PAGE (Reuters) – Authorities in the Chinese capital have ordered halal restaurants and food stalls to remove Arabic scripts and symbols related to Islam, part of an expanding national effort to "blunder" the Muslim population.
The Arabic font on the signboard of a halal food store is visible covered, in the Niuji area of Beijing, China, July 19, 2019. Photo taken on July 19, 2019. The Beijing-based halal store, which Reuters visited recently, said employees had told them to remove Islam-related images, such as the crescent and the word halal, written in Arabic, from signs.
Government workers from various departments tell a Beijing shop manager with noodles to hide the Arabic halal in his shop sign and then watch him do it.
"They said it was a foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture," said the manager, who, like all restaurant owners and employees who spoke with Reuters, refused to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The campaign against Arabic script and Islamic images marks a new phase of aspiration, gaining momentum from 2016, aimed at ensuring that religions are in line with popular Chinese culture.
The campaign involves the removal of Middle Eastern-style mosques by many mosques in the country in favor of Chinese-style pagodas.
China, home to 20 million Muslims, officially guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has launched a campaign to bring believers in line with the Communist Party's ideology.
Not only Muslims are subject to control. Authorities closed many underground Christian churches and demolished crosses of some churches that the government considered illegal.
But Muslims were attracted special attention after the 2009 riots between predominantly Muslim Uighur people and a majority of Han Chinese in the western western region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur minority.
Ethnic violence spasms ensued, and some Uyghurs, wresting government control, carried out knife-and-bomb attacks in public areas and against police and other authorities.
In response, China initiated what it defined as counterterrorism in Xinjiang.
It is now facing intense criticism from Western nations and human rights groups regarding its policies, in particular the mass arrests and surveillance of Uighurs and other Muslims there.
The government says that its actions in Xinjiang are necessary to eliminate religious extremism. Officials have warned of creeping Islamization and are expanding tighter controls over other Muslim minorities.
Analysts claim that the ruling Communist Party is concerned that foreign influence may hamper religious groups.
"Arabic is seen as a foreign language and knowledge of it is now viewed as something beyond state control," says Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies Xinjiang.
'It is also regarded as connected with international forms of piety or in the eyes of state authorities with religious extremism. They want Islam in China to act mainly through Chinese, "he said.
Kelly Hammond, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who studies Muslims in the Hui minority in China, said the measures were part of an "effort to create a new normal."
Beijing is home to at least 1,000 halal shops and restaurants, according to the Meituan Dianping Food Delivery App, distributed in the city's historic Muslim Quarter, as well as in other neighborhoods.
It was not clear whether any such restaurant in Beijing was said to cover Arabic language and Muslim symbols. A manager at a restaurant still showing Arabic said he had been ordered to remove it but was waiting for his new signboards.
Several larger stores visited by Reuters replace their signs with the Chinese term halal – "qing zhen" – while others simply cover Arabic and Islamic images with ribbon or stickers.
The Committee on Ethnic and Religious Affairs of the Beijing Government declined comment, stating that the halal restaurant order was a national directive.
The National Ethnic Committee did not respond to a fax request for comment.
While most drivers interviewed by Reuters said they did not mind replacing their plates, some say it confuses their customers and a halal butcher employee accused the authorities of "wiping out" Muslim culture.
"They always talk about national unity, they always talk about China being international. Is this national unity?
Report by Huizhong Wu; Additional reporting by Michael Martin; Editing by Se Young Lee and Tony Munroe