The September 11, 2001 attacks marked the beginning of large-scale trade between the Middle East and mainland China in the modern era. New visa restrictions in the United States — until then the number-one trading partner of Arab countries — forced Arab merchants to find business destinations in various Chinese cities. Statistics attest to the intensification of Sino-Arab trade: In 2004, the volume was less than $36 billion but in 2011 it reached nearly $200 billion. The Chinese government’s goal is to boost trade to $300 billion in 2014.
Usually, the new Arab traders in China settle down in a wholesale center where they (or family members) buy the goods to be shipped back home for sale. Other relatives are responsible for putting the goods in containers and still others for supervising the shipments until they reach destinations in the Middle East. There, a third set of relatives takes on the job of distributing the goods to local merchants.
The largest such wholesale center is Yiwu, in the east along the Yangtze River. Designated by the UN and World Bank as the “largest small-commodity wholesale market in the world” in 2005, the city is about a three-hour train ride from Shanghai — though it is located in Zheijiang province. Nicknamed “Sock Town,” Yiwu produces about 3 billion pairs of socks per year, a significant share of all the socks worn globally. Yiwu International Trader City offers more than socks, however. Electronics, plastic toys, fake jewelry and sporting goods are among the many items on display.
Since the early 2000s, Yiwu has seen the rapid growth of an Arab trader community, which now numbers more than 35,000 in a city of just over 2 million. Muslim and Arab matchmaking sites like LoveHabibi have a distinct category of “Chinese Arabs” — a quick look at the men’s profiles shows that they are recent trader-migrants in China, mainly from Iraq, but also from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Lebanon. Intermarriage between Arab men and Chinese women is frequent, and is sometimes referred to as “kebab with sweet-and-sour pork.” The children of these mixed marriages grow up bilingual. Their fathers often speak Mandarin and/or the local language of Yiwu, and claim to have no plans to return to their home country.
As is normal in trading entrepôts, the flood of newcomers brings change on multiple levels. Over 100 Arab restaurants have opened in the past ten years (some, in Binwang district, even offer belly dancing). Many offer Lebanese food, even if the Arab owners are not of Lebanese origin, and Chinese women are hired as waitresses and cleaning personnel.
Websites for Muslim traders point to where one can get halal food and the best places to shop. The same sites calculate prayer times in Yiwu, showing that this small Chinese city is firmly on the Arab Muslim imaginary map. A brand new Sunni mosque, a blend of Gulf and Central Asian architecture, has been built in Yiwu. About 7,000 Muslims pray there on Fridays. A smaller Sunni mosque in the Futian market caters to pious traders and a Hui imam gives sermons in a mix of Arabic and Mandarin.
Perhaps most important for China is the effect of the Arab Muslim influx on the Chinese Muslim population. With the laws of internal migration relaxed, Chinese-speaking and Turkic Muslims, mainly Hui and Uighurs, have found an economic niche in Yiwu and other wholesale centers as mediators between the Arab traders and Chinese society. They work as Muslim preachers, Arabic-Chinese translators, waitresses and even belly dancers.
The Chinese Muslim migration to the eastern provinces poses new questions about the Chinese government’s relation to the country’ religious minorities. In the official narrative, the Uighurs and other Muslims are assigned a marginal position and are marked as having separatist ambitions. This imagined Muslim separatism goes against the Chinese government narrative that emphasizes 5,000 years of uninterrupted national history. Xinjiang, the native territory of the Uighurs, has official status as an autonomous region going back to 1955. But numerous government actions — weapons testing, oil and mineral exploitation, forced family planning, suppression of religious, cultural and linguistic rights, settlement of Han in the region and their appointment as state officials despite autonomy — led to a series of student demonstrations and popular uprisings.
After demonstrations in 1988 and 1989 and an uprising in 1990, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government closed mosques, monitored and dismissed Muslim clergy, and discouraged the young from practicing religion. These measures, as Gardner Bovingdon has written, “made Islam in Xinjiang more rather than less political” in China’s reform era. As a result of the repression, Muslim religious practice has become a sign of resistance to the Han government and an overt political statement. Muslims in China have created links to transnational organizations and diaspora groups, and well-off Uighurs in the Gulf have supplied money, in Bovingdon’s words, to “advocates of independence and political Islam.”
The post-September 11 global war on terror gave Chinese leaders a free hand to reduce the (already meager) autonomy in Xinjiang and to present dissent among Uighurs as a rise in Islamic extremism fomented by foreign intrigue. The government’s indulgence of Muslim practices in Yiwu points to a shift in the internal debates over religion and secularism (with its anti-clerical tone) in Chinese nationalism. Since the 1980s, the state strategy toward minority regions has been to loosen economic policy yet maintain and tighten political and cultural control.
Chinese companies also invest in the Middle East, of course, and the influx of Arab traders and migrants affects Beijing’s economic and political activities there. All these ties create something of a paradox in light of China’s Middle East policy, which for decades has been supportive of both secular and clerical authoritarian regimes. Despite this history and the suppression of Uighur religious and political freedom, Beijing is keen to create an image of a peaceful Confucian China that supports resistance to oppression in the Middle East.
Beijing has long advocated Confucianism and Taoism as national cultural heritages of China, labeling Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as foreign elements. In Chinese foreign policy, what are called Confucian values are commodified to reach out to a larger audience than the business community. In Lebanon, for example, China has thickened its ties with the Shi‘i Islamist party Hizballah. What may seem like a contradiction at first sight — peace and support for armed resistance — is in fact a convergence.
One of China’s main ways of projecting “soft power” is the Confucius Institutes that teach Chinese language, history and culture to foreigners in China and abroad. More than 440 Confucius Institutes operate in 106 countries, claiming more than 850,000 students and attendees in total. The headquarters is housed at the Ministry of Education.
In 2007, the Chinese government and the Confucius Institute headquarters co-funded a new Confucius Center at St. Joseph University in Beirut. It was the first Chinese language and cultural institute in the Arab world (later, centers opened in Jordan and the UAE, and one is expected to open in Bahrain soon). Not surprisingly, the lecturers are sent directly from China. Teaching Chinese Business Language (Mandarin) is one of their main activities in Lebanon. To the small elite of well-off students who take classes in Chinese calligraphy and about Confucian ethics, Chinese “culture” is just another New Age movement from the East.
Meanwhile, Chinese outreach has more political dimensions. In March 2013, a delegation of Chinese officials accompanied by Beijing University academics visited the Hizballah museum that commemorates its armed Islamic Resistance’s battle against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Two deans from the Lebanese University accompanied the delegation and Hizballah’s al-Manar TV aired the visit. Yang Fuchang, the former deputy foreign minister, praised the Lebanese fighting spirit, saying “the will of the Lebanese and Chinese people will render the Resistance victorious.”
The merchant community, however, seems uninterested in either Beijing’s policy toward Muslims in China or its foreign policy in the Middle East. To ‘Ali (pseudonym), who owns a large shop in Brumana (Mount Lebanon) selling household items and who frequently travels to wholesale centers in China, politics and trade are unrelated. From what he knows, Chinese Muslims suffer no more than anyone in the Middle East. Confucius is the “religion” of the Chinese; Chinese merchants have never interfered with Muslim religious tradition. So why should Arab traders have an opinion about Confucius?
The new Arab merchant tradition in mainland China is in its very early stages. In time-honored trader fashion, the merchants are busy settling, learning the language, bringing over relatives, intermarrying, and setting up ethnic restaurants and shops. It is a growing community in a country that is playing an increasingly important role in the Middle East and is also concerned with a Uighur minority who are intermediaries between the Han Chinese and an important external market. The generation of ‘Ali may shrug its shoulders when asked about domestic Chinese politics and Chinese influence in the Middle East, but it is doubtful that the Arab merchants will remain aloof forever.