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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Happy Year of the Pig. The lunar new year begins today. It's 4705, according to the Chinese calendar. In China, homes and shops are decorated with bright red lanterns and dragons and lots of pigs - wooden pigs, cartoon pigs, inflatable pigs, even glow in the dark pigs. But there are no pigs to be seen on Chinese television. The state run TV network has banned porcine images in commercials. Major companies such as Nestle and Coca Cola have reworked their ads.

The government says it doesn't want to offend the country's small Muslim population, which considers pigs unclean. However, in the past the government has also taken a harsh and repressive stance toward the Muslim minority population. To give us some insight into why China is showing this rather sudden sensitivity, we've contacted Jackie Armijo. She's an assistant professor of international studies at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Welcome to the program.

Professor JACKIE ARMIJO (Zayed University): Thank you.

HANSEN: How long does the ban on pig images on TV last?

Prof. ARMIJO: To the best of my knowledge, it'll only last during the actual New Year celebrations. And on - during the evening they have these incredible extravaganzas of song and dance routines, but it's watched by hundreds of millions of people, so it's kind of like the Super Bowl. And I think it's only there, they're focusing on the advertisements during these government sponsored television extravaganzas.

HANSEN: Why these sensitive gestures now?

Prof. ARMIJO: Well, what's interesting is to the best of my knowledge nobody has a clear explanation from the Chinese government. There's various theories being bounced about, which all have some logic, but I don't think there's an official line. Some have said that China's learning from the United States about how to be both politically correct and culturally sensitive. Others have said it's because China has spent a lot of energy focusing on investment and basic economic relations with countries in the Middle East.

Now Hu Jintao, on his recent important trip to Africa, made a point of stopping in Dubai, here in the Emirates, on his way to Africa. And I mean there a possibility that all of the sudden they're being sensitive to their Muslim minorities, but given the history, that's hard to believe. There is a very nasty history of Han Chinese abusing pork to truly offend Chinese Muslims. So it's nice that they are making this gesture, even if it is token. At least it's acknowledging the fact that Muslims might be offended by lots of images of pigs. Though what's interesting is it's images of pigs, not pork, and I'm not sure why that a cartoon of Piglet, for example, might offend Muslims in China.

HANSEN: Tell me a little bit about how the Han Chinese have abused the images of pigs.

Prof. ARMIJO: Well, the worst period was during the Cultural Revolution, which was 1966 to 1976. And during that period, Muslims were really put under tremendous persecution by the Chinese government. The Chinese would do things like they would decide to raise pigs in a mosque compound or throw a pig down the well of a mosque compound, or force Muslims to eat pork in public. There have also been cases of, in the past, if you were trying to find a restaurant that didn't serve pork, people would say, oh don't worry we won't put pork in your food and then there would be pork in your food.

HANSEN: How big is the Muslim population in China?

Prof. ARMIJO: It's conservatively estimated about - let's say between 20 and 25 million. Some scholars and many Chinese Muslims think it's more like 30 or 40 or 50 million.

HANSEN: So percentage of the population is what?

Prof. ARMIJO: About two percent.

HANSEN: Two percent. Do you think some Muslims are seen as separatists perhaps, as a threat to the government?

Prof. ARMIJO: Certainly the government sees Muslims, especially the (unintelligible) in Xinxiang as being separatists. But in fact, although there have been some bombings, nothing recently, and I have met tens of thousands of Muslims in China, in different parts of China over the past 20 odd years, and I've yet to meet anybody who really believed, for example that Xinxiang should be independent. Yes, people are very critical of certain Chinese government policies, but I've yet to meet somebody who actually thought it was a reasonable desire to somehow be independent.

HANSEN: Do the Chinese Muslims acknowledge Chinese New Year?

Prof. ARMIJO: For the most part, no, but it's an incredibly important official holiday. I mean people normally have two weeks off. And it's the one time of the year where so many of Chinese populations now is a migrant population, of people moving from the countryside into cities and different regions of the country for work. And this is the two weeks off every year where they can go home and see their families. So for example, Chinese Muslims are also in the same position; this is where they can go home and see their families. So in that sense they're celebrating New Years because they're taking advantage of this opportunity to go home.

HANSEN: Do you think the gesture, the ban, will do anything to bring the government and the Muslim population closer together?

Prof. ARMIJO: I would like to think yes, but realistically, you know, I don't think they asked any Muslims about this. I think this is a decision they made on their own. I think if they'd asked, you know, Muslims if there is something we could do which would make you happy, they would probably say increase the number of people who can go on Hajj every year. On the other hand, at least it's a gesture. It may seem like a non-substantive gesture, but it is a gesture.

HANSEN: Jackie Armijo is an assistant professor of international studies at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Thank you. Happy New Year.

Prof. ARMIJO: Thank you.

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