Islam With Chinese Characteristics

China's bold but chimerical quest for soft power in the Islamic world

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A Chinese government official at the Sino-Arab cooperation forum in Beijing, in front of an Arabic sign reading "cooperation" / AP

Arriving at a Guangzhou construction site on assignment for a Chinese newspaper in the summer of 2010, I was surprised to find a ruby-red mosque that looked more like a palatial Buddhist pagoda than anything I'd seen in the Middle East. Islam has deep roots in Chinese history, and is believed to have arrived in China with Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, the Prophet Mohamed's uncle, whom locals say was entombed in 664 AD in a dimly lit, musky hut not far from the newly constructed Chinese mosque.

The local government, devoted to the secular principle of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics that guides today's China, contributed 15 million yuan ($2.4 million), roughly 90 percent of the overall building costs for the mosque, according to Muslim community figures.

An imam charged with collecting donations from the region's Muslims for the rest of the construction fees told me the mosque was being built for Ramadan, but a Chinese official in the Guangzhou Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau intimated that the goal of the mosque was to "welcome China's Muslim partners at the Asian Games."

Of the 45 participating nations at the Games, more than half were predominantly Muslim, including nations like Khazakstan that fuel China's burgeoning economy with its vast reserves of oil, gas, and minerals. Some 30 percent of the food served at the Games was certified Halal.

Guangzhou's new Waqqas Mosque is one of many of China's recent forays into Islamic infrastructure -- a market that promises to earn Beijing as much in soft power with the resource-rich Muslim world as it does contract revenues.

China has even left its mark on Mecca. Early last year, the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation put the finishing touches on the Mecca Light Rail, a metro linking Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest cities in Saudi Arabia, allowing pious Muslims to perform the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage in air-conditioned comfort.

Most recently, Algerian authorities granted a coveted contract to build the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the latest of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's extravagant infrastructure projects, to the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSEC), a national enterprise with a broad portfolio of infrastructure projects in the developing world.

The mosque will be the third largest in the world, after those in Mecca and Medina, spanning some 400,000 square meters. And in a kind of my minaret is bigger than your minaret to Algeria's perennial adversary, Morocco, the mosque will tower at 300 meters, 90 more than Casablanca's King Hassan II Mosque.

Beating out construction firms from Algeria and Lebanon for the contract late last year, CSEC promised to complete the massive project in only four years for an astounding 109 billion Algerian dinars, or $1.5 billion.

When news of the contract first broke on, the Web site for Algeria's leading independent newspaper, commenters lambasted the project, exclaiming in French that they'd rather anyone build the mosque than the "godless Chinese."

"Even an Israeli company would be better," one commenter wrote, "At least they believe in God."

But not everyone agrees.

"Religion doesn't and shouldn't interfere in the business world, I think that the Chinese company got the bid because it presented and justified the competitiveness of its performance," said Aziz Nafa, an Algerian economist specializing in developmental studies. The Algerian firm's proposal was $600,000,000 higher than the winning Chinese bid.

China has engaged in and often won a number of such cutthroat races to bring Islam to Muslims in Algeria and across the Muslim world. Analysts say that, after September 11, 2001, Islamic infrastructure projects have seen little competition from the United States.

"There is no question that China has reached out to Muslim-majority countries over the past ten years [since 9/11]," said Haris Tarin, director of the Washington D.C. office of Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a group advocating against Islamophobia in American society.

China's push to provide its international business partners with Islamic infrastructure, Tarin said, is part of a larger strategy to win over the Muslim world. Although many foreign Muslim individuals continue to do business with the United States, America has lost much of its soft power and economic discourse with the governments of many Muslim-majority nations over the past decade, leaving China an opening.

"China sees that strain. The EU, Brazil, and China will have the upper-hand with interests in Muslim-majority countries. We've got to deal with the reality and the dynamic changes in those countries," Tarin said, referring to such changes as the emergence of Islamist parties in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt.

Chinese business and political leaders will sometimes admit that the People's Republic has sopped up U.S. business over the past decade, when U.S. foreign policy alienated much of the Muslim world and domestic changes made it exceedingly difficult for non-American Muslims to obtain U.S. working visas.

"After 9/11, a large bulk of Arab investment and business turned away from the U.S. and toward India and China," said Hussein Ma Hongjian, the Muslim Chinese President of the China-Arab Council for Investment Promotion. "America lost a large part of its Arab business."

In 2001, Beijing founded The Chinese-Arab Friendship Association to promote political and economic exchanges between China and 22 Arab states.

Asked whether he thought Beijing's recent movement to build Islamic infrastructure represented a pragmatic slip in secular socialist values, the Friendship Association's Deputy Secretary General Zhang Yue said that China in no way opposes any Islamic religious activity and, in a later email, replied with a quote from Confucius:

有朋自远方来不亦乐乎,君子和而不同 ~ How happy we are to meet friends from afar. Noble gentlemen seek harmony but aren't afraid of diversity.

Pluralism and tolerance may be the official Chinese policy externally, but there have been numerous reports of restrictions against the practice of Islam internally, particularly in the restive province of Xinjiang, where many Muslims live.

Still, Beijing politicos like Zhang often seem keen to embrace the cultural nuances of their international Muslim business partners.

In a speech to the Sino-Arab business community at an event late last month, Zhang compared heping, the Chinese wording for the Islamic concept of peace and submission, to hexie, Beijing's oft-uttered catchphrase for a harmonious, law-abiding society.

Zhang is widely travelled in the Arab world and speaks fluent Arabic, as does most of his staff. When I met Vice Minister of Commerce Wei Jianguo at a dinner to promote Sino-African economic exchanges, he addressed me in a very lightly accented Koranic Arabic and explained that he had studied abroad in Tunisia. Wei, who is the secretary general of China's Center for International Economic Exchanges, also speaks French, which is frequently used by political and business elites in North and West Africa.

Also present at the dinner were ambassadors and attachés from the now-defunct pre-revolutionary governments of Tunisia and Libya, dining on a fine, 100% halal multi-course dinner, all while protests raged on back home.

Beijing has gotten so very good at Islamic diplomacy that everything from traditional Muslim headdresses to prayer beads and rugs are available for purchase on China's Ministry of Foreign Commerce Web site. These products are mainly manufactured at Chinese-owned factories in Yiwu, an industrial town in Zhejiang Province that has become a hub of Arab and Muslim commerce in the People's Republic.

The U.S. may have a tough time catching up with China's new crop of Islamophiles, especially given the GOP candidates' recent gaffes on Chinese affairs. It seems that China, for which ideology is at once all-important and ever-flexible, could become better skilled at reaching out to certain foreign cultures than the United States, which has spent so much of the post-Cold War era with a monopoly on hard as well as soft power.

Still, American Muslims like Tarin advise U.S. officials to observe the importance of dynamism and building soft power in Muslim-majority nations.

"I generally tell folks in government, if we don't know how to engage some of the different tendencies in the Middle East -- Islamist groups rising -- if we don't know how to engage them and can't get beyond the national security conversation, there are powers that want to work past that conversation," Tarin said.

"But we can't build mosques and metros like that," he said, acknowledging that U.S. soft power works differently than China's, and is not always quite as direct. "We make investments in civil society."

Despite China's strong foray into the world of Islamic infrastructural projects, Sino-Muslim relations will still have to overcome a past tarnished by a "win-win" in corruption as well as non-payment of wages and construction fees. And China is still figuring out how to maneuver lethargic bureaucracies and fickle monarchies. The China Railroad Construction Company expected to book losses of up to $623 million earlier this year after the Saudi authorities in charge of the Mecca Light Rail requested, and then failed to pay for, some mid-construction changes.

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Algeria's Chinese-built East-West Highway / CRCC

But Chinese state-owned companies like CRCC aren't always the victim.

The Grand Mosque in Algiers won't be the first so-called "challenge of the century" China has helped Algerian President Bouteflika construct. CRCC and Citic, another Chinese national company, are still under scrutiny from the Algerian public for allegations of corruption and non-payment of wages in the construction of the East-West Highway, the largest highway in Africa and the grandest of Bouteflika's showpieces.

The prospects for a more favorable climate with CSEC, the Chinese company charged with the ongoing mosque project, could be difficult. The World Bank blacklisted the CSEC from receiving loans between 2003 and 2006, after it investigated allegations of contract "bid-rigging," according to the Wall Street Journal.

Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, charged with the realization of Algiers' Grand Mosque, was cheerful and friendly when I called, but hung up immediately after he was asked to comment on his contract with CSEC. He failed to pick up subsequent calls.