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How China is Working to Win Over the Muslim World

Ever since the Iraq invasion and the subsequent decline of America’s economic and political influence, political scientists have initiated a critical conversation about the international order, arguing that China could potentially replace the United States as the world power.

This contentious topic has engendered numerous debates, op-eds, and academic papers all of which explore various aspects of the discussion, including China’s rapid economic growth, it’s geopolitical influence in Africa, the United States’ immense defense budget, and it’s purportedly democratic norms that are arguably more suitable in an increasingly liberal and capitalistic world economy.

Yet, absent from the salient discussion is how China, unlike the United States, is shrewdly catering to the Muslim world, particularly Muslims emerging from affluent Gulf states, by constructing a theme park that celebrates Muslims, and by integrating Arabic as a second language in its schools to improve its relationship with the Middle East.

In 2005, the Hui Culture Park, a lavish theme park that showcases the history and culture of Chinese Muslims, opened in Yinchuan, the capital of an autonomous region named Ningxia. The elaborate park is an imposing structure that resembles the Taj Mahal and contains Arabic calligraphy, evoking the design of many celebrated mosques around the world.

It features a nighttime pageant inspired by Middle Eastern folklore, titled “A Dream Back Into Tales from The Thousand and One Nights.” The park’s officials didn’t just stop there, they spent nearly $30 million on a light show and dance performance that celebrates Muslim and Arab culture.

Since it’s opening, Ningxia’s officials continue to spend millions on the park to fulfill their vision of building a global tourist destination that attracts Muslims from across the globe. According to Ningxia’s tourism bureau, the Hui Culture park serves as a “Sino-Arab cultural bridge” by emphasizing shared Sino-Arab history and culture.

Yinchuan has been a popular destination on itineraries of governmental officials, think tank conferences, and ordinary tourism. It’s situated roughly 600 miles west of Beijing and is home to one of China’s largest Muslim minorities, the Hui, who make up roughly 10 million of China’s population. The city is undergoing a cultural makeover costing nearly $3.5 billion to reflect its ambitious goal of building a World Muslim City.

Among its efforts, Chinese officials have changed Yinchuan’s street signs to include Arabic, its international airport is undergoing massive construction to accommodate direct flights from Muslim-majority cities, and private Arabic schools have opened to meet demands. In May 2016, Emirates airline started sending direct flights from Dubai to Yinchuan. Direct flights will also emerge from Jordan and Malaysia later in the year.

Because of this expected influx of Arabs, Arabic interpreters are in high demand in Ningxia, where businessmen and women travel from the Middle East to do trade and to buy religious items like beads and Quranic audio players, which are all unsurprisingly produced in China. As a result of this international trade and demand for Arabic speakers, numerous private Arabic schools have appeared in Ningxia in addition to existing Arabic schools in mosques. According to official estimates reported by Foreign Policy, there are currently 3,000 students in Ningxia studying Arabic.

Despite China’s extravagant efforts, they aren’t immune from criticism regarding the treatment–or rather their mistreating–of Muslims. Rather, China has been under public scrutiny for its persecution of Uighurs, the Turkic-speaking Chinese Muslims. Last Ramadan, Chinese officials in Ningxia allegedly banned Uighurs from fasting. As a result, violent protests erupted in Turkey demanding rights for Uighurs.

Critics of Beijing claim that Chinese officials are only implementing these opulent measures to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. From an economic perspective, it is in Beijing’s interest to cultivate stable relationships with Middle Eastern states because of its One Belt One Road Initiative, a plan that seeks to connect China to the heart of Europe through the Middle East for trade and transportation. Thus, China is shrewdly glamorizing Islam to develop crucial economic and diplomatic ties essential for its growth.

In a comprehensive essay for Foreign Policy, Kyle Haddad-Fonda explains the political undertones of Yinchuan’s expensive makeover, noting that Beijing wishes to offer an alternative perception of its treatment towards Muslims by creating a state approved version of Chinese Islam in Yinchuan that it can showcase to dignitaries.

Fonda meticulously discerns the design of the Hui Culture Park, down to the misspelled signs and plaques. He notes the lack of Arab tourists in the park, which was, after all, constructed to bridge the gap between China and the Middle East by displaying the breadth of Islam. He articulates that Arabs have responded to the million dollar park only with “tepid enthusiasm.” Fonda’s realization, although seemingly insignificant, manifests the ethnic ruptures across Muslim communities, making the construction of this city and park evermore critical in a world replete with cultural and religious divisions.

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