicization of Islam."
The campaign is best known for its internationally condemned treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims, which the United States refers to as genocide.
But now the Utsuls, who are Sunni Muslims, are also coming under the campaign's strict controls. Like Beijing's efforts to curtail Christians and Buddhists, the campaign against the Muslim Utsuls is designed to curtail religions so the CCP can remain the dominant ideology.
Gu Yi, a political commentator who is Muslim, told VOA Mandarin that the CCP's Sinicization of Islam campaign is meant to eliminate Islamic culture.
"They do this because Islam has its own belief system and social structure, which is a serious threat to a totalitarian regime such as the Communist Party of China. They cannot tolerate groups that think differently," he said. "Therefore, they must carry out such a cultural extinction of the Islamic society."
The goal of the Sinicization of Islam campaign is to cut off ties that Muslims have with Islam, so that Muslim ethnic groups throughout China lose any sense of unity their religion may provide, according to Gu.
After Beijing accelerated the nationwide campaign in 2018, local governments issued specific measures including closing Islamic schools, mandating hanging the national flag at mosques, removing Islamic buildings, and replacing halal signs. They also banned minors under 18 from studying at the mosques and required Muslims to register their address and identification with the government. Authorities banned the use of loudspeakers, which can be used in the Muslim calls to prayer, and microradio transmission, which is used for listening to non-CCP approved programming.
"It's to make this minority a calm and docile Chinese group," Gu said. "Islam is not only a religious belief for most Muslims, but also a cultural and national tradition. Many of the customs and psychological identity of believers can't be divided from Islam."
Most of the Utsuls live in the port city of Sanya, in the villages of Huixin and Huihui, and speak a Chamic language related to those spoken in Vietnam and Cambodia, from where they emigrated centuries ago.
Also known as the Hainan Hui, the Utsuls are one of the few unrecognized ethnic groups in China, which means the CCP groups them with a larger, similar population.
The Utsul community in Sanya has played a significant role in China's relations with the Islamic world, serving as a resort destination for other Chinese Muslims and as a bridge to Muslim communities in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, according to the New York Times.
The crackdown on Utsuls began when local government and CCP officials issued the "Work Plan for Strengthening the Comprehensive Governance of Huixin Community and Huihui [Utsul] Community" dated 2019, according to an image from Chinese microblogging site Weibo. It "stipulates the six aspects of the comprehensive crackdown, including the rectification of discipline, community, symbols and signs, schools and hospitals, a mandatory financial audit, and the demolition and relocation of illegal buildings," according to Bitter Winter, a publication focused on religion in China.
The aspects mean women are forbidden from wearing headscarves at work and any committees established to manage mosques must now include CCP members. Arabic scriptures, directives for prayer toward Mecca and religious phrases are to be covered with official CCP slogans.
A worker at a local halal restaurant, which serves food permissible according to Islamic law, told VOA that the local government had ordered the removal of the word "halal" from signs and menus. After asking to remain unnamed due to fear of CCP reprisal, he added that authorities ordered the obliteration of signs in homes and shops saying "Allahu akbar," which means "God is greatest."
The local government also closed two Islamic schools and tried to bar female students from wearing head scarves. According to the restaurant worker, public outcry forced authorities to relent on the ban.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report that originated on VOA Mandarin.