Since 1958, Yinchuan, a city 600 miles west of Beijing, has been the capital of the Ningxia region governed by China’s Hui Muslims. Now China’s leaders are spending $3.5 billion to turn it into a “World Muslim City,” replete with a mosque-like “Golden Palace,” Arabic street signs, and an elaborate light and dance show inspired by The Thousand and One Nights, that is, the version in which Aladdin was born in China.
It’s part of the government’s larger bid to improve relations with the Arab world by emphasizing shared Sino-Arab history and culture.
China has come under criticism for its repressive treatment of Muslims, especially the Uighurs—Turkic-speaking Muslims who live in the country’s Xinjian region. Last year, Turkey denounced China’s policies, prompting protesters in Istanbul to attack local Chinese establishments. In December, the Islamic State released a chant, in fluent Mandarin, calling on Muslims to “wake up” and overcome “a century of slavery.”
Beijing has a vested interest in promoting a more positive image of Chinese Islam. President Xi Jinping published a white paper in January detailing his ambitious plans to increase China’s influence in the Middle East.
Noticeably, leaders chose not to build the theme park in Uighur territory. Hui Muslims, unlike Uighurs, speak Mandarin and are ethnically related to the Han majority. Their name is less likely to be invoked in relation to terrorism or police crackdowns. By building the theme park in Yinchuan, Chinese leaders are trying to shift the focus to this officially approved version of Islam.
Will the strategy work? The park seems to possess all the cultural sensitivity and sophistication of Disney’s Epcot. ChinaFile reports that female visitors who desire an authentic mosque experience can be fitted with a makeshift abaya. Tourists are encouraged to dress their kids in traditional outfits from the gift shop.
A 900,000 square-foot terminal is being added at the nearby airport to accommodate the hoped-for flocks of Arab tourists. Soon there will be direct flights from Amman and Kuala Lumpur. So far, the park has drawn few visitors. As Beijing continues to crack down on human rights and free expression, China’s Muslim Disneyland comes off as another expensive, ill-conceived PR attempt to artificially beautify a defective civil society.