Campus halal canteens trigger controversy about affirmative action policies

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/15 19:48:39

Experts air their worries about pan-halal tendency that extends to water, paper, toilets

A debate about a shortage of non-halal dining halls in a Chinese university went viral on the Internet

The event reignited a debate whether China's "affirmative action" policies toward non-Han citizens help or harm ethnic unity

A Muslim woman offers food at the end of a day's fast during the 2017 Ramadan at Niujie Mosque in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT


It began with a few online posts complaining about a school dining hall, but over the weeks, it snowballed into a national controversy that once again ignited a debate whether the country treats its Muslim citizens too favorably.

The controversy began when a Sina Weibo user who claimed to be a former student of Ningxia University in Yinchuan, Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, complained online that the school doesn't offer enough non-halal dining halls. His post said there's only one non-halal dining hall on the school's campus in district A, and in district C, where most of the students are of Han ethnicity, there's only a small non-halal dining hall and a much larger halal dining hall.

The controversy escalated when another person claiming to be a student posted a screenshot of an online chat, apparently revealing a conversation between a few Ningxia University freshmen. In the screenshot, an apparently Han student says he will eat pork in his dormitory in the presence of Hui students, and an apparently ethnic Hui student allegedly responded, "If you do that, I will definitely slash you with a knife."

Those of the Hui ethnicity are mostly Muslims.

After being forwarded by some famous Sina Weibo bloggers, the campus conflict went viral, with Islamophobic reactions common.

"This kind of university will sooner or later be a home base for terrorism," one comment read.

"This is religious extremism and terrorism under the disguise of ethnic unity," another read. "You require respect from others, but do not give the same in return."

Students line up to buy lunch at a halal canteen at a Shanghai middle school. Photo: CFP

Everything is halal

Relevant Ningxia University personnel couldn't be reached for comment as of press time. However, last week the university's official Weibo account published a short response to the recent incidents, saying that in order to "satisfy the teachers' and student body's diverse dining requirements, the school has gradually made arrangements," including renovating the dining halls this summer to include more non-halal options.

The statement also said the new Hui student who said inappropriate things in the online chat has been contacted by the police and school authorities, adding that the student has apologized for his words.

Students at the school reached by the Global Times said they understand why people are upset about having limited food choices, but they think the furor over this friction has been overblown and that too many people are making illogical, bigoted arguments.

A recent ethnic Han graduate of Ningxia University surnamed Pan told the Global Times he doesn't agree with what Ningxia University's online detractors say about it, as he thinks many people can't distinguish between terrorists and everyday Muslims. While in school, his relationship with Hui students has always been harmonious and he never encountered extremism. He thinks there needs to be mutual respect between Han and Hui, he personally avoided deliberately offending their sensitivities, for courtesy's sake.

A Hui Muslim living in Yinchuan, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Global Times she understands the Han students' demands and thinks the school is at fault for having poor dining arrangements.

"I used to think it's fine (to not have as many non-halal food venues), because Han people can eat both, but now I think this is kind of selfish. It doesn't matter where they like to eat, the facilities need to be in place," she said.

She admits there might be some extreme Muslims who have pan-halal tendencies, such as not allowing others to eat pork in their presence, but she has never had such demands. Her Han dormitory roommates even ate pig blood tofu in front of her once, she said.

When she was growing up, she was taught not to eat pork but was not taught to place these restrictions on others' actions.

However, she still feels hurt by the extreme anti-Muslim comments online.


Fear of the 'green'

There are many examples that show the increase in Islamophobia on Chinese social media. Netizens have even invented a new phrase, "Green Religion," to refer to Islam, because of the association between the color and the religion. In recent years, the term has been used more and more frequently on the Internet.

Every time there's news of Islamist terror attacks in the West, netizens will say that Europe has been "greenized" or has been occupied by the "greens." Many refer to Europe as "Europestan" and Paris as "Paristan." The sentiment is fueled by Europe's policy on refugees, especially the decision to accept refugees by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the recent attacks.

In China, specifically, much of the concern is focused on "pan-halal" tendencies, seen by many as an example of religious rules seeping into secular life.

Last month, Meituan, a food delivery company, opened up a "halal channel" on its app. The company said in its online advertisements that halal and non-halal foods will be stored in different boxes on deliverymen's bikes, which aroused fierce public criticism.

Xiong Kunxin, a professor at Beijing's Minzu University of China, told the Global Times that there's a pan-halal tendency in China, in which some Muslims are demanding things be halal which cannot really be halal, such as water, roads and toilets. This abuse of the concept only alienates different religious groups and will lead to greater misunderstanding, Xiong stressed.

Xi Wuyi, an expert on Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has been a staunch critic of the pan-halal tendency, has been closely following the Ningxia University dining hall controversy. She received a Weibo message from a student complaining about the dining hall situation in the past few weeks and has been posting screenshots and analyses of the situation.

"We should respect an ethnic group's dietary customs, but such customs should not be forced onto other ethnic groups … if a secular, State college's dietary customs only advocates halal customs, then it's a phenomenon of the pal-halal tendency. When Han students, which make up the majority of the student body, cannot choose non-halal diets, it erodes the school's secular culture and harms the foundation of the unity of the Chinese people," she told the Global Times.

Domestic policies

China's domestic policy of ethnic cohesion, expressed through favorable policies toward minority ethnic groups, is being interpreted by some as unjust and is used to fuel the fire of online Islamophobia. For example, China is building large numbers of mosques in western provinces and it has been reported that some Muslim communities in these regions have started learning Arabic in government-run schools.

Almost all Chinese Muslims are members of ethnic minority groups. China usually applies favorable policies to ethnic minorities to achieve the goal of national unity, though the fairness of such "affirmative action" has been questioned by members of the Han majority.

In some areas, ethnic minorities can get extra points on the gaokao college entrance exam, and local governments often reserve a certain ratio of positions for non-Han applicants.

Some question if these policies go too far and constitute discrimination against Han people. There have been protests every year by parents of high-school students against what they say is an unfair situation, especially the fact that certain minority-only high-schools have more college places reserved for their graduates than there are for students from other schools.

There have also been complaints online about conflicts involving both Muslims and non-Muslims, in which people claim that the police and courts give preferential treatment to Muslims for the sake of ethnic unity. The Muslim community is more able to mobilize itself to defend its interests, some claim.

Marshall Ma, a Hui Muslim living in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, said his family has been living in Xi'an for more than five generations and are assimilated into the local culture. He thinks the extreme Islamophobic comments exist because these issues are blown out of proportion online to create division between Muslims and non-Muslims.

He has encountered online violence against Muslims before, at first he argued with the commenters, but gradually he's lost the will to do so, seeing he can never convince these people.

"Don't always talk about how the country has been 'greenized,'" Marshall Ma said. "Islam has been in China for more than 1,000 years; the Chinese people are used to living with Muslims and the cohesion will continue. Those who claim to be anti-Muslims are only against the thieves, idiots, liars and extremists in the group."

Newspaper headline: Halal hassle

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