YINCHUAN, Ningxia—Ningxia is a small region with big ambitions. A swath of land outside the capital Yinchuan is being cleared for a new central business district, which locals say is aimed at attracting thousands of Arab Muslims to live and work.
The China State Construction Engineering Corporation is erecting one of the district's centerpieces - the China-Arab Economic Forum meeting hall. The same company recently won the contract to build what will be one of the largest mosques in the world, in Algeria.
"I think the influence will be positive. There are always cultural differences, but it will be a big help to our lives, our food and our development," said one Yinchuan resident who hasn't met many Arabs, but he welcomes them.
The recently-built China-Muslim International Trade Mall will host its third annual China-Arab country trade fair, later this year.
Ningxia Academy of Social Sciences scholar Ma Ping says the region's capital, Yinchuan, would like to become China's center of trade for Islamic products and halal food.
"Some of the products might be produced elsewhere, but then the trade is done here, which means that Arab merchants do not need to go to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou to buy all that need, all that Muslim people eat drink and wear. They just come here," said Ma.
When there is no conference, Liu - who sells local foodstuffs and has been there for only four months - says business can be a little slow. "It's getting better, especially compared to the beginning," he said. "At first, no one knew much about this place and tourists didn't know to come here.
China's Hui Muslims are descended from Arab and Persian traders who came along the Silk Road, stayed and inter-married. Ningxia is China's only provincial-level Hui autonomous region and local authorities hope to take advantage of their Islamic roots to reach out to other world Muslims.
Qatar University international affairs professor Jackie Armijo says she has met many Huis in China who are pursuing commercial activities.
"Many of these graduates of these Islamic colleges, which of course include very intensive training in Arabic, are not becoming imams, but going off and getting jobs, basically for different businesses that Middle Easterners have started," Armijo noted.
In addition to the central business district, there are other major new projects to showcase the region's Islamic culture - including the China Hui Nationality Culture Garden and the World Muslim City, a stalled multi-billion dollar project that was to include investment from other Muslim countries.