PEKING (Reuters) – Authorities in the Chinese capital have ordered Halal restaurants and food stalls to remove Arabic characters and symbols related to Islam from their signs.
The Arabic script on the sign of a Halal grocery store can be seen on July 19, 2019 near Niujie in Beijing, China. Photographed July 19, 2019. REUTERS / STRINGER
Employees at 11 restaurants and shops in Beijing, where Halal products have been sold and visited by Reuters in recent days, told officials they should use images related to Islam how to remove the crescent and the Arabic word "Halal" from the signs.
Government employees from various offices requested a manager of a Beijing noodle shop to cover up "Halal" in Arabic on the sign of his business, and then watch him.
"You said this was a foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture," said the manager, who, like all restaurant owners and employees who spoke to Reuters, refused to give his name because of the problem was.
The Campaign Against Arabic Writings and Islamic Images marks a new phase of a quest for momentum since 2016 to ensure that religions are in line with mainstream Chinese culture.
The campaign included the removal of Middle Eastern-style domes at many mosques across the country in favor of Chinese-style pagodas.
China, home to 20 million Muslims, officially guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has worked to bring believers into line with the ideology of the Communist Party.
It's not just Muslims who have been scrutinized. The authorities have closed down many Christian underground churches and demolished crosses of some churches that have been declared illegal by the government.
Since an uprising in 2009 between predominantly Muslim Uighurs and majority Han Chinese in the far west of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur minority, Muslims have attracted special attention.
Spasms of ethnic violence followed, and some Uighurs engaged in government controls carried out knife and rifle bomb attacks in public areas and against the police and other authorities.
In response, China launched a crackdown on terrorism in Xinjiang.
It is currently heavily criticized by Western nations and rights groups, especially in relation to mass arrests and surveillance of Uighurs and other Muslims.
The government says its actions in Xinjiang are necessary to eradicate religious extremism. Officials have warned against creeping Islamization and tightened control over other Muslim minorities.
According to analysts, the ruling Communist Party is concerned that foreign influence can make it more difficult for religious groups to control.
"Arabic is seen as a foreign language and the knowledge about it is now considered to be beyond the control of the state," said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who is studying Xinjiang.
"It is also considered to be associated with international forms of piety or, in the eyes of state authorities, as religious extremism. They want Islam in China to work mainly in Chinese, "he said.
Kelly Hammond, Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas, who studies Hui minority Muslims in China, said the actions are part of a "quest for a new normal".
According to the Meituan Dianping Food Delivery app, there are at least 1,000 Halal stores and restaurants in Beijing, scattered throughout the city's historic Muslim district and other parts of the city.
It was not clear whether Arabic writing and Muslim symbols were mentioned in any such restaurant in Beijing. A manager in a restaurant still displaying Arabic said he was asked to remove it but was waiting for his new sign.
Several larger stores frequented by Reuters replaced their signs with the Chinese name for halal – "Qing Zhen" – while others merely covered the Arabic and Islamic pictures with tape or stickers.
The Beijing Governmental Committee on Ethnic and Religious Affairs declined to comment and said the halal restaurants were a national policy.
The National Ethnic Affairs Commission did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
While most shop owners surveyed by Reuters said they had no objection to replacing their signs, some indicated that this was confusing their customers and an employee of a Halal butcher shop, who accused the authorities of "eradicating" Muslim culture ".
"They always talk about national unity, they always talk about China, which is international, is that national unity?"
Huizhong Wu reporting; Additional coverage by Michael Martina; editorial staff of Se Young Lee and Tony Munroe