Mohammed Yussuf picks up a giant onion and smiles as he admires it. The vegetable on display at a trade fair here pleases him not only because of its proportions; the onion's main virtue in his eyes is that it is halal, acceptable on Muslim dining tables.
Mr. Yussuf, a Malaysian businessman, makes a tidy profit importing halal foods from this remote corner of northwestern China. He's the type of foreign trader this Muslim region hopes to attract more of, in its bid to grab a slice of the multibillion dollar global Islamic food business.
"One-third of our population is Hui," says Ma Yingqiu, this city's deputy mayor, referring to the Muslim ethnic minority who live in the Autonomous Region of Ningxia. "They have the same habits as people in Islamic countries. They are this region's competitive advantage."
As the local government strives to forge new economic ties with Middle Eastern and other Muslim nations, citizens of this impoverished part of China bordering the Gobi Desert are rediscovering Islam. Emerging from centuries of religious isolation, Ningxia Muslims are developing "an international sense of community," says Ma Ping, head of the Institute of the Hui and Islam here.
While that might once have unnerved the Chinese government, always uneasy about divided loyalties, Ningxia's desperate economic straits – it is the country's third poorest province – have prompted a rethink, says Professor Ma.
"Stability used to be the top priority here, but now it is development," he says. "What the government wants most is money."
It was in search of money that the Ningxia government last week held the third annual International Halal Food and Muslim Commodities Trade Fair, which closed here over the weekend. "This fair is Ningxia's chance to march into the world," provincial governor Wang Zhengwei proclaimed at the opening ceremony.
For four days, local producers manned stands offering meats and vegetables, which Hui Muslims consider halal if they don't use manure made from human or animal excrement to grow them. Vendors also sold clothes, ceramics, and other goods aimed at Muslim consumers.
Yussuf was one of the few foreign buyers at the fair, however, and his supplier, Ma Shengke, seemed to be one of only a handful of success stories so far in Ningxia's efforts to break into the competitive Islamic food market.
Most producers are having difficulty carving out a niche, a challenge to all newcomers but one that is heightened for Ningxia's would-be exporters by the recent rise in the value of the Chinese currency, which makes their goods more expensive on world markets.
"We have lost our price advantage, so the solution is to produce better quality meat," says Zhang Hongen, a local sheep farmer. "We need to impose standards."
Ningxia's halal food industry is worth nearly $700 million a year, according to government statistics, but less than 3 percent of its output is sold abroad, Ma Yingqiu points out. "We are still at the beginning of this and we have to work on it," the deputy mayor acknowledges. "But since we are starting from such a small base, it should be easy to grow fast."
Connecting with Islam
Ningxia has, nonetheless, managed to attract some attention from the Arab world, whence came the Muslim traders who introduced Islam into China more than 1,000 years ago. Today's 10 million Hui people are descended from those merchants.
The Tunisian embassy, for example, sent a team to the fair in search of Muslim tourists, while the Saudi Arabian stand offered dates and Chinese versions of the Koran.
The Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank funded the construction of Ningxia's Islamic Scripture College and an Arabic language school, and China's policy of opening to the world has fostered other links. Ten thousand Chinese Muslims went on the hajj to Mecca last year, a record number. Others visit the Middle East for business or tourism, and some 250 religious students leave China each year to study in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Interest in Islam is clearly rising in Ningxia. New mosques are under construction (there are now 3,700 licensed mosques in the province, twice the number of a few decades ago), but even so the Scripture College is turning out imams, known locally as ahongs, faster than mosques can employ them.
Ordinary Muslims are turning in greater numbers to traditional Islamic dress, say local residents. "More and more people are wearing headgear, and more and more people are taking religious practice seriously," says Shami Ahmed, an Indian Muslim who came here five years ago to teach English. "Maybe it's because more are going on the hajj and see Muslims outside."
Ningxia's closer links with the rest of the Islamic world are a blessing for Wali Younla, an ahong at Yinchuan's main mosque. "Thanks to these trade relations more and more people get to know Islam," he says. "That's a good thing for religion and for society."
The Chinese government keeps a close eye on these developments, though. Mosques must be licensed, foreign imams are not allowed to preach in them, and youngsters are not allowed to pray in mosques.
"The government supports economic links, which it hopes will increase, but has a cautious attitude to cultural and religious links," with the Middle East explains Professor Ma. For the sake of trade, however, "they have put their concerns on the backburner," he believes. "The Ningxia authorities are confident they can minimize negative cultural influences and maximize economic influences."
Loose religious adherence
There are few signs that stricter strains of Islam, as practiced in parts of the Arab world, are having much impact on life in Ningxia at the moment. Female ahongs continue to flourish in a Hui tradition of women-only mosques where women lead the prayers, which would horrify mainstream Middle Eastern Muslims. Ramadan, the holy fasting month, does not appear to be widely observed.
Last Wednesday, as a few dozen men in white skullcaps filed out of the Xihuan mosque after noon prayers, the Jinxiuyuan Halal Sheep Entrails restaurant across the street was doing a roaring lunchtime trade in defiance of religious regulations.
"We Hui people keep our lifestyle and our religion and our beliefs, but we have to lead our normal lives," says Ms. Ma, the deputy mayor. "We practice our religion according to local conditions."