World Bulletin / News Desk
The Hui Chinese are an ethnic Muslim minority, granted significant autonmy and are permitted by the Chinese government to follow their region. Islam, in there region is thriving.
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous region is where the Silk Road once cut through, luring Muslim traders from as far as Africa, Asia and Persia. Merchants traded here and eventually settled, planting the seeds of Islam in the heart of China. About half the country's 20 million Muslims are from the Hui ethnic group.
14 year old Mao Balong wears a goofy smile as he runs up and down the restaurants cramped aisle, taking orders and delivering bowls of noodles, taking money and returning change, taking dirty dished and returning with a cloth to wipe down the tables.The restaurant is a family business through and through, funded by family savings and operated by everyone. Baolong and his 19-year-old sister Mao Fangfang act as the wait staff, while their mother and father chop, fry, knead and boil the day’s offerings. A second sister, Yufang, works at a cousin’s restaurant nearby, but comes back after midnight to help close up.
Baolong and his family came to Beijing from their hometown in Gansu province, 900 miles to the west and rural and rugged corridor that once hosted Silk Road traders shuttling spices and religion between China, Central Asia and Europe. But today, interior provinces like Gansu pale in comparison with cosmopolitan coastal regions. Members of the Mao family have been traversing the country in search of work for decades, as have most of the 260 million migrant workers in China. The children’s father left home at the age of 15, traveling to neighboring provinces on construction jobs. Their mother was on the move at a young age as well, staying home in Gansu mainly around the years her children were born.
The Mao family is part of China’s Hui ethnic minority -- Muslims who trace some of their ancestry to Persian and Arab traders on the Silk Road. The Hui Chinese are an ethnic Muslim minority, granted significant autonmy in the Ningxia Hui region and are permitted by the Chinese government to follow their religion. Merchants traded here and eventually settled, planting the seeds of Islam in the heart of China. Islam, in theire region is thriving.
About half the country's 20 million Muslims are from the Hui ethnic group.While scrupulous in their avoidance of pork and alcohol, the family does bend certain religious dictates to the realities of running a business. They serve beer to their customers, and opportunities for prayer are scarce.
“We should be praying five times a day,” lamented Baolong’s father. “There’s just no time.”
The restaurant’s patrons are primarily men who work with their hands: construction crews, delivery men and self-employed mechanics. Menu offerings are an Atkins adherent’s nightmare and a working man’s dream: large bowls of noodles and piles of white rice sprinkled with fried meat and vegetables. As the midday crowd subsides, Baolong buries himself in cell phone games and Fangfang walks the one block back to the 12-by-12 room she shares with her brother. At night, both parents sleep on a cot nestled between the tables and the kitchen, and Baolong’s mother uses the afternoon lull to nap there while her husband and son handle any customers.
A Silicon Valley denizen might describe the Mao family as “serial entrepreneurs.” They’ve opened and closed about half a dozen restaurants in different cities. The current location is their third in Beijing. The previous two were bulldozed to make way for new construction, and this one will almost certainly meet the same fate.
“They say the neighborhood is gonna get torn down,” Baolong says. “If not this year, then next year. If not next year, then the year after that.”When the bulldozers reach the Maos' latest restaurant, the family will likely pick up stakes and move to another location on the margins of Beijing society.
'Do Black people come from America?'
Working in the restaurant means the Mao children don't have to worry about the punishing preparation for China’s college entrance exam. But they also lose any chance to hang out with kids outside their own family. Baolong had one friend in Beijing, the son of a local street sweeper, but the boy has now returned to his home village. Given a day off, Baolong says he would love to visit the Beijing zoo.
The world outside these walls filters in by way of the always-on television and talkative customers.
Those are narrow channels, and glimpses of far-off countries produce more questions than answers.
“Do black people come from America?” one member of the family wants to know.
“Are American cartoons in English or Chinese?”
“So Americans don’t really believe in any religions, right?”
Different cultures, different religions, all harmonious
The different cultures have merged in this place harmoniously,” says Ma Zhang Wen, the imam of Xinhua Mosque. Ma, 38, has been an imam for the last 15 years in Yinchuan, Ningxia’s capital, about 1,300 kilometres northwest of Beijing. “The government gives people a religion-training program to develop Islam. The Han respect us, and we respect them, too,” Ma says.
According to official data, there are 6.3 million people in Ningxia, and 2.2 million are Hui.
The destitute region has faced a difficult periods but has seen a revival in recent years. Islam has helped rejuvenate the economy, and Ningxia has developed economic ties to Arab and Muslim countries.
According to government statistics, the Nigxia halal food industry is worth $700million a year and the GDP of the region was US$33bn in 2011, an annual increase of 12 per cent.
“Peoples’ lives in Ningxia are getting better and better. We don’t feel discrimination or inequality,” says the imam Ma.
In stark constrast, the Muslim Uighurs face strict government repression in far-western Xinjiang province, the Uighurs have not been able to assimilate – this is mainly due to the language differences, with the Uighurs speaking their own Turkic dialect which has an Arabic script whilst the Hui speak Mandarin.
Others say the Uighurs strong desire for autonomy explains the difference in treatment. “Some Uighurs in Xinjiang are extremists and they want to separate from China,” says Bao Hongbiao, a researcher at the Ningxia Academy of Social Sciences. “In the case of Ningxia's Hui people, they do not have conflicts with other groups, and they live in harmony with Han and other Chinese people.” Others highlight government’s policy of offering incentives for Han Chinese to migrate west as a main cause of friction.
Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, says the government routinely blocks Uighurs from practicing Islam – a deliberate attempt, he says, to prevent them from practisting their religion or face charges of extremism, and eventually “all these measures further alienate the Uighurs”.
In 2009 riots erupted in Urumqi, leaving 200 Han and Uighurs dead – thousands had marched demanding a government investigation where earlier a brawl between Han and Uigurs resulted in the death of 2 Uighurs. Although the Chinese government supports Ningxia Muslim region, it has stood against the Uighurs banning under 18's from practising their religion. There is also a ban on celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, and during the holy month of Ramadan, notices were put up banning people from fasting. In some parts of Xinjiang, Uighurs risk fines or detention for wearing veils or growing beards.
Amnesty International researcher Corinna-Barbara Francis says the situation continues to deteriorate “very badly” in Xinjiang.
China’s crackdown on violence in Xinjiang, which authorities have linked to extremism and terrorism, is driving Uighurs to come across the long, shared border with Kazakhstan where the Uighurs have “quite a balanced position” with other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, said Konstantin Syroezhkin, chief research fellow of the state-sponsored Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies.
“They’re not restricted here,” Syroezhkin said. “There are around 260,000 Uighurs living in the country and they’re fully assimilated in the Kazakh society. Kazakhstan doesn’t support a policy of ethnic separatism.”
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