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Notes From an Expedition: All That Glitters…


by David A. Andelman

HOHHOT, INNER MONGOLIA AUTONOMOUS REGION, China—The road to our hotel from the Central Railroad Station, lit brightly by neon signs, passes a hulking white structure plunged in darkness that stretches for blocks. It is described by our guide as a new mosque, now under construction in this provincial capital. Across the road is a lineup of smaller, brightly lit mosques, their minarets thrusting into the starlit sky.

This is Islamic Street, as it is known in the tourist brochures—for the rare tourists who happen to find themselves to this spot, deep within China’s vast interior, or the delegation of 45 Pakistani Muslims, touring the nation to assess its religious tolerance. For this neighborhood, while comprising a handful of small mosques and a few thousand professed adherents, is largely a Disneyland of religion. Many of the minarets, caution several local Muslims, are simply window-dressing atop department stores and shopping malls.

The oldest mosque in this neighborhood was completed in 1693. Five times each day, its imam, Mai Yung Chang, dons his floor-length robe and strides from his office into the cobblestone courtyard to welcome the faithful as the muezzin calls them to prayer. On Fridays, the congregation can number 200 to 300 persons, though at the end of Ramadan it can easily swell to 1,200 or more—city authorities even closing down lanes of traffic on the main thoroughfare so that the overflow crowd can drop to their knees in prayer in the middle of the street.

Mai has served this congregation for just six months, though he studied for two years under his predecessor. And, while cautious in the presence of a western visitor, albeit accompanied by one of his flock serving as an interpreter, agrees that his way is not always a smooth one.  

“There is a Muslim department of the city and I talk to them,” he says. “I have good relations with them. Still, some things they don’t accept Muslims to do. The problem is they don’t care, because they aren’t Muslims. That is the only real problem here.” This manifests itself, most directly, in the building spree along Islam Street. Just behind the old mosque, and towering over it, is a series of brilliant white minarets atop the sparkling new building that we’d seen in the dark on our first night—now in the final stages of construction. The problem is that the structure has little to do with religion.

“The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, nice,’” recalls a Muslim from Pakistan who has been living and working for a couple of years in Hohhot.  “It would be lovely as a mosque. But then I found it would be a ‘cultural-shopping center.’ It’s just a shopping mall.” In short, a showplace for visiting Muslim delegations, such as the group from Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, who spent four months touring China and concluded that Islam was alive and well here.

But if Islam—and the Hui, an Islamic ethnic minority group—is allowed to thrive, it’s because its leaders have largely eschewed the confrontational route taken by other minorities, particularly the Mongolians, whose land, many feel, has been usurped by the Han Chinese. These settlers, who flooded in, especially after the arrival in power of the Communist Party in 1949, are the core of the Chinese leadership, dominating the political, economic, social, and cultural life of China. For more than 400 years, Hohhot, meaning “a green city,” has served as a northern frontier outpost of Han China, populated largely by the same Mongolian people, with much the same language and traditions as their counterparts across the frontier in what was long known as Outer Mongolia and is now the independent Mongolian republic.

Indeed the Mongols are perhaps the single most sensitive, and in many respects, the most visible, minority in their own land. To calm these passions, boiling just below the surface, virtually every sign on every shop is written both in Chinese and in the runic-style old vertical script of Mongolia that even the independent nation to the north has shunned since the Russians imposed a Cyrillic-style alphabet after their takeover in 1921. The nominal ruler of Inner Mongolia is Bagatur, an ethnic Mongol (like many, he uses a single name) whose title is “chairman of the autonomous region people’s government,” and who has also served for a decade as deputy secretary of the region’s Communist Party.

But in fact the real power here is reserved to a young, up-and-coming Han Chinese party operative named Hu Chunhua who was parachuted into Hohhot as the party secretary two years ago after a brief, if distinguished, career in the same post in neighboring Hebei Province. Hu, who a source close to the leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing suggests may be being groomed to succeed his namesake Hu Jintao (no familial relationship) as president of China, began his career as a party cadre in Tibet in 1983, the year he graduated from prestigious Beijing University. For the next 24 years, Hu worked his way up through the party ranks, much of it in the volatile Tibet region, winding up as party leader there from 2001 through 2007, leaving just ahead of the ethnic violence of 2008 that saw a near-uprising by Tibetans against Han Chinese and native Huis—their shops vandalized and burned.

Containing such intractable and volatile forces could be a vitally important skill for China’s future leadership, so Hu Chunhua a generation (21 years) younger than 69-year-old President Hu Jintao, may be accumulating a resume that makes him uniquely positioned. Indeed there’s been no shortage of such challenges since his arrival in Inner Mongolia. In May, Mergen, a Mongolian herder, was struck and killed—dragged 500 feet across his pastureland—by a coal truck, driven by a Han Chinese worker. Mergen and several other Mongolians had been protesting the destruction by mining operations of the fragile grasslands where they have pastured their herds for centuries. Five days later, another protestor was killed at a coal mine by a forklift driver while protesting Mergen’s death. Outraged Mongolians took the streets in towns across the region.

Hu responded promptly and forcibly—declaring martial law and sending in masses of security forces, setting up roadblocks, while ranks helmeted police surrounded Inner Mongolia University, seen to be a focal point of the protests. The wife of one foreign businessman who’s lived there for several years, describes how she was in her car, driven by her family’s chauffeur, near the university, when she used her iPhone to snap a photo of the massive police presence to show her daughter, who is studying abroad.

“They were right on us,” she tells a visitor. “Plainclothes security men dragged both of us from my car and bundled us into an unmarked car.” They were taken, she says, to what was described to her as a “black prison,” after their cell phones were confiscated and the contraband photo deleted.

“No one will know where you are, we can do with you what we want, we can hold you indefinitely, you will never be found, and we will kill your driver,” she recalls the officers telling them. When the secret police showed up at the building where they were taking her, however, she saw several thousand students and others also crammed inside. She was petrified as the doors were unchained and she was pushed roughly into the makeshift facility. Fortunately, her driver had managed to secrete a second cell phone and managed a brief call to her husband, a consultant with a powerfully connected local Chinese company. Officials of the company quickly began making calls, though it took hours before she was released. Four months later, she is still shaken from the experience.

Calm has returned, at least for the moment, to Hohhot. Hu met with students and promised justice for the two killings and there are reports that as many as four Han Chinese have been arrested, with one already put on trial for the second death. This may be the ultimate test for Hu ahead of the next major party Congress in 2020. And so far, it’s working. The only demonstration since May fizzled out when barely 100 lukewarm protestors showed up in Hohhot and quickly melted away.

But throughout, the accumulation of wealth has continued—largely, however, for the Han Chinese who dominate business and society here. Indeed this may prove to be the most significant test for Hu. Can he sustain the vast accumulation of wealth that seems only to be accelerating during his regime? Many local entrepreneurs have already assembled strikingly visible wealth—not quite as fabulous, perhaps as some of the great families of Beijing or Shanghai, but sufficient to support boutiques along the lines of Louis Vuitton and Salvatore Ferragamo, with comparably lavish salons of Ermengildo Zegna and Bose promised for this Fall. Apple doesn’t have an owned-and-operated store here yet, but its “licensed reseller” does quite a handsome business of young, affluent locals playing with the latest versions of the iPad, MacBook Air, and iMac with the very largest screens. And all this in China’s 48thlargest city.

Along one of a myriad of broad shopping boulevards is a string of large department stores. One, in particular, with an enormous Hsin Hua [New China] book store on the top floor has a jaw-dropping array of appliances, electrical equipment and the like, stretching off to the horizon—basically, everything imaginable and unimaginable (how about a washer-dryer that operates off an iPad app) that has ever born the mark “Made in China.” It’s hard to see that after this, how anything in Beijing—our next, and final leg of our expedition, could be surprising.



David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, in Hohhot, capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, heads next to Beijing on the eight and final leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China.

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his last dispatch, Dancing on Knife's Edge, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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