We at MERIP are excited about the issue of Middle East Report on China and the Middle East coming out next week, featuring the work of two of my mentors, Engseng Ho and MER editor Cemil Aydın. The issue will address linkages between China and the region, from trade in oil and manufactured consumer items to ideological exchanges under the signs of Marx, Mao and Islam. We’ve covered some of the geostrategic aspects of these relations before, as in this 2010 piece by Philip McCrum, but this time we’re drilling down, so to speak.
Working on this issue has brought to mind some of the glimpses I’ve caught of the evolving relationship between China and the Middle East over the past decade. As someone traveling in the region with a US passport and a Chinese family origin, I’ve encountered various perceptions of China: as a hoped-for counterweight to US global hegemony; as a source of cheaply produced household goods; as an object of curiosity for its association with non-monotheistic Buddhism; as a scary land of population control; as a fanciful realm full of long-lost Muslims — and perhaps most important, as the country of Jackie Chan.
More interesting has been encountering those who have made the trip to China themselves. During my dissertation fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2010, I visited a friend living in a village near Bugojno for iftar and met Ahmad, a Syrian businessman living in Jidda who owns a plastic home furnishings company. Ahmad had first come to Bosnia for an investors’ conference a few months earlier, took a liking to the place and was thinking of buying a vacation home in the country. Ahmad’s work had taken him to China many times over the previous 20 years and he maintains an office there — “I’ve come to know China better than you!” he (rightly) proclaimed.
Ahmad narrated to me his changing impressions of China, which he referred to as ‘indku, or roughly, chez vous. He marveled at the pace and scale of growing prosperity, represented by underground multi-story luxury shopping centers and the growth of the markets in the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton) he knows like the back of his hand. And of course, he tracked change through his palate. “At the beginning, it was very difficult working in China, especially because of the food. There is so much pork. You never know what’s halal. Sometimes I would go for 24 or even 48 hours eating nothing but nuts and fruit. But now it is different.” Indeed, during a brief family visit I made to Guangzhou in 2011, Middle Eastern restaurants were not hard to find.
Ahmad is one of the more successful of the many merchants from the Arab world who have flocked to China in recent decades. The city of Yiwu, located in central Zheijiang province and boasting a large wholesale market for commodities, has become especially well known, with 20,000 Arab traders, mostly Yemenis, Palestinians and Iraqis, having settled there over the past decade. As described in a fascinating paper by Jackie Armijo and Lina Kassem, Yiwu is home to multiple mosques, restaurants and grocery stores catering to the Arab community and their Chinese Muslim interpreters, spouses, friends and business partners. Armijo and Kassem quote a Palestinian restaurateur on life there:
Yiwu is a beautiful city, and I consider it an Arab city and not a Chinese one. It is really very different than any other place in China… I have lived here for seven and a half years. My wife is Chinese, and our sons were born here. I consider this my home, and I plan to live here for the rest of my life.
Our upcoming issue will have more on Yiwu and also explore the ambiguities and problems of the many different entailments linking China to the Middle East. It won’t treat China’s relations with the region as some kind of utopian “south-south” fantasy that ignores the ongoing power of the United States. In this respect, I’m reminded of another encounter I had in Bosnia, with someone we can call Muhammad. Muhammad was one of the six Algerians living in Bosnia who were sent to Guantánamo Bay in 2001, only to be exonerated many years later. During my first series of interviews with him in in early 2010, he told me of his experiences fleeing the Algerian civil war, living in Pakistan, working and marrying in Bosnia, and enduring interrogations in Cuba.
After our first interviews I lost track of Muhammad for a few months. When I managed to catch up with him again, he had just returned from a trip to Beijing using his newly restored Bosnian passport. He was looking at the possibility of doing some small-scale import/export business with Bosnia but returned empty-handed and despondent. China may have represented opportunity: He still felt stymied in his adopted homeland of Bosnia. As a racial outsider in the ex-Yugoslav republic — to say nothing of the notoriety of his Guantánamo experience — Muhammad felt that he lacked the local connections necessary to navigate (or circumvent) import regulations and tariffs. He claimed that the Chinese merchants in Bosnia could do their work because they were backed by their own government; as an Algerian in the Balkans, he had no such luck.
While Muhammad went to China as part of his attempt to move past his Guantánamo experience, it’s worth remembering that China has come to Guantánamo as well, in various iterations. Chinese officials participated in the interrogation of Uighur Muslims at the US military detention camp, sparking objections on Capitol Hill and reminding us that even strategic rivals can “cooperate” in the interest of repression.