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Made-in-China Halal: Online Discussions on ‘Halalification’

As a form of protest against the growing prevalence of halal food, some groups of Chinese netizens vow not to eat or buy halal products.

Manya Koetse

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Image by Sohu.com (http://www.sohu.com/a/159080564_446930)

Over recent years, the rise of made-in-China halal food and services have increasingly generated heated online debates on the so-called ‘halalification’ of China. Many netizens condemn the country’s growing prevalence of halal products and join the online protest against their normalization.

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.

 
“Pan-Halal Tendencies”
 

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.”

Special lane: “Halal/muslim cash register”

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.

Examples of some regular supermarket products that are halal as posted on Weibo: hotpot condiments, hot sauce, butter, cookies, and salt.

“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.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Erie, Matthew S. 2016. China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erie, Matthew S. 2016b. “China’s Halal Constitution: ‘Islamic’ Legislation Stirs Debate at the PRC Engages the Muslim World.” The Diplomat. May 27. https://thediplomat.com/2016/05/chinas-halal-constitution/

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    China Food & Drinks

    Famous Goubuli Restaurant Calls Police for Getting Roasted Online, Gets Kicked Out of Franchise Group

    Goubuli Wangfujing shows how NOT to address a social media crisis.

    Manya Koetse

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    The well-known Goubuli Wangfujing restaurant just got a bit more famous this week. The branch, which specializes in steamed buns, is now not just known as one of Beijing’s worst-rated restaurants, but also as a business that shot itself in the foot by handling a social media crisis the wrong way.

    The famous Wangfujing main branch of Goubuli Steamed Buns (狗不理包子) is caught up in a social media storm since responding to a blogger’s negative video of their restaurant by contacting the police.

    The video, Goubuli’s response to it, and the following consequences have hit the top trending topic lists on Weibo today.

    Goubuli, sometimes transcribed as Go Believe, is a well-known franchise brand of steamed stuffed buns (baozi) from Tianjin that was founded in 1858. The brand now has more than 80 restaurants in mainland China, 12 of them in Beijing. Since Wangfujing is one of Beijing’s most famous streets, the Wangfujing branch is popular with both foreign and Chinese visitors.

     

    Gu Yue’s “Visiting the Worst-Rated Restaurant” Video

     

    The social media storm started on September 8, when Weibo blogger Gu Yue (谷岳) posted a video titled “Visiting the Worst-Rated Restaurant” (“探访评分最差餐厅”). Gu Yue is a travel blogger with over 1,7 million fans on Weibo.

    Gu Yue in front of Gubouli.

    In the video, Gu Yue starts by explaining he chose to visit Gubouli after searching for the restaurant that receives the lowest ratings in the Beijing Wangfujing and Dongdan areas on the super-popular Chinese mobile food app Dianping.

    The blogger found that, out of the 1299 listed restaurants in the area, Wangfujing Goubuli Baozi was the worst-rated place. Ironically, the brand’s name Gǒubùlǐ (狗不理) literally means ‘dogs don’t pay attention,’ which makes the name ‘Goubuli Baozi’ sound like a place with stuffed buns that even dogs would not eat.

    Complaining about the service, prices, and quality of food, many Dianping users rated the restaurant with just one out of five stars.

    Gu Yue then sets out to visit the restaurant himself to see if Gubouli on Wangfujing really is as bad as Dianping users say. He orders some steamed braised pork dumplings, 60 yuan ($8.7) for 8, and regular pork dumplings, 38 yuan ($5.5) for 8.

    The blogger concludes that Gubouli’s dumplings are not worth the money: the dumplings are greasy, the dough is too sticky, and they do not have enough filling. Gu Yue’s video also suggests that the restaurant’s hygienic standards are not up to par, with loud coughing coming from the kitchen.

    Gu Yue’s video received over 97,000 likes and thousands of responses on Weibo, with many fans praising the idea of the blogger checking out the worst-rated restaurants.

     

    Goubuli’s Reaction Starts a Social Media Storm

     

    The Wangfujing branch of Goubuli did not appreciate Gu Yue’s video.

    In an online statement on September 11, the branch accused the blogger of spreading lies about their restaurant and harming their reputation, and demanded a public apology.

    Goubuli Wangfujing called the video “vicious slander” and stated they had contacted the police in relation to the matter.

    The hashtag “Wangfujing Goubuli Responds to Netizen’s Negative Video” (#王府井狗不理回应网友差评视频#) immediately went viral on Weibo, attracting some 430 million views.

    Many Weibo users were outraged about the way the Goubuli branch handled the situation. “Aren’t we even allowed to say if something is tasty or not?!” many commenters wondered, with others writing: “You are harming your own reputation!”

    “Let’s call the police over the quality of your food,” others suggested.

    There were also many netizens who commented that some Chinese Time-Honored brands, such as Goubuli, often only survive because of their history and fame rather than actually delivering good quality to their customers.

    Following the major online backlash on its statement, the restaurant soon removed their post again. But the social media storm did not end there.

    On September 15, the Goubuli Group issued a statement saying that it would directly terminate its franchise cooperation with the Goubuli Wangfujing branch over the incident.

    With over 280 million views on its hashtag page (#狗不理解除与王府井店加盟方合作#), news of the franchise termination blew up on Weibo.

    According to the latest Weibo reports on September 15, the Wangfujing Goubuli branch was closed for business on Tuesday (#狗不理包子王府井店门店关闭#).

    “This is the power of clout,” one person comments: “If it were not for the [Goubuli] restaurant’s flawed marketing department, this would not have led to their closure.”

    “The restaurant has brought this on themselves. There’s nothing wrong with posting a bad review.”

    Another person comments: “This is the first time I’ve seen a marketing department making something big out of something small, leading to their own closing.”

    Meanwhile, blogger Gu Yue says that he was not contacted by Goubuli, nor by the police. The social media controversy has only made him more popular.

    “Gue Yue single-handedly crushed this restaurant,” some say, appreciating how social media has increased the power of Chinese consumers to make or break a business.

     
    Also read: Overview of the Dolce&Gabbana China Marketing Disaster Through Weibo Hashtags
     

    By Manya Koetse

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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    China Food & Drinks

    Tianjin Restaurant Introduces “Meal Boxes for Women”

    The special lunch boxes for women were introduced after female customers had too much leftover rice.

    Manya Koetse

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    China’s anti food waste campaign, that was launched earlier this month, is still in full swing and noticeable on China’s social media where new iniatives to curb the problem of food loss are discussed every single day.

    Today, the hashtag “Tianjin Restaurant Launches Special Female Meal Boxes” (#天津一饭店推出女版盒饭#) went trending with some 130 million views on Weibo, with many discussions on the phenomenon of gender-specific portions. The restaurant claims its special ‘female lunch boxes’ are just “more suitable for women.”

    According to Tonight News Paper (今晚报), the only difference their reporter found between the “meals for women” and the regular meals, is the amount of rice served. Instead of 275 grams of rice, the ‘female edition’ of the restaurant’s meals contain 225 grams of rice.

    The restaurant, located on Shuangfeng Road, decided to introduce special female lunch boxes after discovering that the female diners of the offices they serve usually leave behind much more rice than their male customers.

    The restaurant now claims they expect to save approximately 10,000 kilograms of rice on an annual basis by serving their meals based on gender.

    On Chinese social media, the initiative was heavily criticized. Weibo netizens wondered why the restaurant would not just offer “bigger” and “smaller” lunch boxes instead of introducing special meals based on gender.

    “There are also women who like to eat more, what’s so difficult about changing your meals to ‘big’ and ‘small’ size?”, a typical comment said: “Some women eat a lot, some men don’t.”

    Many people called the special meals for women sex discrimination and also wanted to know if there was a difference in price between the ‘female’ and ‘male’ lunch boxes.

    There are also female commenters on Weibo who claim they can eat much more than their male colleagues. “Just give me the male version,” one female user wrote: “I’ll eat that meal instead.”

    This is the second time this month that initiatives launched in relation to China’s anti food waste campaign receive online backlash.

    A restaurant in Changsha triggered a storm of criticism earlier this month after placing two scales at its entrance and asking customers to to enter their measurements into an app that would then suggest menu items based on their weight. The restaurant later apologized for encouraging diners to weigh themselves.

    By Manya Koetse

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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