Tea Leaf Nation

In China, Fears of ‘Creeping Sharia’ Proliferate Online

The country’s Muslim minorities want more regulation for halal food. Opponents say it's a gateway to extremism.

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 18:  Chinese Muslims of the Hui ethnic minority pray during Eid Al Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque on July 18, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Hui Muslim population fast from dawn until dusk during Ramdan and it is believed there are more than 20 million members of the community in the country.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 18: Chinese Muslims of the Hui ethnic minority pray during Eid Al Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque on July 18, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Hui Muslim population fast from dawn until dusk during Ramdan and it is believed there are more than 20 million members of the community in the country. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Over the past six months, Chinese social media outlets have been electrified by Chinese Muslim calls for a statute to regulate halal food production. On social media platform Weibo, some Chinese grassroots netizens and even scholars have equated the effort to an exercise in terrorism and linked it to Chinese Muslim radicalization. The ugly rhetoric says far more about the state of Islamophobia in China than it does about the merits of halal regulation.

The halal push comes primarily from the Hui, China’s largest Muslim group, who number at least 10 million and are far more culturally Chinese than Uighurs, another minority Muslim group with whom the majority Han have a particularly fraught history. Observant Muslims in China and elsewhere follow dietary laws that specify how meat should be prepared and which foods can and cannot be eaten. Foods that comport with these rules are “halal.” In an age of industrial mass production, labeling pre-packaged food products as halal helps Muslim consumers know which products to buy, and can expand a company’s consumer base. Similarly, a restaurant that markets itself as halal can attract a greater number of customers. But the lack of an enforced national standard in China on the production and sale of halal food has resulted in widespread suspicion that some unscrupulous enterprises are selling non-halal food, especially food that includes porcine products, as halal. That’s why Chinese Muslims, particularly the Hui, have pushed for a nationwide truth-in-labeling law on halal food since 2002.

It all sounds sensible enough. But for many Han and Hui alike, the term “qingzhen,” meaning halal, has come to stand for Islam itself. And the push for legislation codifying and protecting the halal label has tapped into a fear, familiar in the West and nascent among the Chinese populace, of “creeping sharia” — or as Chinese called it, “qingzhen fanhua,” the “spread of halal,” meaning the use of the halal symbol on soap, toothpaste, water bottles, and even road signs. Hui understand sharia as a “life rule” that informs their interpersonal relations as well as their relationship with God, and following halal rules is central to the Hui notion of sharia. But Chinese Islamophobes including Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxist thought formerly at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, have equated the call for a halal food law to radicalized Islam. For instance, in response to an article by Ningxia University Associate Professor Yang Guoju, in which Yang called for greater inclusion of Islamic law and ethics into nation-wide judicial reform, Xi wrote that such people “are using qingzhen fanhua … to create ethnic opposition, destroy national safety, and seize more political rights and interests.” (The comment attracted a particularly hate-filled set of comments; it was later deleted.)

The rhetoric stems in part from events over the past two years, which have convinced some in China that Muslims pose a danger. China has its own homegrown ethno-religious conflict in its western region of Xinjiang, where many Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group, are resentful of Chinese governance. Beijing blames radical Islam for the region’s simmering insurgency, and the violence that has at times seeped into the rest of China. After several Uighurs attacked a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March 2014, killing dozens, Beijing blamed Islamic extremism. The rise of ISIS has cast fear into the hearts of Chinese, just as it has in the United States and Europe. Distinctions between Hui and Uighur, not to mention between your average Muslim and terrorists, often get lost.

The recent surge of hate speech on the Chinese internet has alienated many Chinese Muslims. During a trip to China this July, I surfed the web with a number of young Hui. While they found the writings of scholars like Xi hurtful, what particularly shocked them was the vitriol (and sheer number) of those who left comments to Xi’s posts, sometimes nearing 1,000. (Xi herself has over 37,000 followers). Some called for the Hui to “go back to the Middle East,” others claimed that a “green revolution” was happening in China (the color being associated with Islam there), while others called for a “boycott” of Islam which is “like garbage.” (The post has now been removed.)

In response, some Hui have sought to use the power of social media to increase tolerance and more nuanced understandings. Hui have used WeChat, a mobile social media platform, to explain why halal food is a model for food healthy production in China. An account called “Muslim micro-strength” shows teen-pop images of Hui youth celebrating the Eid Al-Adha (“Festival of the Sacrifice”) to show distinctly Chinese images of Hui enjoying food and company. And the Weibo-based Southern China Halal Food International Forum creates a platform for Hui to discuss how halal food contributes to local, national, and international development.

But the Hui online efforts have largely been ignored, or added unintentional fuel to the fire. Most Hui university students I spoke to said they could not bear to look at the internet any more. One Hui professor who teaches courses on Islam barred his students from using online sources on Islam in their papers, arguing that such sources have become unreliable.

Of course, the Hui demand for greater regulation of halal food, as well as other signs of Islamic revival such as “Arab-style” architecture and the increasing presence of Arabic signage in Hui towns — all targets of anti-Muslim rhetoric — have very little to do with violent strains of neo-fundamentalist Islam. These endeavors, largely the result of Hui influence in local government, are signs of the group’s attempts to integrate Islamic modernization into the state fold. Contrary to vitriolic online rhetoric, Hui are deeply invested in building healthy relationships with the party-state — they seek not to repudiate it, but to gain its protection for particular linguistic, dietary, and intellectual practices. The vast majority of Hui, most all of whom are Sunni and follow the relatively flexible Hanafi school of jurisprudence, practice a number of localized interpretations of sharia that do not seek to challenge political authority.

The ensuing debates on Weibo and similar Chinese social media platforms have smacked of the misunderstanding that characterizes sharia debates elsewhere in the world. As with some Muslim minorities in Europe and North America, Hui feel that state law does not adequately protect their rights under sharia, and yet non-Muslim reactionaries equate special allowances for Muslims under state law to evidence of Islam encroaching on secular society. That’s a narrative that the state has done little to dispel. On May 31, China’s State Ethnic Affairs Commission announced a crackdown on “fake halal food.” But the announcement came with an odd caveat: the Chinese government “strictly defines halal food as a custom of Muslim people, rather than food conforming to Islamic Sharia, in a bid to prevent religion from interfering with secular life.”

The halal food problem is emblematic of the problem of sharia’s status under Chinese law. Under the current legal system, there are no formal institutions to accommodate aspects of sharia or religious law more generally. This differs from the United States, for example, where civil courts may enforce the decision of a religious arbitration council. Yet sharia awareness in China is rekindling anyway. As China engages global debates about sharia, it is vital that more balanced views be aired that can foster constructive debates for the benefit of not just China’s Muslim minorities, but their Han neighbors as well.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Matthew S. Erie is trained as a lawyer and an anthropologist. He is an Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His new book is China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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