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Shanghai Diary: Religion & Food – Halal Canteens in Chinese Universities; By Jayshree Bor

Image of students at Iftar (Breaking fast during Ramadan) at a halal canteen in Fudan University, China. Image courtesy: https://themuslimvibe.com

Shanghai Diary entry 002/2018

It is one of the rare sunny days in Shanghai. Some time I think it rains more in Shanghai than in Mawsynram (a village in Meghalaya state of Northeast India). I am still new to Shanghai and of course to the University where I have joined as a visiting scholar in October 2016. My new university has two campuses. I am in the city campus which is relatively small. As one of the professors said sardonically on my very first day at the university, “nijiunengcong xi men kandao dong da men le” (“You would be able to see the east gate from the west gate”).  Well, after living on the IIT Madras campus for one year, any campus would look smaller to me. On this sunny day, I finish my Chinese language class and head to the canteen.

There are two big canteen halls inside campus and I eat alternatively in each. Today, I meet my Indian and Nigerian friends on the way during lunchtime. They invite me to join them for a meal at the Muslim Canteen, which is outside the campus, and near the Chinese students’ dormitory (There are different sets of accommodation for Chinese and international Students). “Muslim Canteen?,” I exclaim.  It was obviously a surprise for me to hear of a separate Muslim Canteen inside a Chinese university premise. Especially because, it was reported that since 2014, government officials, party members, teachers, students and minors are banned from fasting during the month of Ramadan in China’s Xinjiang Region, where Muslims form 58% of the total population. It is to be noted that, despite the Chinese Communist Party being atheist in ideology, the Chinese government has officially recognized five religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism.

I recalled these facts while making my way to the Muslim canteen. We have a sumptuous lunch there. My Indian palate was happy to savor spices from Western China, given that I have been eating the sweet and bland Shanghainese food for a while.

A halal food vendor in Shanghai

Image Courtesy: UnTour Shanghai/ https://culinarybackstreets.com

Later, I learn from different sources that each Chinese University has one Muslim Canteen on campus, which serves halal food. I could not determine whether there is a government order behind this phenomenon. Nevertheless it is a policy of the Universities to maintain ethnic unity. According to me, another reason for establishing Muslim Canteen in every University is that the Chinese Universities are competing with Western countries for attracting international Students. Besides huge scholarship grants are doled out to students from Central Asian countries, which are predominantly Islamic nations.

In the midst of all this, it cannot be ignored that the internet in China does not spare any issue, whereby even these Muslim Canteens are trolled online. For instance, in September 2017, a student of Ningxia University, Yinchuan (Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region) posted a tweet on Sina Weibo about how non-halal options are fewer in his University. The post has led to a huge sensation on the Chinese internet about the affirmative actions of Chinese Constitution.

Notably, Uighur and Hui communities are the largest Muslim communities in China. The student who posted the above on Sina Weibo is from the majority Han community. A large number of students from Han Community reacted to the post. They state that they too feel there is over-patronizing of halal food in the name of ethnic unity, based on affirmative actions of Chinese constitution.

In fact, this leads to another level of conflict between students from Han and Hui communities. Some Han students threatened, they would eat pork meat in front of the Hui students. In the Ningxia University We Chat group there was a war of words between both the communities – Some students commented that having separate canteens for halal and non-halal food could be fertile ground for future terrorist activities. However, the matter has been resolved by the University authorities promising to establish more halal food canteens.

The incident reminded me of IIT Bombay, and the scenario where the Indian Internet space was also filled with debate and discussions about whether the institute could ask the students to use separate plates for non-vegetarian students. In both cases, the main question was the restoration of secular character of the University premise. However the Chinese scenario goes beyond this. This incident reflects Islamophobia being displayed by young users on Chinese social media. In fact, there is a new buzzword in Chinese internet parlance: “Green Revolution”. The term ‘Green’ is used to refer to Islam because of the association between the color and the religion.

It further leads to a debate on ‘pan-halal tendency’ in China, whereby some Chinese think these incidents could be the beginning of an Islam-centric culture in China as opposed to secular culture. Take the case of where, of late, Chinese food delivery apps Meitun and AAle have introduced a new halal option. An article published by Global Times has commented that pan-halal tendency is not the only reason for the Han students’ outburst against the Muslims. The article says that the Han students’ unrest is also due to favorable domestic policies for the ethnic minorities. Chinese 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. Since the Gaokao examination is extremely competitive, the Chinese policy could be a cause of discontent among the Han students.

Tourists at a halal food market in a prominent Muslim area in Xi’an, China

Image Courtesy: https://www.quora.com

In my personal experience, Muslim canteens or restaurants are big hit because of the relatively lower prices and larger varieties they offer not only in Universities, but in Shanghai city as well (my knowledge about other parts of China is yet to reach a level where I can comment on their contexts). In my university neighborhood there are at least seven Muslim restaurants, which are preferred not only by Muslim students but by other International and Chinese students.  Until now, I have not personally noticed any kind of confrontation among Han-Non Han students here. On the contrary the Muslim canteen is always crowded and they offer special privileges during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. In fact, I have been told by a friend from Fudan University that their Muslim canteen provides free food for all students during Ramadan.

Most Chinese youngsters like to refer themselves as atheists. As one of my Chinese professors said, “That’s why they don’t  fear anything”, referring to the growing number of online frauds and thefts in China.

Interestingly, going vegan is another new craze similar to pan-halal tendency among the younger Chinese generations. Some universities in Shanghai have already opened vegan canteens or separate vegan counters in existing canteens. China becoming vegan in future seems to be an impossible dream. For now, let us wait and watch how the pan-halal tendency in Chinese Universities sustains itself in the long term.

(Jayshree Borah is a PhD Scholar at the School of International Relations and Public Administration, Shanghai International Studies University, Shanghai. She is Member, Young Minds of C3S. This write-up does not reflect the author’s political opinion. It is based on her personal experience.)

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