Islam in China: Throwing a (pig) bone to China’s Muslims

New year, new animal, new problems

What would the Year of the Pig be without, well, pigs? Over one billion Chinese are about to find out, as the auspicious new year will be heralded on Chinese television without images of this year’s annual animal. Why the reason for the self-censorship? Officially (at least), the reason is that Chinese authorities have suddenly developed a sensitivity for the country’s Muslim population, estimated to be fewer than 2% of China’s population (about 20 million). Never mind the fact that Muslims have been present in China for over a millennium (the Niujie Mosque in Beijing is over 1000 years old) and have thus been through over 80 “Year of the Pig” festivities with no incidents of porcine protest.

So why is China making such a drastic curtailment of what many Chinese see as an auspicious and celebratory event? Looking behind the official answer of respect for religious minorities (“Due to concern over ethnic and cultural habits, we will keep the pig image away from the screen,” said an unnamed CCTV official) reveals a China that is desparately trying to court public opinion, for many reasons. Internally, the move is seen by some as a means of splitting Muslim opposition to the crackdown on northwestern China’s Uighur minority, and some are clearly buying in to it. “Although we comprise fewer than 2 per cent of China’s population, this ban shows how much the Government respects us,” said Huo Engjie, director of the Minorities Association in Shanghai. “It’s very moving.”

Others aren’t so convinced. “The Chinese government is using 9/11 as an opportunity to persecute [the Uighur minority],” said Alim Seytoff, secretary-general of the Uighur-American Association in Washington, DC, citing a continuing crackdown on separatist (the Chinese government says “terrorist”) activity in Xinjiang (the other, lesser-known “Tibet”), where last week 18 Muslims were slain by Chinese troops. A Canadian imam, Huseyin Celil – also a Uighur – has been jailed in China since last year, branded a “terrorist.” Because evidence has not yet been made available to Canadian authorities, relations have been strained between those two countries.

Beyond the internal issues, China’s thirst for energy has compelled it to make gestures to oil-rich Muslims states (along with recently intensified comment against the Iraq war). “China’s Muslims have run into insensitivity all right,” concludes an editorial by Investor’s Business Daily. “But it hasn’t come from the Chinese celebrating pig images. It has come from China’s government.” Feng shui specialists have noted that this Year of the Pig “will not be very peaceful.” Many of China’s Muslims could already see it coming.

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of

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