Legal Entrepreneurs in the Halal Industry: The Case of Sharīʿa in China

China editor Matthew S. Erie writes about how the Chinese government’s attempts to legally respond to its Muslim Hui population’s calls for greater regulation of halal food counters the original secular intentions of a socialist legal system.

The law of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) allows for no legal basis for religious law, such as sharia. This bar, however, has not stopped a loose network of Muslim actors, including mosque clerics, scholars, and civil society proponents, from pushing for greater recognition of right under sharia in state law. A recent controversy over halal (qingzhen) food regulation highlights the efforts of such “legal entrepreneurs” and the obstacles they face. The question of halal food has wide implications not only for China’s 23 million Muslims but also for China’s increasing presence in Muslim countries through trade, diplomacy, and security pacts.

For Hui (of whom there are over 10 million in China and almost all Sunni), eating halal food is the kernel of their localized practice of sharia. Depending on their particular doctrinal affiliation, Hui have a number of different interpretations of what qualifies as halal. Nonetheless, the enduring minimal requirement has been that the one who prepares the food is Muslim. The question of who has the authority to certify food sanctified within a religion, however, inside a socialist legal system has remained a puzzle for the government.

Under the current regime, the Religious Affairs Bureau and the China Islamic Association (a governmental non-governmental organization) have the authority, at each level of the administrative system (e.g., central, provincial or autonomous region, prefectural, city, county and village) to monitor and license halal food. Despite an increased attention on food safety following a number of scandals over recent years that have resulted in revisions to the Food Safety Law of 2009 (amended 2015), Hui complain that regulators simply do not do their job.

Common problems are non-Muslim Han opening so-called halal restaurants or Hui buying meat or other edibles that have been contaminated by porcine products up-stream in the manufacturing process. These issues have created anxiety in Hui communities and, in some cases, such as a controversy in Shanghai in July, outright violence as Hui resorted to attacking a beef noodle shop that was allegedly opened by a Han.

Since the early 2000s, a number of Hui, many from Qinghai province, have advocated for a halal food legislation that would provide greater controls over how halal food is produced, packaged, transported, and advertised.  They have written proposals (ti’an) that they submitted to higher-level authorities, and ultimately the State Council and National People’s Congress (NPC). These proposals were silently rejected in the past, but this year created a maelstrom of criticism when a number of critics claimed the proposed legislation was evidence of China’s “Arabization” (Shahua). Halal food law was the last straw for opponents who decried the preferential policies Muslim minorities receive in education and employment and the relative success of Hui in developing their communities. These voices were bolstered by alarming reports that members of certain Muslim minority groups, namely, the Uyghurs, had joined jihadist movements in Syria.

Legal entrepreneurs selectively use language to draft their proposals for legislation such as a halal food law. While they have to date been unsuccessful in passing such law in the face of increasing Islamophobia in China, the constant push-and-pull of China’s Islamic revival in a socialist state often at odds with its multi-faith population means that the future of such legislation is an open question. Recently, various non-governmental actors have proposed a draft Law on Religion that would provide greater protection for religious groups, religious property, and religious activities in China. Such efforts are continuously expanding the boundaries of legal protection for religious minorities, including Muslims, in China, and doing so within a system designed principally to protect the interests of the state.

Matthew S. Erie is trained as a lawyer and an anthropologist. He is an Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His new book is China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The views and opinions expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SHARIAsource.