By Haiyun Ma
March 14, 2014
For three years running, the China-Arab Economic Forum has held its annual gatherings in Yingchuan, the capital city of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in Northwest China - a region with the third-smallest GDP in China.
The meetings, held in this "Muslim heartland", attracted 18 national leaders, including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, 195 ministerial officials, and 93 diplomats from 76 countries - and resulted in trade contracts worth about US$42 billion. Some 5,000 foreign and Chinese enterprises and 3,000 businesspeople from China and abroad participated in these forums, which were held in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
This year's total of US$42 billion in contracts surpassed in one year the combined value of contracts signed at the previous three China-Arab forums.
The deals, agreed by a mix of private companies and state interests on both sides, were for agriculture, energy and new technology, cultural and educational tourism, halal food, and finance.
Organized by China's Ministry of Commerce, the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the transformation of this regional gathering to one of national relevance, significance and scale underlines an effort to improve trade with Arab and Muslim countries.
There were 22 Arab and 57 Muslim-majority countries targeted by the organizers of the 2013 China-Arab States Expo. And many of them came; including representatives from Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and 67 other countries. The size of the Kuwaiti delegation was particularly noticeable in that it alone had an exhibition area of about 1000 square meters. Also of note, the expo wasn't male-centered.
According to the latest statistics from China's Ministry of Commerce, Sino-Arab trade in the first 10 months of 2013 topped $194.9 billion. Although the expo's precise contribution to overall Sino-Arab trade is unclear, this year's total of US$42 billion was significant given the small size and lack of resources in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
While trade opportunities at the expo may have centered on Ningxia, representatives and business people from other Chinese regions also attended these gatherings to make Arab and local business contacts.
In addition to generating an increased volume of trade, these trade fairs have also become a potential platform for increased political consultation. China's third national leader, Yu Zhengsheng, (the Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), said at the expo's opening ceremony that there was a need for an "increase in mutual political trust and strategic consultation".
A Bloody History
From a historical perspective, the expo's location is of major significance. Ningxia was a battlefield between the Hui and Han peoples from the late 19th century up to the 1970s. Ningxia Hui Muslims were slaughtered there by the Chinese statesman and military leader Zuo Zongtang's forces in the 1870s. This historical, religious, and ethnic hatred was reinforced in 1960s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.
Three decades after China launched economic reform of its coastal regions in the 1980s, China has now begun to see the "usefulness" of the interior Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and it's Hui Muslim population - they constitute about 34% of the region's total. Geographically isolated, it had been perceived as economically backward compared to the coastal regions.
With this new expo and other initiatives, China is using the Hui connection to reach out to Arab and Muslim states. And, this has benefited Ningxia Muslims who are now engaged in trade with these countries on a regional, national, and international scale.
Keeping in mind the historic tensions between Chinese Muslims and the Chinese state, this economic outreach, facilitated by cultural and religious ties, could create closer relations and a deeper level of trust between Hui Muslims and the Chinese state. This is no small feat.
But China also has a history of using its Muslims for political gain when necessary. During the Sino-Japanese wars in the 1930s, China deployed Muslim intellectuals and diplomats to gain Arab and Islamic support for China's resistance war. Today, relations between the Chinese state and Hui Muslims are again improving as Sino-Japanese relations have deteriorate.
The Chinese state's perception and treatment of Hui Muslims serves another curious purpose. It's the kind of "positive capital" that stands in stark contrast to China's relations with its Muslim Uyghur citizens in the neighboring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
It is worth noting the historical differences between these two populations:
• The Hui are not tied to a single region and, unlike in Xinjiang, there is no history of separatist movements desiring a more independent Ningxia.
• Regional leaders in Ningxia (both Hui and Han) are more open-minded, politically enlightened, and less obsessed with political and ideological campaigns than their counterparts in Xinjiang. In general, Ningxia leaders are less obsessed with "fighting terrorism" and have better communications and connections with Beijing.
• The Hui are more culturally and racially tied to the Chinese. They are actively involved in modern Chinese nationalism, and see that as a way of ensuring the survival of Islam in the Chinese nation.
• The Uyghurs had two short-lived independent states, the East Turkistan Republics of the 1930s and 1940s in southern and northern Xinjiang. These are the states which Xinjiang officials constantly perceive as precedent for today's Uyghur human-rights activities.
While the future looks bright for China-Hui relations in Ningxia, China-Uyghur relations have precipitously deteriorated into tension, hostility, and violence on both sides.
The forums in Ningxia have showcased and promoted China's relationship with its Muslims, while China's government in Xinjiang has attempted to de-Islamicize Uyghur Muslims there through restriction of Islamic practices - in hopes of containing and even eliminating Uyghur Muslim connections with their Central Asian neighbors.
Another trade initiative - the annual China-Eurasia Expo - was launched in Urumqi in Xinjiang in 2011 as an attempt to increase trade with China's western neighbors in Central Asia. The organizers in this case downplayed the role of Xinjiang's Turkic/Islamic cultural and religious ties with the region. This trade fair is jointly organized by China's Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Xinjiang government and Xinjiang Development and Construction Corps.
Given the tension and hostility between the Uyghurs and Xinjiang authorities and the Chinese government's "Anti-Three (Evil) Forces" campaign ("separatism, extremism, and terrorism"), Uyghurs have found it difficult to participate in this government-organized trade fair. They are not encouraged to participate, probably out of China's fear that they (the Uyghurs) will build closer relations with Central Asian Turkic states. Instead China has focused on encouraging the Han (ethnic Chinese) to engage in China-Central Asia communication.
As Ningxia's utilization of Islam indicates, trade is not merely an exchange of goods, but also culture and emotion. China seems not to have considered that Uyghur participation in the China-Eurasia Expo would enrich the Uyghur community and greatly contribute to the projection of Chinese economic, as well as cultural, power in Central Asia.
Chinese officials should re-examine the Ningxia business model, which was endorsed by the Beijing government, and, ironically, initiated by a Ningxia government previously suspicious of Islam and Muslims. The success of the China-Arab States Expo proves that cultural tolerance and economic prosperity can be interconnected. And that, in the end, Islam turned out to be a selling point.
Ningxia and Xinjiang, Eurasian stops along the ancient Silk Road, should both be tied to the country's strategic plan for the restoration of this historic trading route. (a long-range project the Chinese president Xi Jinping formally announced during his visit to Kazakhstan in early September 2013).
China is also promoting another project - the Trans-Asian Railway, or Eurasian Land Bridge, that would strengthen China's economic ties with the West by connecting Asia and Central Asia with Europe.
What is lacking in both these initiatives, and China's broader business strategy, is an acknowledgement by the leadership that there could be positive benefits to come out of the Uyghurs' historical, ethnic, cultural, and religious connections with Central Asia and their religious connections with the broader Muslim world. And that the Uyghurs could be seen as a source of peace and prosperity, as opposed to instability.
Yu Zhengsheng said the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region lies at the crossroads between China and the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Europe, and that it should play a more important role in Sino-Arab cooperation.
If the China-Arab Expo can bridge differences between China and the Arab and Muslim countries it does business with, and achieve prosperity for all, then there's no reason to exclude Uyghur participation in the China-Eurasia Expo, Silk Road project, and China's broader economic outreach to Muslim countries.
It can only increase China's prosperity and improve China's relations with Uyghur Muslims as well as the Muslim World