Halal sesame paste from Shaanxi, halal bubble-gum from Gansu, or halal instant noodles from Shandong – under the hashtag “halalification” (#清真泛化#), photos of regular food products that carry the ‘halal’ label are being posted on social media platform Sina Weibo every day to ‘name and shame’ Chinese companies for turning their products Muslim-friendly.
China currently has some 23 million Muslims, the majority being based in the country’s north-western regions, mostly belonging to the Uyghur and Hui ethnic groups. According to Pew Research (2011), the Chinese Muslim population is expected to be the 19th largest in the world in 2030.
The global market for halal food is thriving, with latest figures suggesting it will be worth close to USD 2.10 trillion by 2025. Although China – with its One Belt One Road initiative in full swing – could potentially be a major player on the halal market, it now only has an approximate 0.1 percent of global halal food exports.
With an interesting market both domestically and internationally, it seems that more products in China are now turning halal to reach a wider consumer group. In doing so, Chinese producers of halal food can both boost their local economies and access the booming worldwide halal business (Erie 2016b).
But a large group of people in China are not comfortable with this trend and condemn the growing prevalence of regular Chinese food products carrying the halal label – both in- and outside the PRC.
Last week, some netizens’ discovery of globally distributed ‘halal’ sunflower seeds produced in China’s Shandong province caused some surprise amongst commenters on Weibo: “These are Halal sunflowers seeds that are locally sold at an American supermarket in Portland,” one author on Weibo (@弗虑弗为) wrote:
“I saw the halal logo on the back and figured it was imported from Malaysia or Indonesia (..), but then I saw “Shandong Halal Certification Service” on the logo! Amazing, now China’s halalification is also expanding to the rest of the world.”
“The spread of halal is just everywhere,” some people on Weibo complain. “Can’t we investigate more into the situation and policies regarding halal and its subsidies in our country?” author Fan Niuwen (@范_纽文) asks.
Halal in the PRC: an “Islamic Revival”
Halal in Chinese is referred to as qīngzhēn (清真), which can also mean “Islam”, “Islamic”, or “Muslim.” Since China has no national halal certification legislation, many local and provincial governments, such as Ningxia or Shanghai, have implemented their own halal regulations.
In 2002, the Chinese government actually made beginnings in drafting a law to regulate nationwide halal food production. The proposal received much opposition within various circles within China, however, and was eventually halted in April of 2016.
In China and Islam (2016), Matthew S. Erie argues that China has seen “an Islamic revival” over the recent years, particularly among Hui communities, that is, amongst others, visible in a growing number of mosques and in a proliferation of halal food restaurants and factories (10-12).
There are now thousands of companies across China’s provinces producing halal food for consumers in mainland China, and some of them also export to other countries.
Besides a rise in halal food products, China has also seen an increase in other signs of Islam in public life in many cities, such as stores that sell “Muslim use products” including perfumes and soaps that are “free of any porcine products” (Erie 2016, 12) or special facial tissues, water, and toilet paper.
Both the spread of halal food products in the PRC and the increase in special “Muslim use products” have caused waves of backlash on Chinese social media over recent years. The outrage over Meituan’s special halal delivery boxes or the controversy over Huawei phones with built-in prayer alarms are just some of many incidents causing anger on Weibo and Wechat over the past year.
Since 2017, Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times has introduced the concept of “pan halal tendency” to describe the idea that “some Muslims are demanding things to be halal which cannot really be halal, such as water, roads and toilets.”
The trend is presented as ‘dangerous’ for making “Islamic rituals penetrate into secular life.”
In a local compaign in Gansu, around 760 shops selling these so-called “pan-halal products” were closed down in early March of this year to “safeguard ethnic unity,” Global Times reports. Recent online backlash and local anti-‘pan halal’-campaigns are a sign of existing tensions between Islamic laws and China’s secular laws and policies.
Anti-Halalification Movement: “#IDontEatHalal”
In any social media discussion on China’s halal food debate, the term qīngzhēn fànhuà (清真泛化) inevitably pops up now. It is a new term that first appeared in Chinese media in 2016. It basically means ‘the spread of halal’ or ‘halalification,’ but since qīngzhēn also means ‘Islamic,’ it can also imply ‘Islamization’ – discussions thus also go beyond the topic of food alone.
This so-called ‘Islamization’ of China seems to be a recurring source of concern for some netizens. Just are there are many Chinese social media accounts promoting halal food, there are also dozens of popular accounts on Chinese social media sites opposing the spread of halal in the country, arguing it is a threat to “national unity” (民族团结).
Some of the accounts promoting anti-Islamic sentiments have been deleted or heavily censored since Chinese authorities banned various anti-Islam terms in September of 2017, leading to more fragmented online debates on the issue.
Author Li Mu (李牧) writes on Weibo: “There are more and more state-funded Muslim canteens, Muslim public baths, (..) who approves of this? Since some of these activities are explained through the Koran, does this mean Islamic laws are already taking effect in China?”
As a form of protest, some groups of Chinese netizens vow never to eat halal again. On Weibo, some people tag their posts with the hashtag “I don’t eat halal” (#我不吃清真食品#) – viewed more than 460,000 times at time of writing. The hashtag ‘halalification’ received more than 38 million views.
A Multi-layered Debate
Closely looking at debates on Chinese social media, the online resistance against China’s ‘halalification’ is multi-layered. Although much of it goes hand in hand with an increasing tide of overall anti-Islam sentiments in which people connect Islam to terrorism and extremism, there are also more nuanced reasons why so many people oppose to the spread of the halal industry in the PRC.
A general reasoning amongst Chinese netizens is that the Chinese government is officially atheist and therefore should not regulate dietary measures as implemented by Islamic law or that of any other religion. Many people say the same holds true for Chinese companies such as Huawei or Meituan, which they argue should be neutral in the services they provide.
Just as Muslim consumers should have the right to eat halal, non-Muslim consumers should be able to consume products that do not carry the halal label, a prevalent viewpoint persists.
“I am not a Muslim, but I also do not oppose to Muslims’ halal diet at all,” one popular comment on Quora-like platform Zhihu.com says: “In fact, I hope they can all eat halal. But now it’s been taken a step further, which is the expansion of halal food.”
This commenter, along with many others on platforms such as Zhihu or Weibo, argue that in order for a product to get the halal certification, it naturally needs to adhere to the proper Islamic laws in their preparation. This includes the ritual slaughter of animals with the thorough drainage of blood, the reciting of scripture, etc. The comment continues:
“If you now go into the supermarkets, you’ll see that about half of the products on some shelves have the halal label. What’s unbearable is that even products such as salt, tea, or popsicles now carry this label, while (..) it is impossible for products that do not contain any ingredients such as pork or blood to be non-halal [haram]. So why does this ‘halalification’ pose a risk? Because Islam [organizations] oversee halal certifications, meaning that they have a monopoly on this business, and use it to expand their religion.”
Others also complain about the prevalence of halal-labeled products in shops: “If school canteens can have a ‘halal dining’ section, why can’t supermarkets have a special section for halal products?”, a Weibo user named ‘Simple Dog’ (@一只单纯的颜狗) writes: “It takes me ages to check all the labels of the products I buy and it’s very tiring. Can you also respect the [wishes of] Han people?”
“I can’t believe it; I just bought a box of plain noodles online and now it turns out they are halal,” another netizen says.
There is a myriad of voices on social media backing this idea that the spread of halal products is going too far. Legal service app Ilvdo (@律兜) published an article on Weibo that mentions that many Chinese consumers might buy halal products such as halal ice cream or milk without even knowing it: “You perhaps drank [halal] water and indirectly funded Islam religion – because the companies that have halal certifications have to pay Islamic organizations for them.”
The Right (Not) to Eat Halal
“Why I don’t eat halal?”, another Weibo user writes: “Firstly, because I do not believe in Islam, and eating Islamic food clashes with my own beliefs. Second, halal food needs to be prepared by Muslims, and by consuming it as a non-Muslim that means I give fewer opportunities to my non-Muslim compatriots to produce food and earn an income. I am in support of Muslims being free to halal food produced by Muslims, and non-Muslims being free to eat food products that are not.”
It is a recurring logic that is at the heart of the discussion on the spread of halal food on Chinese social media: many of those who oppose the spread of halal food in the PRC connect the normalization of Islamic dietary laws to an alleged greater societal shift towards Islam.
The spread of ‘Islam’ and ‘halal food’ are practically the same things in these discussions through the concept of qingzhen (‘halal’) certifications, which allegedly sustains and supports the Islamic religion through Chinese secular society. “I am not Muslim and refuse to eat Islamic food and refuse to pay its religious taxes,” a popular Weibo blogger (463880 fans) writes.
But the account of the China Muslim Youth Group (@中穆青社), which has over 15800 fans on Weibo, refutes these allegations when it writes on March 13: “Of course the right-wing people [右右们] have the right to refuse halal food, the wide sales of halal food also have not been established because of your offerings. Whatever you say about ‘religious taxes’ is just nonsense and is obscuring the facts.”
There are also those who point out that halal food, in the end, is an integral part of Chinese cuisine and society. Islam is part of China’s history; Muslims have lived in China from as early as the eight century. One netizen, the CEO of “China’s Muslim Net” @XiaoMa writes: “Halal food is an important part of Chinese food culture. It is made by Chinese Muslims for all of China to enjoy. We cannot underestimate its contribution to the development of China’s food industry.”
With a growing consumer group of halal products and a rise in companies producing halal, China’s halalification debates are likely to continue in the years to come. For some participants in these online discussions, however, the answer to the debate is simple: “I respect Muslims’ right to eat halal, and they should respect my right not to.”