Hudson Institute Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East

China in the Middle East | January 23, 2023

On January 15, 2023 local time, when jointly meeting the press with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that in recent years, the countries and people of the Middle East have constantly strengthened themselves through unity, strived to advance development and revitalization, actively advocated inter-civilization exchanges, and stayed committed to defending fairness and justice, and serve as an important force in a multi-polar world. On the other hand, the Middle
(Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China)

Main Developments

World Muslim Communities Council Delegation to Xinjiang

On January 10, Dolkun Isa—the president of the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella organization of exiled Uyghur nationalist groups—condemned a delegation of 30 Muslim clerics from 14 countries for participating in what he called a “propaganda visit” to Xinjiang. The Abu Dhabi-based World Muslim Communities Council (WMCC) organized the delegation to the autonomous region in northwest China where Chinese security services have herded as many as one million Uyghur Muslims into forced-labor camps, indoctrinating them against the basic tenets of their religion, raping and torturing them, and subjecting young women to forced sterilizations—all in the name of combatting terrorism and religious extremism. After Chinese authorities hosted the delegation at the Museum of Combating Terrorism and Extremism, Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, the WMCC’s chairman and the head of the delegation, “hailed the efforts of the Chinese authorities in combating terrorism in Xinjiang and praised the interest and determination of the Chinese leadership to serve all people in the region,” according to the council’s website.

In response, the president of the Uyghur Congress accused Nuaimi and the delegation of supporting genocide. “It is outrageous that the WMCC… is now echoing the Chinese government’s narrative,” Dokun Isa said. “The WMCC is betraying millions of their Muslim brothers and sisters who have been suffering at the hands of the Chinese government and is acting in direct contradiction of its own Basic Charter.” He has a point. Dedicated to promoting understanding between Muslim minorities in non-Muslim-majority countries, the WMCC declares that it aims to protect Muslim minorities “from racial discrimination or ethnic cleansing.” However, in an interview with Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Nuaimi congratulated Chinese authorities on their achievements in Xinxiang. “It is very important for the Muslim world and the world to understand that the people here are Chinese, and they are part of China. And the government is taking good care of them,” Nuaimi said. The WMCC tweeted summary highlights of Nuaimi’s remarks to Chinese officials, which include the claim that “reasonable people all over the world need a safe, stable and prosperous China.”

The delegation included representatives from, among other countries, some of the closest Arab allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain. The visit came shortly after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed that China refused to allow the Turkish ambassador to China to visit Xinjiang freely, contradicting a five-year-old promise from the Chinese government. Refusing to be used as props for Chinese propaganda, the Turks rejected the Chinese offer of a curated trip—presumably much like the itinerary presented to the WMCC.

Qin Gang’s Africa Trip

China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, continued a 33-year tradition by visiting Africa on his first overseas trip in his new position. He began the trip by visiting the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then traveled on to Angola, Benin, Gabon, and Egypt. Qin Gang attended the opening ceremony of the Chinese-funded headquarters for the African Center for Disease Control in Ethiopia’s capital. If Africa needs help after the headquarters transfers to local control, he said, “China will continue to do its utmost to provide support and assistance.” Rehearsing a talking point familiar to Middle Eastern ears, he added that Africa should not be an arena for competition between world powers.

In Libreville, Qin Gang met with Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and Foreign Minister Pacôme Moubelet-Boubeya; in Cotonou, with Beninese President Patrice Talon and Foreign Minister Aurélien Agbénonci; and in Luanda with Angolan President João Lourenço and Foreign Minister Tete António. In addition to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, he also met with Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo. In all these meetings, Qin restated China’s support for African development, emphasizing the commonalities between the Belt Road Initiative and the national aspirations of each country.

On January 11, Qin Gang and Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, held a joint press conference. Qin attacked the “groundless allegation” that China is creating a “debt trap” in Africa, before announcing later during the visit that China has canceled an unspecified amount of Ethiopia’s estimated $13.7 billion debt. In a later joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, Qin repeated China’s call for Israel to stop its “incitement” in order to avoid escalation with the Palestinians. This came after China and the UAE jointly called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council after Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, entered the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

John Lee Ka-chiu’s Upcoming Middle East Tour

Chief Executive of Hong Kong John Lee Ka-chiu announced during his New Year’s speech that he would visit the Middle East in an effort to foster closer economic ties with the region. According to James Fok, a geopolitical finance expert writing in the South China Morning Post, Lee could position Hong Kong as a partner capable of assisting the kingdom in developing the petro-yuan market, which we discussed in the last newsletter. In addition, because Hong Kong operates within an English common law system widely accepted by the international investment community, it could help China and Saudi Arabia marry their financial systems.

Iran’s Surveillance State

Wired and Fox News have reported that Iran uses facial recognition technology to enforce the nation’s compulsory hijab laws. Iranian women report that, after having had no interaction with a law enforcement officer, they have received citations in the mail for violations of hijab laws. In Iran, rumors have been circulating for months about police targeting protestors days after they participated in demonstrations, presumably revealing their identities to the authorities through facial recognition technology. Iran has acquired its surveillance technology from the country with the most experience in this form of social control: China. Tiandy Technologies, a Chinese intelligence company, listed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a list of surveillance purchasers, which the firm has deleted from its website. Iran’s increased use of Chinese surveillance technology and artificial intelligence reminds us, yet again, that China and Iran are sharing “best practices” in authoritarian repression. While digital technologies give protestors new tools to defy dictators, they also provide dictators with robust countermeasures.

Final Notes

HSK in Iraq

On January 14, Baghdad’s Iraqi-Chinese Friendship Association hosted the nation’s first Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK)—a Chinese language proficiency test. Twelve people took the test, ranging from doctors, engineers, merchants, and students who intend to pursue advanced study in China. Haider al-Rubaie, the head of the Friendship Association, said that conducting the HSK in Iraq will further enhance cultural exchanges between the two countries, as Iraqis who pass the test can apply to study at Chinese universities.

Chinese New Year

Several countries throughout the Middle East kicked off celebrations for the Chinese New Year. Dubai hosted the Happy Chinese New Year Grand Parade, which attracted thousands, including China’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Zhang Yiming. Riyadh celebrated at the amusement park Boulevard World’s Chinese pavilion, where Ambassador Chen Weiqing, the Chinese envoy in Riyadh, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The chief of staff of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Brigadier General Bruno Helluy, led a 30-member delegation to the Chinese camp in Hinnieh in southern Lebanon to celebrate the Chinese New Year. He talked with the Chinese peacekeepers, learned more about the celebratory customs, and wrapped dumplings with them.

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