Opinion: Can China Make Its Cuisine and Finance Friendly to Muslims?

By Massoud Hayoun

China’s legendary cuisine has been a secret weapon to winning many an investment. But when a major ingredient of the culinary experience is pork, hospitality can only go so far when it comes to entertaining Muslim businessmen from countries like Indonesia and the Gulf’s emirates.

How the Chinese have been able to adjust can be seen in Hong Kong, the international trade port that many of these business people go through on their way to mainland China.

Take a look at the Islamic Centre Canteen, just a few floors above the Wan Chai mosque. Wrapped up in the savory, little dumplings the canteen serves is the quintessential Hong Kong culinary experience, sans the pork. That kind of accommodation for Islamic dietary rules is growing, along with business prospects from the Muslim world.

In 2010, there were only 14 certified halal restaurants and markets in Hong Kong, advertised by visitor centers. In the past year alone, however, the number has almost tripled. Muslim community leaders have intimated that the Hong Kong government has collaborated with Islamic clergy to lure prospective Muslim guests with dining options. The Hong Kong Tourism Board reports that in recent years, the number of Middle Eastern visitors to the region has grown by as much as 20% annually.

One can often find tourists from the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, where 13 of Hong Kong’s official halal restaurants are located. The tourists usually buy wholesale mobile phones — often knockoffs — manufactured at mainland factories for resale at home. “There has been an increase in halal restaurants in the past few years; not only that, but supermarkets are now serving lots of halal products,” says Wael Ibrahim, an Egyptian businessman who has lived in the greater China region for a decade and chairs Serving Islam, Hong Kong’s Muslim community organization. Ibrahim explains that promoting halal-food offerings is an effective way of “tightening the relationship between Hong Kong and other countries.”

Establishing Muslim-friendly services in China’s Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region may well be part of a multipronged attempt to establish a stronger business relationship between the natural-resource-rich Muslim world and the greater China region, which is in dire need of fuels for its burgeoning economy. “Mutually beneficial cooperations between China and the Muslim world are extremely important to China,” says Ma Hongjian, president of the Beijing-based China-Arab Council for Investment Promotion, explaining that since 9/11, trade partnerships between the two have skyrocketed because many Muslim businesspeople were unable to obtain visas to the West and instead started going to China in droves. “There are so many examples of the Chinese government trying to provide facilities for our Muslim guests,” says Ma, himself a Chinese Muslim.

In 2010, the mainland Chinese city of Guangzhou, which has become a hub for international Muslim businesses in recent years, hosted the Asian Games. Over half of the 45 participating nations were majority-Muslim countries and major sources of China’s oil and energy needs. For the occasion, the Guangzhou city government poured some $2.4 million into the construction of a giant mosque, a monument to the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas, who is traditionally believed to be entombed nearby. The government estimates that 30% of the food served at the games was certified halal.

More recently, Hong Kong has been trying to position itself as a conduit for Muslim business with the mainland. And it is not just by offering the business community more dining options but also by developing a strong platform for Islamic finance — which is compliant with Shari’a and prohibits usury, which many modern-day practitioners interpret to mean any form of interest. Investments in un-Islamic industries dealing, for example, in pornography, gambling and alcohol are also prohibited. “We hope to develop a wholesale Islamic capital market,” says a spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau. That would include Islamic bonds, known in Arabic as sukuk, which pay investors in assets to avoid, at least nominally, the exchange of interest.

Local Muslims are still skeptical. “We hear that [Hong Kong banks like HSBC] are studying about implementing Islamic finance in Hong Kong, but so far nothing major has materialized,” says Ibrahim of Serving Islam. Indeed, while the official policy of the Hong Kong government may be to welcome Muslim business to the region, perennial reports of workplace discrimination and harassment of Pakistani and Indonesian Muslims abound.

Hong Kong may work to offer Muslim visitors halal dumplings at the Islamic Centre Canteen in Wan Chai, but the city’s employers often refuse to let Muslim migrant workers practice their religion as desired. Sullying Hong Kong’s name in Indonesia late last year, two live-in Indonesian domestic workers were reportedly forced to eat pork and take off their headscarves by Hong Kong employers, according to the Jakarta Post. They also told the newspaper that they no longer prayed five times a day. “There’s no time, and the employers always complain, so we just gave up. It’s easier that way.”