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September 13, 2017

Chinese Muslims - A key part of China’s new silk roads

By Francois Napoleon, originally published in Egypt Today Magazine on September 1, 2017.

Ding Mengyuan feels at ease in Cairo’s Abbasiya district. The 34-year-old Chinese translator, who speaks fluent Arabic, says his cultural and religious background as a Muslim makes it easier for him to integrate with local residents, making him a valuable asset for the Chinese state-owned company where he works.

Indeed, it was first the alluring prospects of a better job and a higher salary that led Ding to Egypt in 2010, soon after his graduation. The young Chinese Muslim soon realized his Islamic heritage could serve as a springboard to further develop his career abroad. “The people of my community are everywhere to be found here. Wherever there is a Chinese company operating in Egypt or the Middle East, you can be sure Chinese Muslims are part of it, building relations with local people and making sure everything runs smoothly with local officials,” says Ding.

Ding belongs to the Hui ethnic minority, China’s largest Muslim minority group with a population of 10.5 million, according to China’s 2012 population census. Hui people are believed to be the direct descendants of Silk Road traders who used to transport goods like silk, gems and spices between China and the West and allowed for cultural exchange like manuscripts, artworks and knowledge.

With one foot in each culture, Chinese Muslims were always the best positioned to catch opportunities along the ancient trade routes. Today, these distant descendants of Silk Road travelers are reclaiming their traditional role as cultural and commercial middlemen along these ancient and now-reborn Silk Roads.

Struggling with an economic slowdown, China has pinned its hopes for its future growth on the Belt and Road Initiative—a vast international network of transport and trade infrastructure launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping. Young Chinese Muslims like Ding are a key component of this state-sponsored project and one could argue that the success of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative will depend in large part on the work of people like Ding who travel, operate and directly engage with local communities along these routes.


New opportunities, old routes

Since the 1980s, Chinese Muslims like Ding have increasingly been employed as translators and “cultural experts” in Chinese construction and investment projects in Arabic-speaking and Islamic countries, writes scholar Frauke Drewes from Münster University in an essay titled “Chinese Muslims going global: The role of Islam in current Sino-Arab relations.”

Egypt is no exception, and over time, these growing exchanges between the two countries led to a small Chinese Muslim community taking root in Cairo. There are around 20,000 Chinese in Egypt, including over 10,000 in Cairo, according to Arab West Report. The number is growing with the rise of China as the region’s main economic partner. Mini “China towns” have appeared in Cairo, most visibly on Ahmed Saeed Street in Abbasiya or in Nasr City’s Eight District, encouraged and fueled by China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Among those who have come to settle in Cairo encouraged by the initiative is Hong Jun, a young Muslim from Yinchuan, capital city of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. “I always saw studying Arabic as a means of communication, a way to build relationships, but never as a profession,” says Hong, who studied for a year at Al-Azhar University in Cairo before finding work at a Chinese state-owned company based in the region. Although working conditions are difficult, often involving long stints away from loved ones in remote areas, these are offset by higher wages—on average four times higher than for the same job in China, Hong estimates.


China’s growing footprint

Since bilateral ties were elevated to the level of “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2014, mutual trade and investment between Egypt and China have kept growing. The volume of trade between the two reached $11.3 billion in 2016, making Egypt China’s third biggest trade partner on the African continent, according to Xinhua News Agency.

“The number of Chinese companies operating in Egypt increased from 30 in 2014 to more than 100 at the present,” says Han Bing, Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs with the Chinese Embassy in Cairo.

But what is really key in this new strategic partnership is the central position of Cairo in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And nowhere is China’s growing footprint more visible than in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, where China has become the number one investor, according to Ahmed Darwish, Chairman of the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone). China’s TEDA conglomerate is one of the oldest and largest industrial developers in the Ain Sokhna district of the Suez Canal Corridor, east of the capital Cairo.

“Currently, the Chinese investments are the largest. We highly appreciate the earnestness of our Chinese partners. They were among the first to act as an industrial developer in the zone. TEDA has put in place the micro-infrastructure and is re-promoting the land. They are doing an excellent job,” says Darwish.

Until now, TEDA has attracted 68 Chinese enterprises, including fiberglass giant Jushi, in the zone, whose area is currently being extended to 7.23 square kilometers. Investments are said to bring benefits to both parties on a “win-win” basis, with 97 percent of the zone’s employees being local Egyptians.

Egypt’s core role in Beijing’s global infrastructure project has been confirmed at the highest level of the state. In April, Cairo hosted the first Belt and Road Industrial and Commercial Conference, which discussed trade and economic cooperation among the Belt and Road countries. An Egyptian delegation also took part in Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on May 14-15.

“Egypt supports the Chinese president’s initiative to revive the Silk Road, and is keen on supporting such a positive initiative that seeks to achieve cooperation and interests of peoples, bearing in mind that Egypt can be a main focal point for the implementation of this initiative through the Suez Canal projects,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Cairo-based Chinese journalists in spring.


A bumpy road ahead

Several Chinese government agencies have sought in recent years to take advantage of this trend. Abandoning their traditional mistrust of religion, Communist Party elites in Chinese regions with a strong Muslim presence have managed to turn this “cultural advantage” into a pillar of local economic policies.

A segment where this has been most effective is the halal food industry, where prospects for cooperation between China and Egypt are plentiful. Egypt’s halal food market alone is valued at $95 million. The Chinese Muslim-minority region of Ningxia has already established a liaison office in Cairo, in addition to signing a memorandum of understanding on the mutual recognition of the two sides’ respective halal certification standards.

“The halal food industry has good prospects for development, thanks in part to the Hui people, who are both our source of expertise and our main consumer base,” says Ma Bin, director of the Ningxia Halal Food Certification and International Trade Center, an organization involved in food product certification. Since its establishment in 2008, the center has accredited more than 100 Chinese companies, allowing them to display the halal symbol indicating their products are suitable for consumption for Muslims, a prerequisite for export to Egypt.

Yet, despite the undeniable enthusiasm of these pioneers, the new Silk Roads are filled with challenges. While some in Egypt are keen to take advantages of this new trade channel with China, it does not mean that Arab customers are willing to accept anything merely on the basis of a religious affinity.

According to Ma, one of the major problems still hindering exports of local products is that Egyptian consumers are simply unaware that China itself is home to a Muslim minority of approximately 20 million people who have been living there for centuries, and therefore are reluctant to buy Chinese products labeled as “halal.”

Ma says members of the Hui minority can play a role in resolving this lack of trust by spreading awareness about China’s thriving Islamic community. “The fact that Chinese Muslims know the culture and language, and that they are themselves consumers of halal food products, reassures our customers about the reliability of our certificate,” he says.

“It is obviously easier for us to adapt and get along with Egyptians because of our common religion,” says Mu Lijun, a master’s student at Al-Azhar University who plans to enter the halal industry after graduating.


Support from the establishment

Putting forward Chinese Muslims to advance the interests of the Chinese state is nothing new. In fact, it has been a quasi-official policy of Beijing many times over the years. Especially since 1981, with the economic opening of China, Chinese Islam was once again seen as a way for Beijing to win the favors of Muslim countries.

“Both China and the Arab countries have obviously adopted a pragmatic attitude in following their own interests while involving the Chinese Muslims. For the Chinese Muslims themselves, this means more freedom and enhanced economic opportunities as well as an increase in political influence and political rights in their home country,” writes Drewes.

This policy is also openly supported by most Muslim clerics in China, who argue that faith can not only boost, but assist the country’s economic and diplomatic ambitions abroad.

“By becoming effective mediators between China and the Muslim world, young Chinese Muslims are promoting a positive and constructive image of their religion within Chinese society, which tends to increase tolerance and social harmony. Ultimately, this benefits society as a whole,” says Ding Wenjian, an imam in Beijing.

Ding, who graduated from the China Islamic Institute in Beijing in 2004 before joining Beijing’s Niujie Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in China, devotes a significant portion of his time to educating Chinese Muslim youth on the basic teachings of Islam, emphasizing the positive role faith can play for their individual growth, as well as for China’s development.

“By learning about their faith, Chinese Muslim youth can significantly support the development of their country and become an essential part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is easier for them to relate to other Muslims and Arab people, as they speak a common language and share the same religion,” he says. “This is especially useful in making connections, because it builds trust between people, and thus facilitates trade.”

Ding insists on the fact that religion can unlock untapped potential for trade and cultural exchanges, bringing significant benefits which extend beyond the Chinese Islamic community. Young Hui people are thus promoting a positive and constructive image of their religion within China, which tends to increase tolerance and social harmony. Ultimately, Ding says, “this benefits society as a whole.”

This article was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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