ON February 18, the Chinese world will usher in the new year of an animal, but its identity will be suppressed.A billion people will view China's - and the world's - most-watched annual television show, the Chinese New Year's Eve variety spectacular, but the viewers will be no wiser as to which animal is involved.
The Chinese Government has decreed that the Year of the Pig will be celebrated with the least possible offence to the country's 21 million Muslims, for whom the porker is a dirty, offensive animal whose flesh must not be eaten.
So this year, China Central TV's big event will be more like a politically correct school Christmas pageant in which participants must not mention Jesus for fear of being seen as biased.
The Shanghai Islamic Association told The Australian: "In the last festival TV show to celebrate this year (12 years ago), the program was full of images of pigs, some of them quite grotesque, and many Muslims were unhappy and complained.
"So we're pleased the Government has made this move."
The director of the Minorities Association in Shanghai, Huo Engjie, who is a Muslim, said: "Although we comprise fewer than 2 per cent of China's population, this ban shows how much the Government respects us. It's very moving."
Advertising agencies have received a letter from CCTV telling them: "Since China is a multicultural country, and to respect the religious beliefs of Muslims, images of pigs should be avoided during 2007."
The letter adds, in case the renminbi hasn't dropped: "We have received an instruction to this effect from the top level of the Government."
Acquiring air time during the variety show is difficult and immensely costly, and most of the corporations with slots have completed their advertisements.
This creates a big challenge for companies such as Nestle, which have focused on the theme of the Year of the Pig in their commercials. A spokesman said Nestle would naturally comply with the official request. But the company has just a couple of weeks left to shoot a new commercial to fill the slots it has already bought.
China gets most of its oil from Muslim countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, where Sudan is its biggest supplier. It is also working hard to build its influence as a country that empathises with, rather than hectors, smaller nations.