I was strolling around an exhibit in the first floor of the National Museum of China when I stopped to take in one particular painting, featuring dozens of smiling faces dressed in diverse colorful cultural garb. The massive painting described a unified China, one where all ethnic groups worked together under the same political philosophy to form a vibrant Chinese culture.
This painting fascinated me because I realized I was still unclear on the government’s stance towards ethnic minorities, especially religious ones. I’d been hearing contradicting perspectives recently.
So I asked one of the Masters of Public Administration students at Renmin University about that during our group session.
‘The government doesn’t have a problem with ethnic minority groups that have a historical presence in China,’ he replied. ‘Recent religious trends, such as Falun Gong, are the ones they’re nervous about. Anything that has an element of rebellion in it.’
That made sense with a lot of what I’d seen and heard. The government formally recognizes over four-dozen minority groups. One group that has been around for several centuries in China and who were very visible in Beijing was Chinese Muslims. The men are easily identified by their longer beards and skull caps, or kufis, and the women by the occasional headscarf. They seem to be very integrated in broader society as well. I saw them in every part of the city and met a few during our trip meetings.
I learned that Muslims in Beijing, Hui Muslims or migrant Uyghurs Muslims (two ethnically distinct groups), seem to be comfortable expressing their lifestyle in the city. A central place for Muslims in Beijing is the Niu Jie area, or Ox Street, which is home to the 10th century Green Mosque, a marvelous structure that combines traditional Chinese architecture (it even has dragons on the roof!) with Middle-Eastern influence. Clustered around this area are Muslim-owned butcher shops and restaurants.
Muslim restaurants, often identified by their Arabic calligraphy, are popular for their unique cuisine, which does not use pork and includes popular options such as kebabs, salads and something called ou jiamo, which is a pita-like sandwich with meat. These foods resemble a bit of Afghani/Central Asian cuisine.
In fact, I was surprised at how easy it was to find halal food in Beijing. Every hutong and bustling intersection I walked across had at least one Muslim restaurant. I was even able to buy a packet of halal beef jerky from the snack shop on the bullet train, which was produced by a private company called the Beijing Yueshenzhai Islamic Good Company. (I looked the company up and found that they were a China time-honored brand, which means they are one out of 1,000 brands in China that have been acknowledged by the Ministry of Commerce as “having a long history, products, techniques or services passed down through generations, with strong Chinese culture background and characteristics and is widely recognized by the society.”) (Wikipedia).
Muslims in China are not a homogenous group, however. While the Hui Muslims in the city generally do not face government persecution, the government has been cracking down on Uyghurs, concentrated in the Northwest of the country, for years out of fear that they pose a threat of a unified political resistance.
Hence, what the student at Renmin was alluding to.
Sarah, MPP 2015