Searching for Continuity in Sino-Arab Relations
Former Presidents Morsi (Egypt) and Hu (China) in 2012.

This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...


Too often, historians of Sino-Arab relations do not engage in a meaningful dialogue with the political scientists, economists, and anthropologists who are the most vocal commentators on China’s increasing role in the region. Today’s China, with its growing wealth and unprecedented ability to project political and economic power abroad, may appear at first glance to bear little resemblance to the China of the 1950s, when the Communist government of Mao Zedong was reaching out for the first time to the other countries of the developing world. Nevertheless, one can identify several continuities that have long informed China’s interactions with the Arab world. First, Beijing insists that its foreign policy is based on the same ironclad commitment to nonintervention in the affairs of other sovereign countries that it articulated in the 1950s. Second, China has long held special meaning for Arab politicians and intellectuals who wish to use the example of China to promote authoritarian order in their own societies. Finally, the Chinese government has relied on Chinese Muslims to mediate its relations with other Islamic countries for nearly a century. It is only by recognizing these longstanding hallmarks of Sino-Arab relations that commentators can fully appreciate the complexities of China’s interactions with the Arab world in the twenty-first century.

The Abiding Importance of Sovereignty

Asked to list the principles that guide China’s attitude toward the Middle East, a Chinese official will invariably begin by emphasizing China’s policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries. Chinese leaders invoke this tenet so often that it can seem trite, but it has nevertheless become an integral part of how China articulates its foreign policy. While Chinese officials obviously hope that policymakers in the Middle East will appreciate the contrast between their hands-off approach and the interventionist attitudes of the United States (and other Western countries), they are just as focused on appealing to their domestic audience. Since 1949, the Chinese government has emphasized the principle of respect for national sovereignty to the point that it has become part of China’s national identity.

Chinese leaders incorporated their commitment to nonintervention into their Middle East policy when they were making their first overtures to Arab countries. In 1955, when Chinese Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai accepted his invitation to the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, he had to quell fears that China was working to foment Communist revolution and subvert existing governments in other Asian and African countries. Zhou began his charm offensive by instructing every Chinese delegate in Bandung to avoid discussing Communism during the conference.[1] Arab journalists took note of Zhou’s conciliatory attitude in Bandung and from 1955 to 1956 significantly softened their previous criticisms of China. In May 1956, when Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize China’s Communist government, the state-run al-Ahram editorialized that China’s dedication to “neutrality” was one of the reasons it deserved Egyptian support.[2] Thereafter, pledging to respect existing governments became part of the consistently successful formula by which China courted new allies in the Middle East.

Beijing has continued to follow this strategy even in the midst of recent upheavals. In 2011, as popular protests erupted against authoritarian leaders throughout the Arab world, the Chinese government reiterated its policy of supporting whichever government nominally remained in charge. As civil wars against unpopular regimes dragged on in Syria and Libya, China refused to join Western countries in recognizing rebel groups as the rightful leaders of those two countries. Although China abstained from a March 2011 United Nations Security Council resolution condemning embattled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Chinese officials subsequently resolved to be more aggressive in their commitment to protect national sovereignty. In a series of Security Council resolutions on Syria in 2011 and 2012, China joined Russia in vetoing American-backed proposals to punish Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. These vetoes have indicated China’s willingness to use its noninterventionist ideology to challenge the United States. As Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East issue, declared in a December 2013 speech, the vetoes demonstrated that China was “standing up and talking equally with Western countries.”[3] By casting its longstanding strategy of noninterventionism as an act of defiance, China’s leaders have turned what began as a conciliatory policy into an assertive bid for global relevance.

Nevertheless, in the past several years, China’s reluctance to become embroiled in Middle Eastern disputes has irritated some Arab officials. As China’s international profile has risen, Arab leaders have begun to expect more concrete support from Beijing. In particular, many Arab diplomats in Beijing are frustrated with what they perceive as Chinese obstructionism in Syria and with China’s refusal to contribute significant humanitarian support to Syrians displaced by the conflict.[4] As long as the Assad government continues to benefit from the inaction of the international community, China’s attempts to avoid taking sides in an internal dispute will be interpreted by many as tantamount to overt support for the existing regime. It remains to be seen whether mounting frustration could someday compel China to take a more activist role in the Middle East in an attempt to salvage its reputation. At present, such an eventuality seems unlikely; in order for the Chinese government to reevaluate its hands-off policy toward the region, it would have to reject the identity it has so meticulously crafted over the course of more than six decades.

The Meaning of China

Although the Chinese government has avoided any direct involvement in the internal affairs of the Middle East, it has long aspired to play a leadership role in the region. Beginning in the 1950s, China’s leaders cultivated the idea that China’s governing ideology could inspire people throughout the Third World to lead their countries down a similar path. Since that time, the notion that the Chinese experience can be exported has taken several different forms. In the late 1950s, at the height of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government tried to show other countries how they might carry out a successful “revolution.” Today, by contrast, China’s ideological allure comes from its conviction that it has perfected an authoritarian formula for stability and prosperity. What has been constant, however, has been the idea that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offers a prescription for order. Arab commentators have consistently admired what they have perceived as the Chinese government’s ability to rally its citizens behind a common national mission. This enduring cliché of Chinese order has ensured China continued relevance in the Arab political consciousness.

In the first two decades after 1949, the Chinese government rarely proselytized on behalf of Marxist ideology, but rather tried to cultivate a general sense that China was worthy of emulation. Only a few of Mao’s treatises gained traction in the Middle East, and even then it was tracts calling for cooperation, rather than class warfare, that enjoyed brief flashes of popularity.[5] Mao and other leaders lectured visiting delegates of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale in 1958 and 1959 about how to manage an anticolonial guerrilla war, but these episodes of grandstanding were an aberration.[6] Instead, the Chinese government relied on the meticulously planned propaganda tours it gave to visiting dignitaries to foster a sense that the CCP had imposed complete order and unity on Chinese society. Arab visitors responded enthusiastically to this initiative. The reports they published about China are filled with evocative stories of China’s benevolent authoritarianism: ambitious construction projects completed in a single night,[7] widespread campaigns in the countryside to control pests,[8] and mass rallies with millions of participants organized with impeccable precision.[9] Well into the 1970s, Arab commentators were praising China’s “strict organization” for bringing about its “miracle” of modernization.[10]

Today, the Chinese government recognizes that its successful oversight of profound economic and social transformation remains its most potent allure. When addressing Arab audiences, Chinese officials tend not to focus narrowly on their country’s economic prosperity, but instead highlight the idea that China has undergone a holistic national revival since 1949. By framing China’s rise from this nationalist perspective, they hearken back to the theme of a unified national mission that has fascinated Arab visitors since the 1950s. In an April 2013 article on the “Chinese dream” in al-Ahram, China’s ambassador to Egypt, Song Aiguo, perfectly illustrated this time-tested formula. He began by declaring humbly that all Chinese aspire to live “happy, beautiful, and peaceful lives,” and then proclaimed that they are confident their government can achieve a “national renaissance” by means of economic development. Song then promised that he and other Chinese leaders would work with the Egyptian people to achieve the same dream in Egypt.[11] The fact that Chinese officials are never clear about precisely what the “Chinese dream” means, let alone about how they plan to help other countries achieve their own dreams, does not seem to soften the impact of their message.

In fact, the Chinese model of authoritarian development resonates deeply for Arabs eager to find an alternative to Western-style liberal democracy. It is easy to see how residents of a region marked by widespread poverty and crippling political instability might look fondly upon China’s claim to have solved both of these problems. Indeed, a series of recent surveys has demonstrated increasing support for “guarantees of social order,” both in the Middle East and beyond.[12] Even organizations whose political stances diverge markedly from those of Chinese leaders have expressed their admiration for the Chinese development model, a phenomenon best exemplified by a September 2011 statement by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party considered “China’s experience worth emulation.”[13] Such a comment refers not only to China’s increasing prosperity but also to the social structure that has evolved along with this growth.

The Role of Islam

Perhaps the most important continuity in Sino-Arab relations has been the key role played by Chinese Muslims, who have acted as intermediaries between their home country and their Arab co-religionists since the establishment of the first Chinese Muslim communities during the Tang Dynasty. In the twentieth century, the Chinese government has continually relied on its Muslim citizens to make overtures to Arab regimes. The presence of a sizeable Muslim minority in China has helped to legitimize China and substantiate the government’s claims to have the best interests of Middle Eastern Muslims at heart. At the same time, the Chinese government has also used the development of close relations with other Islamic countries to reinforce its legitimacy in the eyes of its own Muslim population. Rather than shying away from discussing Islam, China’s avowedly atheist government has staked its reputation both at home and abroad on its willingness to be magnanimous toward Muslims.

Muslims have served as intermediaries between China and the Islamic Middle East since before 1949. During the late 1930s, the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek dispatched two delegations of Muslims on the hajj to Mecca, with instructions to propagandize to Arab Muslims about the war against Japan.[14] The Communist government revived this strategy of hajj diplomacy in 1955 and again in 1956, when it sent groups of pilgrims under the auspices of the China Islamic Association on lengthy tours of the Middle East. The leaders of these delegations performed crucial diplomatic functions in countries where China did not yet have official representation.[15] When the Great Leap Forward began in 1958, the Chinese government stopped using religion to establish common ground with Arab Muslims. As China liberalized in the 1980s, however, Islamic diplomacy made a rapid comeback. Chinese policymakers view the more than 13,000 Chinese Muslims who make the hajj each year as cultural ambassadors who can promote Beijing’s interests throughout the Middle East.[16] The anthropologist Dru Gladney has noted parallels between the Chinese government’s use of “the Islamic card” to improve relations with the Middle East in the 1950s and in more recent decades.[17]

At the same time that the Chinese government was enlisting Muslims to champion China in the Middle East, it was also using its improving relations with Arab countries to appeal to Muslims within China. In the mid-1950s, the CCP was still working to consolidate its power throughout China, especially at the margins of the state and among the country’s ethnic minorities. Accordingly, China’s leaders took pains to depict themselves as ardent defenders of Islam whose policies benefited the worldwide Islamic community in general and Chinese Muslims in particular. These efforts received a significant boost whenever Arab Muslim officials endorsed the Chinese government’s treatment of its Muslim population. The first Egyptian cabinet official to tour China, Minister of Pious Endowments Ahmad Hasan al-Baquri, performed this function in May 1955 when he publicly averred that his “brothers the Chinese Muslims” were living a “peaceful life” under the rule of the CCP.[18] The Chinese government achieved a similar victory when it reported in March 1957 that crowds of ordinary Egyptians had lined the streets to greet a visiting delegation of Chinese Muslims with cries of “Long live Mao Zedong!”[19] All told, one of the primary accomplishments of China’s campaign to build ties with Middle Eastern countries in the mid-1950s was the increasing willingness of Arab leaders to pledge their support for China’s domestic policies.

In the twenty-first century, this logic once again governs China’s policy toward the Middle East. Because Beijing is deeply concerned about the prospect of discontent in its restive Xinjiang province, it again relies on foreign Muslims to legitimize the Chinese state. The July 2009 rioting in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, compelled China to seek foreign endorsements of its heavy-handed policies. Leaders from two authoritarian countries with strong Islamic credentials—and a shared desire to stifle domestic dissent—promptly complied. Employing rhetoric reminiscent of the 1950s, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari proclaimed that his country “appreciated the fact that the lives and property of Muslims in China are fully protected and their rights including the right to worship fully safeguarded.”[20] A top advisor to the Saudi foreign minister addressed China’s rioting Muslims directly, lecturing them that “A good Muslim should be a good citizen, whether in China or any other country.”[21] Such comments are immensely valuable to the Chinese government, which can use them not only to undermine any budding insurgency but also to portray itself as an accepted member of the global Islamic community. In so doing, China’s leaders are falling back on a strategy of engaging with the Islamic world in order to bolster their own authority at home.

Looking Beyond Economics

Many analysts, noting the emergence of China as an economic power, have identified the moment in 1993 when China became a net importer of oil as a point of transition in its relations with the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East. According to this logic, China’s increasing reliance on imported raw materials, including oil, has compelled the Chinese government to adopt policies that will ensure access to resources from the Middle East. Yet the reality is that even as China has come to depend more urgently on its economic ties to Arab countries, its foreign policy toward those countries has not changed as dramatically as many scholars assume. The Middle East policy instituted by Zhou in the 1950s, which emphasized respect for all nations’ sovereignty, has proved perfectly suited to the development of trade relations. Until China’s economic interests in the Middle East clash with its longstanding political positions, it is impossible to know whether China’s leaders would be willing to compromise the paradigm within which Sino-Arab relations have developed for the sake of financial gain.

[1] “Canjia yafei huiyi de fang’an [Plan for Participating in the Asian-African Conference],” April 5, 1955, in Zhongguo daibiaotuan chuxi 1955 nian yafei huiyi [The Chinese Delegation Attends the 1955 Asian-African Conference] (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 2006), 41–44.

[2] “Misr ta‘tarif bi-l-sin al-sha‘biyya [Egypt Recognizes People’s China],” al-Ahram, May 17, 1956, 1, 5.

[3] Wu Sike, “Xiya beifei da bianju he zhongguo waijiao [Changes in West Asia and North Africa and Chinese Foreign Policy],” Shanghai Jiao Tong University, December 12, 2013.

[4]. Kyle Haddad-Fonda, “Prospects for China’s Expanding Role in the Middle East,” Middle East Review 270 (2014): 24-28.

[5] Some Egyptian leftists cited Mao’s On New Democracy (1940) in 1955 and 1956 to justify their support for Nasser’s foreign policy. In 1958 and 1959, many Algerian rebels preferred On Guerrilla Warfare (1937) and On Protracted War (1938) because they purported to demonstrate how an insurgency could defeat an imperialist power.  It was not a coincidence that the two Maoist tracts that were read most often in Algeria related to the anti-imperialist war against Japan, not the Communist revolution against Chiang Kai-shek.

[6] Kyle Haddad-Fonda, “An Illusory Alliance: Revolutionary Legitimacy and Sino-Algerian Relations, 1958-1962,” The Journal of North African Studies 19 (2014): 338-357.

[7] Si Azzedine (Rabah Zerari), On nous appelait fellaghas [One Called Us Fellaghas] (Paris: Editions Stock, 1976), 310-312.

[8] Saad Dahab, Mission accomplice [Mission Accomplished] (Algiers: Editions Dahlab, 1990), 103-104.

[9] ‘Abd al-Salam al-Adhami, Al-Sin al-jadida fi zall al-ishtirakiyya [New China in the Shadow of Socialism] (Beirut: Dar al-‘ilm li-l-mala’yin, 1954), 122-123.

[10] Mohamed Hasanayn Heikal, Ahadith fi asiya [Sayings in Asia] (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2003), 21-22.

[11] Song Aiguo, “Al-Hilm al-sini…wa-intilaq al-hilm al-misri [The Chinese Dream…and the Beginning of the Egyptian Dream],” al-Ahram, April 10, 2013.

[12] Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in Our Time (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 131-132.

[13] Ikhwanweb, “FJP in a Meeting with Chinese Ambassador: China’s Experience Worth Emulation,” September 27, 2011, accessed December 6, 2011,

[14] Yufeng Mao, “A Muslim Vision for the Chinese Nation: Chinese Pilgrimage Missions to Mecca during World War II,” The Journal of Asian Studies 70 (2011): 373–395. See also “Wafd al-sin li-l-ta‘arif al-islami [The Delegation of China for Islamic Understanding],” Kam min al-buldan al-siniyya ihtalatha al-junud al-yabaniyya? [How Many of the Chinese Lands Have Been Occupied by the Japanese Armies?] (Cairo: Al-Matba‘a al-‘asriyya bi-Misr, 1939).

[15] See, for example, Bao’erhan (Burhan Shahidi), “Zhongjindong geguo renmin dui woguo renmin de youyi [The Friendship of the People of Each Country in the Near and Middle East Toward Our Country’s People],” Bao’erhan xuanji [Selected Writings of Bao’erhan] (Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 1989), 59-63. This text was originally published as Bao’erhan, “Zhongjindong renmin dui woguo renmin you zhe shenhou de youyi [The People of the Near and Middle East Have toward Our Country a Deep Friendship],” Renmin Ribao, March 16, 1957, 2.

[16] Ma Lirong, “Fanyisilan guoji zuzhi yu zhongguo zhongdong renwen waijiao [Pan-Islamic International Organizations and China’s Cultural Diplomacy in the Middle East],” Journal of Sino-Western Communications 4 (2012): 13-28.

[17] Dru C. Gladney, “Constructing a Contemporary Uighur National Identity: Transnationalism, Islamicization, and State Representation,” Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le monde turco-iranien [Working Papers on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turko-Iranian World] 13 (1992): 171.

[18] Speech by Ahmad Hasan al-Baquri, May 25, 1955, 107-00007-03, Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives. See also “Ma rahu al-baquri fi al-sin al-sha‘biyya [What al-Baquri Saw in People’s China],” Majallat al-Tahrir, July 19, 1955.

[19] Bao’erhan, “Zhongjindong geguo renmin dui woguo renmin de youyi,” 61.

[20] Gunjan Singh, “China in Pakistan: The Xinjiang and Kashgar Factors,” World Affairs Journal 3209 (August 10, 2010).

[21] Alain Gresh, “China’s Hajj Diplomacy,” Middle East Online, December 31, 2010,