From Middle East Online
China’s Hajj Diplomacy
These days, relations between China and Saudi Arabia are growing stronger — originally established by “Hajj diplomacy,” a few years after the communists took power in China, notes Alain Gresh.
Middle East Online
Abdul Karim Yaqoub is the young executive director of the Saudi Chinese Business Council, and is at present at Shanghai University, writing a thesis on relations between China and Saudi Arabia. He has Saudi nationality, but is of Chinese origin: In 1949 several hundred Muslim Chinese, fleeing the advance of Mao Zedong’s forces, emigrated to Saudi Arabia rather than Taiwan. Muslim Chinese from East Turkestan, now Xinjiang province, had already fled war in the 1930s to settle in Mecca and Medina.
After the communists took power in Beijing, religion created connections between the countries, through “hajj diplomacy.” At the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955, where the leaders of 29 newly independent nations created the non-aligned movement, crown prince (and future king) Faisal, and the Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai, agreed to allow Chinese Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. A few dozen did so every year until the Cultural Revolution of 1966, whose aim was to eradicate “traditional values,” ended this.
Relations deteriorated further when Riyadh established diplomatic relations with Taipei, and took an active part, in the 1960s and 70s, in the World Anti-Communist League founded by Chiang Kai-shek. (The French fascist movement Ordre Nouveau, the US Heritage Foundation and supporters of the Argentinean dictator Jorge Videla were part of the league.) Saudis of Chinese origin even acted subversively against the People’s Republic.
Yaqoub says that China decided to renew its relations with Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, while the alliance between Beijing and Washington was strengthening, and again it used hajj diplomacy: “The Chinese wanted to kill two birds with one stone: they wanted to show their Muslim population that they were not against religion, and they wanted to get closer to Saudi Arabia. A meeting took place at the North-South summit in Cancun in 1981, between King Fahd and Chinese leaders. ”The hajj was re-established in 1979, but it remained small until 1985, when Beijing took direct charge of organization. China sent an official delegation to Riyadh for the first time, and the number of pilgrims rose from 2,000 to 12,700 in 2009 and 13,500 in 2010. There are now direct flights to Mecca from Beijing, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Yinchuan and Kunming.
For China, the political advantages became obvious during the riots in Xianjian in 2009: Like most Muslim countries, with the exception of Turkey, Saudi Arabia did not condemn the repression, and even its media remained cautious. Ra’ed Krimli, adviser to the Saudi foreign affairs minister Saud Al Faisal, said: “A good Muslim should be a good citizen, whether in China or any other country. We do not interfere in the internal affairs of others, and we don’t want them to interfere in ours. It is a principle we share with Beijing. ”Beijing is worried about the “Muslim question.” There are 20 million Muslims in China according to the official figures, and many more according to Saudi researchers. The two main ethnic groups are the Uighurs, who are Turkic, and the sinicised Hui, the only Chinese minority defined by their religion, who are less rebellious. They are the descendants of Arab traders who settled in the Far East in the trading era of the Silk Road. China uses them as a “bridge”: Last September it organized a Sino-Arab economic forum in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui region, where the majority of Huis live.
China has tackled “extremism” by reinforcing its Muslim legitimacy, and repressing extremist elements. For both, it needs Saudi Arabia, the “guardian of the holy places” of Mecca and Medina. China sends its theology students to Saudi Arabia, and is counting on its support to become an observer member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which is based in Jeddah, and has 57 member states. Last June its secretary general visited Beijing. The visit of the Chinese interior minister, Meng Jianzhu, to Riyadh in October, and the signing of an accord on security cooperation, prove a joint desire to intensify the war against terror. — translated by Stephanie Irvine
Alain Gresh is deputy chairman of Le Monde diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East.
©2010 Le Monde diplomatique — distributed by Agence Global