Yinchuan (China): The praying and slaughtering begin every
morning at sunrise. “Allahu Akbar” intones the imam over each cow
before it is strung up by its hooves and quartered.
This scene and other religious and ethnic practices set China’s
Muslim minorities apart from the rest of the population, and the
differences frequently led to clashes with the government in the
But now, the country’s leaders are
embracing the large Muslim population in this remote and
relatively undeveloped city in the northwestern province of
Ningxia, hoping that frozen packs of halal meat produced here can
help build economic bridges with the Middle East, according to a
report in Washington Post.
With the U.S. and European economies still recovering, the Arab
world is an increasingly enticing market for Chinese exports and a
potential source of investors for Chinese projects.
Middle Eastern countries are also
some of the closest positioned to help develop China’s western
provinces, which have fallen far behind its flourishing eastern
coastal cities during the past three decades of economic boom.
Perhaps most important, on a strategic level, China wants to
protect and strengthen its access to the Middle East’s oil and
energy resources, which are fueling the country’s economic growth.
“The short-term goal of increasing halal meat going to Arab
countries is to build up our local economy and workforce,” said
one provincial official here, speaking on the condition of
anonymity to discuss the strategy of central authorities.
“But the real goal is to introduce
the Arab world to us and get them comfortable with the idea of
building up their relations and investment in China. . . . And
energy is not the only reason behind it, but it is a big one", he
China’s government has thrown
considerable diplomatic and political resources during the past
five years into building up Middle East ties. Lavish conferences
have been sponsored across the country, ethnic festivals held to
celebrate Chinese Muslims’ heritage, and trade delegations sent
out from both sides, including two visits to Saudi Arabia by
outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The most recent large-scale event — an economic forum that
included high-level dignitaries from China and the United Arab
Emirates — took place this fall in Yinchuan, the capital of
In private conversations on the
sidelines, Chinese officials described an overall strategy of
outreach to the Middle East that was laid out in broad terms by
central authorities, then planned and executed in more detail by
The efforts appear to have produced
some positive results. Last year, Sino-Arab trade increased by 35
percent to $196 billion, according to Chinese officials, and in
the first half of this year, trade rose 22 percent over the same
period in 2011, to $111.8 billion.
The Sino-Arab trade remains
dominated by oil, but Chinese exports such as textiles and home
appliances have made a strong showing, according to limited data
released by Chinese officials.
The decision by central authorities to make Ningxia a focal point
for bridge-building efforts aimed at the Middle East gave local
business leaders a much-needed boost of hope. It is hard to find a
province more in need of development.
A desert region largely left behind
during China’s economic boom, Ningxia has the country’s
third-smallest gross domestic product and few exports that it can
rely on besides a fruit called wolfberry.
One thing it does have in abundance,
however, are Muslims. Two million members of the predominantly
Muslim ethnic minority called Hui live here, making up a third of
the province’s population.
The Hui are thought to be
descendants of Arab and Persian traders going back to the ancient
days of the Silk Road. Local officials are starting small, with
exports of such products as halal meat.
But there are ambitious — and
perhaps overly optimistic — plans to eventually turn the province
into a gleaming financial hub for trade with the Arab world.
At the Yinshun company’s slaughterhouse and meat factory on the
outskirts of town, Vice General Manager Yang Li, an ethnic Hui,
described the company’s goals as largely profit-driven but also
patriotic and cultural.
Almost half the staff are Hui, and
the company follows strict Islamic rules about what their cows and
sheep eat and drink, when slaughter can be performed and under
The factory, which is two years old,
has hosted high-level dignitaries from Muslim countries, including
the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.
But there have been some obstacles
to increasing its exports, chief among them getting its halal meat
certified under the byzantine and often-protectionist national
laws of many Arab states.
Yinshun, for instance, shipped 125
tons of halal meat last year to the Middle East, but it is in
pursuit of deals that could increase that figure more than 10
times over, officials said.
Although Chinese officials have talked about their hope to
diversify trade with the region, the lion’s share of Sino-Arab
trade still consists of oil. Similarly, the long-term goal of
luring investors from the Middle East has been slow to
materialize, several officials from both sides acknowledged.
“It’s true there’s still not much
investment coming from Arabic countries,” said Nazha Aschenbrenner,
director of a trade initiative created by the UAE’s Ministry of
Highlighting the shared Muslim
culture and religion in places such as Ningxia helps, she said.
But, ultimately, business decisions come down to money.