By Kyle Haddad-Fonda for Foreign Policy
n May 2016, the Emirates airline inaugurated its new direct service to the Chinese city of Yinchuan. Yinchuan joins Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou as destinations served by Emirates, meaning that a passenger who boards a plane in Dubai is now able to fly nonstop to China’s first, second, third, or 71st most-populous urban area.
Yinchuan, situated on the loess-covered floodplain of the Yellow River in the autonomous region of Ningxia, nearly 600 miles west of Beijing and far from China’s booming coastal cities, is a peculiar destination for international tourists. But that remoteness has not deterred Chinese officials from pouring resources into a quixotic plan to turn the city into a “cultural tourism destination” for wealthy Arabs.
To look the part, Yinchuan is undergoing an ambitious makeover. All of its street signs have been repainted to add Arabic translations and transliterations to the existing Chinese and English. Across from People’s Square in the city center stands an imposing convention center that has hosted the China-Arab States Expo, a biennial event that brings together businessmen and women from China and the Middle East. South of downtown, a $3.5 billion project to build a “World Muslim City” is slated to be completed in 2020. At Yinchuan Hedong International Airport, construction continues on a nearly 900,000-square-foot terminal to accommodate the anticipated surge in air traffic, including future direct flights from Amman and Kuala Lumpur.
The centerpiece of Yinchuan’s transformation is a lavish theme park that celebrates the history and culture of China’s largest Muslim ethnicity, the Hui. According to Ningxia’s tourism bureau, the China Hui Culture Park is a “Sino-Arab cultural bridge” that can “promote all aspects of Sino-Arab exchange and cooperation.” The park achieves a monumental scale, with its sparkling edifices designed to evoke India’s Taj Mahal and Turkey’s Blue Mosque.
In the United States, a theme park that puts the culture of a marginalized and misunderstood religious group on public display, dramatizing that group’s history through dance routines performed by minority women in elaborate costumes and encouraging tourists to dress their children in traditional outfits purchased from the gift shop, might be regarded with some skepticism. In China, by contrast, the Hui Culture Park is heralded as an “AAAA national tourist site.”
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