A visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to China in mid-March marks China’s increasing involvement in the Middle East. In recent decades, China has moved toward superpower status, building economic alliances and making investments around the world.
A few years ago Massoud Hayoun examined the beginnings of a deep Chinese engagement in the Middle East, and the tensions between the new international focus and the Asian giant’s attitudes about pluralism and tolerance at home. Hayoun writes that China began a big push toward involvement in the Arab and Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks. Chinese diplomats contrasted their desire to engage with the Middle East against an image of the United States as Islamophobic and imperialistic.
Between 2005 and 2009, Hayoun writes, China nearly doubled its exports to the Middle East. In 2010 it surpassed the U.S. as the biggest exporter to the region. It’s also become the largest buyer of Middle Eastern oil. As China increased its economic engagement with majority-Muslim nations, it has made gestures toward supporting its Muslim minority at home. Hayoun describes visiting the site of a mosque being built in the city of Guangzhou in 2010, paid for mostly by local officials with some support from Muslim workers in the area. He writes that a Guangzhou official indicated the project was less about the religious needs of the city’s Muslim residents than it was a way “to welcome China’s international Muslim neighbors, including the major exporters of natural gas and oil, like Kazakhstan, to the Asian Games being held in the city that November.”
China has also used its Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a predominantly Muslim area, as the setting for a meeting with Arab state leaders. The visitors could watch traditional ethnic Uighur dancing, eat local halal cuisine, and view exhibits on Chinese Muslim culture.
And yet, even while making these overtures to the Muslim world, the Chinese government has committed human rights violations against its Muslim minorities. One teacher told Hayoun that local authorities had instructed teachers to force-feed their Muslim Uighur students during the Ramadan fast in 2010. And human rights organizations reported that Chinese officials prevented minors from attending mosques with their parents.
China’s checkered reputation sometimes hurts its work in the Middle East. For example, the Chinese-funded Algerian East-West Highway project and Grand Mosque of Algiers came under fire from local press in Algeria. In part, that was a result of reported mismanagement and bounced checks to local subcontractors, but it also reflected larger issues. As one online commentator to an Algerian paper put it, “Can we entrust an atheist enterprise from an atheist state that represses its own Uighur minority in Xinjiang to construct a mosque here in Algeria?”
That’s the kind of question China will face more often as it works to expand its global power.