The flood of angry anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media was the first sign of how fiercely the suburban middle-class homeowners in this central China city opposed a planned mosque in their neighborhood. It quickly escalated into something more sinister.
Soon a pig's head was buried in the ground at the future Nangang mosque, the culmination of a rally in which dozens of residents hoisted banners and circled the planned building site. Then the mosque's imam received a text message carrying a death threat: "In case someone in your family dies, I have a coffin for you — and more than one, if necessary."
"How did things get stirred up to this point?" the imam, Tao Yingsheng, said in a recent interview. "Who had even heard of the Nangang mosque before?"
On the dusty plains of the Chinese heartland, a bitter fight over a mosque exemplifies how a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment online is spreading into communities across China, exacerbating simmering ethnic and religious tensions that have in the past erupted in bloodshed. It's also posing a dilemma for the ruling Communist Party, which has allowed Islamophobia to fester online for years as part of its campaign to justify security crackdowns in its restive region of Xinjiang.
"It's let the genie out of the bottle," said James Leibold, a professor at La Trobe University in Australia who has tracked the growth of anti-Muslim hate speech on China's internet.
Interviews with residents and an examination of social media show how a few disparate online complaints by local homeowners evolved into a concerted campaign to spread hate. Key to it was an unexpected yet influential backer: a Chinese propaganda official, 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) away in Xinjiang, whose inflammatory social media posts helped draw people into the streets on New Year's Day, resulting in a police crackdown.
A stone inscription outside its gate shows the original Nangang mosque was established in the 1780s by members of the Hui minority, the descendants of Silk Road traders who settled across China centuries ago. In its present form, the mosque has served the area's 4,500 Hui for decades, its domed silhouette partially hidden by overgrown shrubs in the countryside beyond Hefei's last paved boulevards.
Over the past 10 years urbanization has come to Hefei, with sprawling development reconfiguring the landscape and its demographic flavor, and Hui leaders had been pushing for years to relocate their mosque to a more convenient urban location.
City planners in November finally selected a site adjacent to the newly built Hangkong New City condominiums, with its $200,000 two-bedroom units, faux-Mediterranean stylings and a Volvo dealership across the street. The project's homeowners overwhelmingly members of China's ethnic Han majority began complaining on China's popular microblog, Weibo.
Some complained the mosque would occupy space promised for a park. Others warned that safety in the area would be compromised.
Others were more blunt: Han residents were uncomfortable that a center for Hui community life would be less than 100 meters (300 feet) from their building, a homeowner who later identified himself in messages to the AP by his surname, Cheng, wrote in a petition posted in December.
"And the less said about what happens on Eid al-Adha, the better," Cheng wrote, referring to the Islamic holiday in which animals are slaughtered for a sacrificial feast. "It's absolutely shocking."
The story soon caught the attention of Cui Zijian, a boyish-looking propaganda official in Xinjiang who writes about the threat of religious extremism on his Weibo account with nearly 30,000 followers.
On Dec. 16, Cui suggested homeowners lobby local officials to block the construction, adding: "If that doesn't work, then how about pig head, pig blood."
Cui followed that a few hours later with another post repeating the four Chinese characters for pig blood and pig head over and over, attracting hundreds of reposts. While Cui was criticized by some on Weibo, a larger number — including at least one other government propaganda official — took his post as their cue to hurl abuse at the Hui.
The mosque dispute was just the latest flashpoint for an increasingly active anti-Muslim social media movement in China.