nline travel guides still say that halal restaurants are easy to find in China, but some regulars of such eateries are no longer sure that remains true. In fact, many of them say that halal restaurants — especially in China’s major cities — have been disappearing one after the other for some time now.
Alex, a Muslim foreign graduate student in Beijing, says the number of halal dining options near his university have declined noticeably in the past two years. Where there were once numerous such restaurants, now only two remain. The university’s Muslim cafeteria is still in operation, he says, but the nearby grocery he relied on for his halal food has closed down. He now must travel to a market two bus stations from campus to shop for halal meats.
“First, I noticed some halal restaurants removing the halal signs from their storefronts or covering them up with paper,” recounts Alex, who like the rest of those interviewed for this story is using a pseudonym. “I heard it was due to some government directive to stop emphasizing Arabic script. But later on, especially during COVID-19 and after, I saw some of those restaurants shut down completely.”
For sure, the pandemic was probably a contributing factor to the closure of some halal restaurants, which saw their clientele practically vanish during the country’s long lockdowns. Many observers, however, suspect that the trend is due more to the government’s growing attempts to have China’s ethnic and religious minorities adhere to the mainstream secular culture.
Indeed, as Alex had heard, Chinese officials in August 2019 had even ordered halal restaurants across the country to remove any visible markers of the faith from their storefronts, including Arabic script and mosque symbols. More recently, authorities have embarked on what they call “mosque consolidation” but which many observers say looks more like the systematic destruction of places of worship for Muslims.
Dietary restrictions and state rules
China has approximately 18 million to 25 million Muslims, most of whom belong to ethnic minority communities such as the Hui and the Uyghur in the country’s northwest. Most of them also follow the tenets of Islam, among which are clear directions about which foods are permissible for Muslims to eat and which are not.
Muslims can only eat meat from certain animals slaughtered according to Quranic rules. Halal food or qingzhen is that which adheres to Islamic dietary laws. The steady closures of halal restaurants and halal food stores have thus been worrying Muslim Chinese who rely on these to stay true to their faith and culture.
The Chinese government supposedly considers halal food as part of Muslim cultural customs rather than a religious obligation. In theory, this severs any notion that the practice conflicts with the secular culture the government wants to promote. Even non-Muslim Chinese have been able to enjoy halal food in many places across China, with big-plate chicken, kebab, and lamian (a beef or mutton noodle soup) among the most popular dishes.
Li Wei is not Muslim but has a Muslim business partner, enabling him to obtain halal certification for his hotpot restaurant in Beijing’s Chaoyang district a decade ago. He recalls, “Back then, securing halal certification was seen as a good business move to cater to Muslim communities and show care for their religious needs. It signaled goodwill and expanded our customer base.”
Nowadays, even shops selling halal meat are becoming scarce. Ma Liang says that five years ago, he received a notice from the local government to relocate his shop as the latter was shutting the market where his business was located. The market was also in the same Beijing district as Li Wei’s restaurant. Ma says that up to now he has no idea why the market was closed.
“I tried to continue selling meat from my home for a few years, but it became too difficult to live in Beijing particularly during COVID-19,” he says. Ma then decided to move his family and business to Hebei province, where he now runs a small sheep farm. “It is easier to buy anything here in Hebei than Beijing,” says Ma. “I can provide my family with better food and clothes. I think I am in a better place now.”
Many other Muslim Chinese, however, have been unable to turn negative circumstances into positive ones. In the last several years, there has been an increasing number of reports about human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang province, where over a million Uyghur and members of other Muslim ethnic minorities are believed to have been subjected to abuse, forced labor, and mass internment as part of the central government’s campaign to erase their Muslim identity and stamp out their religious beliefs.
Growing Islamophobia among the majority Han Chinese has only complicated the situation, and has even made many Muslims reticent about acknowledging their faith in public.
While religious practices, including those of Islam, were suppressed during the Mao Zedong era, these experienced a revival in the 1980s. By the 1990s, however, restrictions on religious practices and activities were revived.
For Muslim Chinese — particularly the Uyghur — such restrictions were tightened up some more after the Sept. 11, 2001 Islamist attacks in the United States, and then even more following a July 2009 peaceful protest in Xinjiang that turned violent in large part because of police brutality.
Matters regarding freedom of faith took a turn for the worse after Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012 and then Chinese president in 2013.
By 2016, President Xi was calling for the “Sinicization” of religions, which Human Rights Watch says “aims to ensure that the … CCP … is the arbiter of people’s spiritual life, state control over religion has strengthened.”
The government even drew up five-year plans for the Sinicization of the major faiths that had followers among China’s peoples, including Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Buddhism. These plans were supposed to run from 2018 to 2022, but were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last Sept. 1, new rules for religious venues took effect, running the gamut from restrictions on decorations to bans on donations from overseas.
That even restaurants and meat shops have seemingly ended up as targets as well may not really be a surprise, given how some Muslim Chinese have come up with ways to go around the restrictions imposed on them. The Uyghur have been particularly creative in pushing back against the rules, and have resorted to tactics such as declaring documents issued by the state — including the renminbi paper currency — as haram or forbidden.
Noted a 2017 Freedom House report: “As more officials recognize the discrete political opposition embedded in such responses, they have reacted with ever more bizarre restrictions, such as arresting people for not attending a funeral, or forcing stores to sell alcohol in areas where many residents have given up drinking.”
Or, as some now suspect, forcing halal restaurants to close shop.
Alex the foreign graduate student, though, says that he recently found that two new halal shops have opened in the market he frequents. One of the shop owners is from Xinjiang and sells naan among other types of bread. The other halal shop sells barbecued meat and is run by someone from the Muslim majority city Lanzhou, in the northwest province of Gansu.
“I was very happy to find the naan shop,” Alex says with visible glee. “This shop also sells beef and mutton stuffed buns, which I really love to eat. Whenever I go to the market, I buy one and eat it on my way back to the university. I have not tried the other shop yet. They sell meat that is already cooked. I don’t know if it is spicy or not because I love spicy food, but one day I would love to try it.”
But the Ph.D. candidate, who has spent seven years and counting in China, says that he still sorely misses a halal beef noodle shop that used to be near his university.
“I used to go to that restaurant every week to eat my favorite Lanzhou noodles,” says Alex. “But it has shut down. I thought maybe they were renovating, but the restaurant never reopened.”
A new restaurant is now occupying the same spot — and it isn’t halal. ◉