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The Anti “Halalification” Crusade of Chinese Netizens

Discussions on the so-called ‘halalification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week.

Manya Koetse

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Discussions on the so-called ‘halal-ification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week. Many netizens see the growing prevalence of halal food in China as a threat to a unified society and say that featuring special services for Muslims is discriminatory against non-Muslims.

The “halal-ification” (清真泛化) of food products in China has been a hot issue on Chinese social media over the past two years. Discussions on the spread of halal food in China broke out again this week when food delivery platform Meituan Takeaway (美团外卖) locally introduced a special halal channel and separate delivery boxes for halal food.

What especially provoked online anger was the line used by Meituan to promote its new services, saying it would “make people eat more safely” (Literally: “Using separate boxes for halal food will put your mind at ease.”)

The image of Meituan’s promotional campaign for halal food that went viral on Chinese media: “Make you eat more assured.”

Many netizens said the measure discriminates against non-Muslims. They called on others to boycott Meituan and to delete the app from their phone. In response, the topic ‘Is Meituan Going Bankrupt?’ (#美团今天倒闭了吗#) received over 3.7 million views on Weibo, with thousands of netizens discussing the issue under various hashtags.

 

RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT ISLAMIC DIETARY LAW

“China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws.”

 

In 2016, halal products were already at the center of debate on Chinese social media when officials called for national standards on halal food (definition here).

A popular Weibo imam called Li Haiyang from Henan wrote a post in March titled “Raising Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“), in which he discussed the importance of national standards on halal food in China.

Li Haiyang, who is part of China’s Henan Islam Society (河南省伊斯兰教协会), wrote that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.

At the time, the imam’s post was shared over 500 times and besides much support, it also attracted many comments strongly opposing the imam’s views. A typical comment said: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”

Despite backlash, there are multiple accounts on Weibo dedicated to informing people about halal food, such as ‘China Halal Food Web’ (@中国清真食品网 3100+ fans) or ‘Halal Cuisine Web’ (@清真美食网, 3950 fans).

 

“HALALIFICATION”

“Halalification is not good for national harmony and not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

 

In Chinese, the word for ‘halal’ is qīngzhēn 清真, which also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim.’ The two characters the word is composed of (清 and 真) literally mean ‘clean’ and ‘pure.’ The various meanings of the Chinese word for ‘halal’ somewhat complicate discussions on the matter.

In the halal food debate on Chinese social media, the term qīngzhēn fànhuà (清真泛化) is often used – a new term that popped up in Chinese media in 2016. It basically means ‘halal-ification’ or ‘halal generalization,’ but because qīngzhēn also means ‘Islamic,’ it can also imply ‘Islamization.’

And that is precisely what is at the heart of the discussion on the spread of halal food on Chinese social media: 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.

Another issue that plays a role is the idea that ‘qingzhen‘ stands for ‘clean and pure’ food. This distinction between halal and non-halal food implies that while the one is clean food, non-halal food is ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty,’ much to the dismay of many net users. Some people suggest that the name of ‘halal food’ should be changed to ‘Muslim food.’

On Baike, Baidu’s Wikipedia-like platform, the page explaining the term qīngzhēn fànhuà 清真泛化 says: “The term [halalification] originally only referred to the scope of the specific diet of [Muslim] ethnic groups, and has now spread to the domains of family life and even social life beyond diet, including things such as halal water, halal tooth paste, and halal paper towels.”

Advertisement in Ningxia public transport for halal paper towels.

The Baike page explains that halal products are hyped by companies that are merely seeking to gain profits. It also says that halalification is “not good for national harmony” and “not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

Although there are no official government records of how many people practice Islam within the PRC, it is estimated that there currently are around 23 million Muslims in China, which is less than 2% of the total population. According to Pew Research (2011), because China is so populous, its Muslim population is expected to be the 19th largest in the world in 2030.

 

HALAL WORRIES

“State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

Most Chinese food ordering apps now have a special halal section; Chinese supermarkets provide a wide range of products labeled as ‘halal’ and there are ample halal restaurants in Chinese cities.

But many people on Chinese social media feel that the spread of halal products is going too far. Legal service app Ilvdo (@律兜) published an article on Weibo this week 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.”

On Weibo, there are some popular accounts of people opposing the spread and normalization of halal food in China. An account named ‘No Halal’ (@清真发言) has over 143.500 followers. The ‘No Halal Web’ (@非清真食品网) account has nearly 90.000 fans. These accounts regularly post about halal products in Chinese shops and restaurants and link it to the spread of Islam religion in China.

The account ‘No Halal Web’ recently posted a photo taken at a Shanghai restaurant that shows a table with a sign saying “Reserved for Halal Customers Only.”

“Table reserved for Halal customers only.”

The ‘No Halal Web’ account wrote: “This already is Muhammed’s Shanghai.” They later stated: “In the Islam world, the demands of Muslims are not as simple as just wanting a mosque, they want their environment to be Islamic/halal.”

Verified net user ‘Leningrad Defender’ (@列宁格勒保卫者, 254465 fans) posted photos of a segregated ‘halal’ checkout counter at a Jingkelong supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area, wondering “is this even legal”?

‘Halal’ checkout counter at a supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area.

A Weibo user named ‘The Eagle of Great Han Dynasty’ (@大汉之鹰001) posted a photo on July 20 showing a bag of infant nutrition from the China Family Planning Association that also has a ‘halal’ label on it. He writes:

“What is the Family Planning Committee doing? Why is this halal? This is Jilin province, are we all Muslims? What is behind this, can the Committee tell the public? This is financed through the state, the public has the right to know!”

Infant product by the Family Planning Committee that is labeled ‘halal.’

Others also responded to the photo, saying: “State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

THE MEITUAN INCIDENT

“Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

 

Although there is much opposition to the spread and regulation of halal food in China, the halal food industry also provides many business opportunities for companies who are eager to serve the millions of customers wanting to buy halal.

Popular food delivery platform Meituan faced furious backlash this week when it introduced its special halal food services. The so-called ‘Meituan Incident’ (美团事件) became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and Wechat.

One of the key arguments in the debate is not so much an opposition to halal food in itself, but an opposition to a normalization of ‘halal food’ (with the complicating factor that the Chinese qingzhen also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘clean and pure’), which allegedly discriminates against non-Muslims and increases social polarization. Many netizens said that if there are special boxes for food for Muslims, there should also be special boxes for food for Buddhists, Daoists, atheists, etc.

One well-read blog on Weibo said:

“National identity, in the end, is cultural identity (..). What is needed for the long-term stability of a country is integration [of the people] rather than a division [of the people] – let alone isolation. The national law should [therefore] turn ‘halal food 清真食品’ into ‘Muslim special food 穆斯林专用食品.’ This would make sure that Muslims don’t eat anything they shouldn’t eat, and it also liberates those (..) who aren’t religious. The law could confirm that there is a special kind of food designed for Islamic religious people to eat, instead of asking non-religious people to eat it as well. (..) There are more and more atheists. We should no longer distinguish people by saying he is a Daoist, he is Buddhist, that’s a Muslim or a Christian..in the end we shouldn’t even distinguish people as being Han or Zhuang or Miao or Hui or Manchu. Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as a harmonious and undivided family.”

The blog, that was viewed over 88.000 times, received much backing from its readers. One person wrote: “As there is now a national resistance against Islamization and religious segregation, how could the Meituan incident not cause anger amongst the people?”

It is not the first time that the separation of facilities/services for Muslims versus non-Muslims triggers online discussions in China. In September last year, the introduction of special “Muslim-only” shower cabins at a Chinese university also provoked anger about alleged “Muslim privilege.”

 

TRIVIAL MATTER OR SOCIAL SHIFT

“Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next?”

 

On Thursday, Meituan Takeaway officially responded to the controversy through Sina Weibo, saying that the promotion of halal delivery boxes was a local and unofficial activity by one of its agents in Gansu province. It also said it would strengthen supervision of its agents and their promotional material.

But not all netizens believed Meituan’s explanation. One person said: “I am located in Inner Mongolia, and your Meituan [here] also promotes the two separate delivery boxes.”

Other netizens also posted photos of Meituan’s food delivery rival Eleme also using special “Halal only” delivery boxes.

Image of food delivery box that says “special use for halal food.”

Among all the negative reactions and the resistance against the spread of halal food, there are netizens who praise halal food for being tasty and who do not get what all the fuss is about. A female netizen from Beijing wrote:

“Why are so many brain-dead people opposing Muslims these days? How does Meituan’s separation of halal food hinder you? What do you care if your yogurt is halal? If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. There are plenty of people who will. Use your brain for a bit. Not all Muslims are extremists; just as not all people from the Northeast are criminals.”

But there are many who think Meituan’s separate boxes are no issue to disregard. One young female writer says:

“(..) Under the current national policy of protecting ethnic minorities, Muslims enjoy special privileges in the name of national unity. If this continues for a long time, the inequality inevitably will spread to other domains of society. Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next? Segregated neighborhoods? Trains? Airplanes? It might seem like a trivial matter, but if you ignore this, then those who are privileged now will go on and get greater privileges. The distancing of Muslims will only grow. I’m not saying this to alarm you. It’s self-evident that unequal benefits and the privilege of an ethnic group will eventually create conflicts between the people.”

Amidst all ideological arguments, there are also those who say it is all about the money. In the article published by Ilvdo, the author says about the Meituan incident: “Why do the boxes need to be separated? Because in general, Muslims feel that what we eat is “dirty” … but the product increase cost is shared by all the customers – so not only does it make us feel “dirty”, we also spend more money.”

They later say: “What we want is national unity, not religious solidarity. (..) You have your freedom of religion, which app I use is my freedom. Separate boxes and other special services will ultimately be reflected in the costs, and I do not want to pay religious tax. Luckily I have the freedom to delete this app and stop using it.”

By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bruce Humes

    July 24, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    This post on “halalification” is indeed fascinating. It does offer some real insight into what Chinese society is talking about these days.

    Reading it, one almost forgets that this is Chinese social media. There are various arguments, pro and con, and the way they are presented, it sounds fairly “balanced,” like something you’d read on Twitter in the West. “Let one hundred flowers bloom,” as Mao Zedong famously said in the 50s — before cracking down on anyone expressing unPC attitudes, and persecuting and even jailing hundreds of thousands of those “blossoms.”

    The issue here is that the columnist fails to point out to readers how significant it is that “halalification” is being openly discussed, and not banned, by the authorities. Based on my experience, almost any critical comments related to one of China’s ethnic minorities is highly sensitive and likely to be scrubbed almost immediately.

    Therefore, an important yet unexplored story here is: Why are the authorities allowing this topic to be discussed openly? Does this indicate their neutrality regarding this phenomenon? Or are they subtly using social media to critique this contemporary aspect of Muslim culture? And how long will they allow such a sensitive topic to be freely discussed before they — inevitably — begin to censor such entries?

    In the future, I look forward to Ms. Koetse alerting readers to such aspects of “media management,” and her efforts to “decode” these signals.

    • Avatar

      Jie

      September 7, 2017 at 10:59 am

      According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, “” search results are not shown.
      Sorry, the sticker has been deleted
      Sorry, you do not have permission to view the content.

      Huh.

      Do you really understand China?

  2. Avatar

    The other

    July 25, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    This article demonstrates why Westerners are so wrong in assuming that China is an ethno (Han supremacist) state. They’re actually riffing off a stereotype of East Asians as an extremely racist people, without bothering to learn the facts.

  3. Avatar

    Jane

    July 25, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Sigh.. I would never think that a standard halal certificate will make such a ruckus. Moslems only eat halal foods, just like vegetarians only eat non meat foods. Why would it then expand into segregation in other parts of life? Look at Singapore, it’s a secular country but we’d still get to know which food is halal, which isn’t. The PRC government need to do something, so the problem will be solved once and for all. Either it’s allowed to do so, or just ban it nation wide. I really feel like it’s funny how the majority of people who are non Moslems would feel discriminated against; I didn’t know minorities are capable of discriminating against more powerful majorities

  4. Avatar

    Joey

    July 26, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Halal food is the only food I trusted in China, especially from street vendors.

  5. Avatar

    Funtik-fuf

    July 31, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    the problem is not with the food here — it’s with the presenting of it. of course, halal food deserves to be cooked and sold everywhere in this world, same as all the other types of food, but when people start segregating the society then you know something’s very wrong with it. it is totally okay for any diet to have its own cafe, but different tables, delivery boxes and checkout counters are clear evidence of the separation. it seems like people who demand separate tables to eat don’t want to be associated with or be equaled to other people. which is not good.

  6. Avatar

    SpeakTheTruth

    August 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

    So Chinese people in China can’t even protect the Chinese culture of eating pork?

  7. Avatar

    Always Worried German

    September 2, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Ha! The Mohammedans are doing the same thing they started about 10 years ago in Europe. Be very careful, China, or you’ll end up like us.

  8. Avatar

    jixiang

    January 7, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    “Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

    Right, only when everyone speaks the same, thinks the same and eats the same can China be a happy family.

    Sigh.

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Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

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What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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