Sunday, 28 February 2010

Muslim enclave in security spotlight

As Expo looms, eyes turn to trading hub of Yiwu and its Islamic population


Guanyu 道 said...

Muslim enclave in security spotlight

As Expo looms, eyes turn to trading hub of Yiwu and its Islamic population

Will Clem in Yiwu and Chow Chung-yan
27 February 2010

With the Shanghai World Expo just over two months away, the city of Yiwu in Zhejiang province has become the focus of authorities in Beijing - but for the wrong reasons.

The booming trading centre is under surveillance by security agents around the clock. What has them spooked is the city’s sizeable Muslim community - including a large number of Uygurs.

People linked to police and security forces in the area say a major covert operation is under way to ascertain “the whereabouts of every Uygur in the city” and monitor key points. Beijing has put intense pressure on the Shanghai government and surrounding provincial administrations to ensure that the Expo goes smoothly while the eyes of the world are watching.

Unlike the two-week-long Olympics, the Expo will last six months - creating greater opportunities for a security slip-up.

This week, Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng said a safe Expo was the “whole city’s most important duty, above all else”.

Shanghai security arrangements were bolstered after President Hu Jintao visited the city in January, accompanied by Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu - giving rise to rumours that the top brass were less than impressed with what they saw.

A person familiar with the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials were under intense pressure not to fail, and “the focus of the attention is on Yiwu”.

“The Expo is not just a China event. It is a global event. You will have people coming from the US, Israel and other parts of the world,” he said. “There is even a saying that as long as it is a safe Expo, it will be a successful Expo. I just hope the Expo is over as soon as possible.”

He said Yiwu came under intense scrutiny after security agents discovered that Turdi Guzalinur - the 19-year-old Uygur woman who attempted to smuggle a bomb aboard a China Southern flight in March 2008 - had come from there, not the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, as people had first assumed.

“There are many Muslims and Uygurs living in Yiwu - probably more than anywhere else outside Xinjiang,” he said. “And they come from all parts of the world. The vast majority are traders and good people, but when you have such large gatherings, some wolves are bound to get mixed up with the herd.

“We are facing a big security challenge, particularly given how close Yiwu is to Shanghai.”

Until a few years ago, Yiwu was a little-known backwater, bang in the centre of Zhejiang. It is now famous as eastern China’s wholesale capital. The city is dominated by the enormous Yiwu International Trade City, a sprawling mall four storeys high and almost three kilometres wide. It is crammed with tiny stalls that take bulk orders from around the globe for virtually every product imaginable - from toys to garden tools, sequins to mining equipment. Elsewhere in the city, other large wholesale markets specialise in electrical goods, construction materials and other commodities.

More than a million migrants outnumber the city’s 716,000 permanent residents, making it one of the mainland’s most cosmopolitan cities. All around Yiwu there are shops with Arabic signs - motorbike repair shops, restaurants and stalls selling halal food.

The size and diversity of the Muslim community becomes evident at the main mosque during Friday lunchtime prayers. Thousands of Middle-Eastern, Pakistani, Turkish and Malaysian immigrants and visiting businessmen mingle with Chinese Hui and Uygurs. The crowd gets so large that a 100-metre stretch of the road outside has to be cordoned off to allow the overspill to kneel on mats laid on the tarmac, under the watchful gaze of about a dozen public security officers and others filming procedures.

Guanyu 道 said...

It was the only overt police action witnessed during a three-day Post visit to Yiwu, and no sense of animosity was apparent between the crowd and police. Some Uygurs - who made up less than a tenth of the crowd - were spotted shaking hands and joking with police as they arrived at the mosque’s front gate.

Uygur residents said they felt at ease in the city and had no complaints about security arrangements. “It is a lot more relaxed here than at home,” said Ardili, a 30-year-old trader from Kashgar . “I certainly don’t feel as though we are being watched.”

The person linked to government security work said all surveillance operations had to be covert because of political sensitivities.

“China has a good relationship with the Muslim world and Arab people,” he said. “We certainly don’t want them to feel unwelcome or that the place is unsafe.”