In a recent advertisement a takeaway food courier was shown carrying two bags: one was marked ‘halal’, the other was labelled dazhong shipin or ‘majority food’. The ad was for Meituan-Dianping and soon caused a major storm online.
Meituan, which is one of China’s largest food delivery companies, launched a halal service last month to attract more of the country’s 23 million Muslims. A green button identifying a mosque was added to its mobile phone app so that customers could request that halal dishes be kept apart from orders containing pork and alcohol.
“We use separate bags so you don’t need to worry when ordering from restaurants,” said a flyer distributed in Gansu’s Linxia, a Muslim-majority city. But members of China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han, were soon protesting. “Why should Muslims get special treatment?” they fumed online. “The Greens are taking over China,” warned others, using a derogatory term for Muslims. Others called for a boycott of the delivery service and soon the question “will Meituan go bankrupt?” began to trend online.
Meituan caved in. The effort to gain an edge in China’s competitive delivery market by adding a bespoke service was backfiring. Muslims make up less than 2% of China’s 1.38 billion population, while Han Chinese account for 92%.
Meituan removed the green button and distanced itself from the Linxia branch’s activities. “We will strengthen supervision of agents going forward,” it promised via its official weibo account.
Halal food has become an increasingly sensitive issue. Accounts with name like ‘No halal’ and ‘I Proudly Eat Pork’ have sprung up on weibo to counter what they see as the spread of Muslim-friendly food and the “halalisation” of China. In recent months stories about domestic flights where all the meals were labelled halal have sparked huge debate online, as have images of bread bearing the halal logo.
Many Han say they are uncomfortable consuming anything marked with the sign because they aren’t Muslim themselves. Others are convinced the proceeds from anything labelled halal go to religious organisations or terrorist groups such as Islamic State.
“Concerns about halal food, or halalisation, have become the outlet for irrational fears and concerns about Muslims,” says James Leibold a professor of Chinese politics at La Trobe University in Australia.
Another bone of contention is the word for halal in Chinese – qingzhen. The two characters mean pure and true. Han Chinese say this implies their food is dirty and they want the word changed to characters that denote “Muslim food” (even though ‘halal’ conceptually encompasses more than just food).
The debate came to head in March last year when China’s parliamentary body looked like it might push ahead with a law defining and regulating halal food. But the pendulum swung the other way. Instead of moving forward with the law, the legislation was taken off the research schedule and effectively scrapped. Opposition was led by Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who said the law would exacerbate ethnic differences and make Chinese Muslims more “Arabian”. “Pious men will become more pious, less pious men will become more devout and the Muslim identity will grow stronger,” she warned on her weibo. Experts say the rise of Islamic State, chaos in the Middle East and attacks linked with Xinjiang – home to China’s Muslim Uighur minority – have contributed to rising levels of Islamophobia.
“We should put special security measures anywhere there are Muslims,” said one of the self-identified mu hei or “Muslim haters” now active online. WiC saw a huge variety of hate speech about Muslims on China’s internet, all of which was highly inflammatory.
The surprise is that such comments have remained uncensored, given that they are explicitly in contravention of Chinese laws on ethnic unity and hate speech.
“I find it curious that the government which generally monitors the internet and social media closely does not restrict this kind of Islamophobia,” says Dru Gladney an expert in Chinese Muslims at Pomona College. “In China, you can only interpret this as a deliberate refusal to interfere or restrict,” he adds.
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