What Makes Yiwu a Desirable Place for Foreign Merchants to Settle in？– A Study of the Muslim Community in Yiwu
By Fengnian Cai, Jiamei Wang, and Yue Wu
Giant Arabic letters in shopping malls, loud chatter in diverse languages, the sweet smell of shisha smoke in the evening air, and Muslim women wearing colorful Hijabs watching the news from Al Jazeera (a Middle Eastern news channel) on the streets — a unique scene indeed. This is a city filled with all sorts of Halal food and Islamic prayers. Without noticing the Chinese words on the skyscrapers, you may surely assume that you are in Dubai. But this is Yiwu, a city of two million people, where the world’s leading small commodities market resides.
(Signs in Chinese, English, and Arabic in the Yiwu International Trade City)
Yiwu is a major center for international trade in China. It has an essential position in the Belt and Road Initiative.
In an interview, the Deputy Mayor of Yiwu pointed out the distinct advantage of the city: the enormous scale of its commodity market. As a distribution center of small commodities, Yiwu has over 70,000 stores that sell over 180,000 types of goods in 26 major categories. “If you spend 8 hours a day and stop for 3 minutes at each store, it may take up to 18 months to go through all of them,” the Deputy Mayor described.
The prosperous commerce in Yiwu has enabled the city to play a crucial role in the Belt and Road Initiative. Various means of transportation, including the Yiwu-Madrid railway, allow commodities to be distributed across continents. Over 141 billion RMB worth of goods were exported from Yiwu to countries involved in the Initiative in 2019.
Mr. Jin, Vice President of the Social E-commerce Association of Futian, Yiwu expressed his opinion in an interview, “Yiwu definitely holds a decisive place in the Initiative. It has the largest small commodities market in the whole world, and the availability of products and related services for foreign traders is greater than any other city in China.”
Yiwu’s well-developed international trade has attracted numerous foreign merchants, many of whom are Muslims. Today, over half a million traders from over 100 countries come to Yiwu annually, and more than 13,000 choose to stay in the city. A significant proportion of them is from Muslim countries in the Middle East, Central and Southern Asia, and North Africa. Muslims have become a representative foreign group in Yiwu as of today. They set up companies to purchase inexpensive but quality goods made in China and then ship them back to their home countries using the many transportation services available.
(Customers and store owners in the Yiwu International Trade City)
Various favorable characteristics of Yiwu have made the city a good place to reside for merchants from all over the world.
“I consider Yiwu my home. I’m very used to living here, and I think Yiwu is one of the fastest-growing economies in China,” said Mr. Bashar, a Muslim entrepreneur fleeing from the civil war in Syria. He revealed to us that because of this, he probably wouldn’t go back to Syria even if the warfare ends in the future.
Commercial Policies & Disputes Management: Better than in Metropolises?
There are a number of reasons why Muslims and other foreigners find living in Yiwu preferable to other places.
To begin with, the Yiwu Government has issued many policies to attract foreign investment and assist foreign traders in their businesses. A government policy announced in 2021 states that for newly established foreign-funded projects, the enterprise will be given a reward of 0.03 RMB per USD, and an additional 500,000 RMB will be given to Top 500 firms when involving foreign capital of more than 5 million USD.
Mr. Qin, a Chinese businessman in Yiwu, characterized to us the Yiwu government’s support for foreign traders as “very strong.” For instance, he said, foreign merchants who come to Yiwu for business purposes from the Canton Fair in Guangzhou will be reimbursed by the government for their travel and hotel expenses.
Moreover, we were informed by Mr. Sams, the assistant of a businessman from Senegal, that the Yiwu Government has made it much easier for foreign merchants to obtain their visas and complete other paperwork required to stay than in other Chinese cities. Thus, they will be more willing to come and settle in Yiwu. “I even heard of some foreigners from other cities who came to Yiwu to renew their visas because the process was too complicated in their own cities,” Sams said with a smile on his face.
Besides, the Yiwu Government helps foreign businesspeople resolve their disputes over commerce by inviting other foreigners to mediate between them. To ensure a business-friendly environment, Yiwu established the People’s Mediation Committee for Foreign-related Disputes in 2013 to deal with these conflicts rapidly.
The Committee was the first of its kind in China, as even metropolises like Shanghai did not have similar institutions until 2021. What is unique about the Committee is that Chinese mediators collaborate with trusted foreign merchants who have settled in Yiwu for long periods and can speak several languages. They all possess a good understanding of the Chinese culture and rules in addition to their knowledge of foreign merchants, enabling them to deal with foreign-related disputes more efficiently.
However, it is worth noting that on most occasions, foreign businesspeople in Yiwu resolve their disputes through private negotiations. Mr. Qin explained that the foreign merchants he had worked with would only go to the Committee for mediation if the argument became too severe for private parties to negotiate. Nevertheless, he still recognized the value of the Committee – offering traders a last resort to cope with disagreements.
(Inside the Yiwu International Trade City)
Religious Tolerance: A City of Respect and Inclusiveness
In terms of religion, the Yiwu Government implements reasonable policies, and foreign Muslims enjoy a high degree of religious freedom.
The Yiwu Mosque, established in 2004, is where most Muslims would go on Fridays and for major Islamic celebrations. Mr. Bashar from Syria felt that the government helps with the carrying out of Islamic activities in many ways. For instance, security checks have been set up outside the Mosque, which makes Mr. Bashar feel safer than before. On Fridays and other major holidays, many Muslims use entire roads nearby to worship, and local officials usually clear the streets in advance to make it easier for them.
Furthermore, Mr. Na, a Chinese Muslim who moved to Yiwu several years ago, stated in a conversation with us that both Chinese and foreign Muslims would regularly gather in large and small groups to study Islamic teachings. These meetings may take place at the Mosque, several smaller sites in different parts of the city, and sometimes private places, to discuss their faith and current circumstances. By allowing Muslims to gather for religious purposes, the Yiwu Government displays high tolerance toward their religion.
Another thing that illustrates Yiwu’s respect for Islam, Mr. Bashar suggested, is that when he took a Chinese course at a local college, the school gave Muslim students holidays on Islamic festivals such as the Eid al-Adha. However, his friends Eric and Aiza, who studied at universities in Hangzhou, were not allowed to do so.
(An advertisement leading to a street selling religious supplies)
“There’s a devout Muslim majority, many of whom have lived in Yiwu for decades, but little has changed in their religious beliefs,” long-term resident Mr. Qin concluded. In short, various factors have transformed Yiwu into an Islam-friendly society, which allows them to maintain their faith and religious practices. They will thus be more willing to stay in Yiwu.
Education: Skills Training & Public Schools
Concerning education, the Yiwu Government provides various training courses for foreign traders and allows foreign children to attend certain public elementary and middle schools.
All sorts of training courses are offered to assist foreign merchants in doing business as well as in assimilating into the local society. For example, at the Jimingshan international community, widely recognized as one of the most representative foreign communities in Yiwu, classes on the Chinese language and culture have been offered to more than 70,000 foreign residents since 2014. 
Moreover, some foreign businesspeople choose to bring their children to Yiwu with them, and some even have children in the local community. In recent years, the education of these foreign children has gradually become less of a problem, thanks to new policies. Starting in 2020, some public elementary schools like Baolian School and Jiangbin school, as well as middle schools like Jiangdong School in Yiwu, initiated programs to accept international students.
However, it is also worth noting that many Muslims in Yiwu want their children to receive religious education, which the public education system cannot address. Both Mr. Qin and Mr. Bashar, as long-term Yiwu residents, have heard of Arabic schools that teach foreign children Islamic knowledge and the Arabic language. They believed that the Yiwu Government acquiesced in the existence of such schools without formal approval. For example, some religious schools, such as the Modern Arabic School, sprang up in Yiwu in the name of continuation schools or training programs.
(Interview with Mr. Bashar, organized by China House)
Community Services: Mini “United Nations”
Last but not least, the Yiwu Government has innovatively made it viable for foreigners to govern themselves and help each other out.
Steps have been taken by the government to enhance the management of foreign communities and facilitate related services. In 2018, the city government started the “Pioneers of Foreign Affairs” volunteer service, which involves hiring volunteers from dozens of countries – including India, Iran, Iraq, and Italy – to provide foreign merchants with assistance in language, culture, and government policies. For instance, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city in 2020, volunteers from Pakistan and Yemen were organized to help with ID checks, temperature measurements, and distribution of supplies, and all did so willingly without getting paid.
(Volunteers Station at the Jimingshan international community)
Mr. Bashar also shared his experience in getting assistance with COVID-19 vaccination in recent months. He said that when he and other foreigners were able to get vaccinated, many volunteers offered them help communicating with medical officials and filling out records.
In addition to government regulations, a beneficial characteristic of foreign communities in Yiwu is that residents often help each other out on everyday issues. Mr. Na, for instance, recounted that when he first moved to a Muslim community, other Muslims helped him in finding an apartment and brought him all kinds of groceries. “The Muslim communities are very united. Over time, everyone has a wide network of Chinese and foreign friends and is willing to help each other out,” he said.
Besides, there are also associations between foreign residents in Yiwu that organize members to support newcomers. Mr. Sams from Senegal participated in such an association himself and told us that he and other members would help whenever new members come to the city. “We go pick up people from places like Africa, Cambodia, and Thailand at the airport, and assist at the immigration office, the bank, and the supermarket, etc. We help them as much as we can to get them settled.”
The success of Yiwu’s development of foreign communities can inspire many other Chinese cities to construct a more foreigner-friendly environment.
One aspect of Yiwu’s success is the inclusive measures adopted toward foreign religions. By establishing necessary facilities and permitting Muslims and other groups to maintain their practices, foreign traders feel familiarity in their communities and thus choose to become long-time residents of Yiwu.
The other respect involves innovatively offering foreign merchants in Yiwu favorable policies in business ventures and education for themselves and their children, as well as making it viable for them to govern themselves and help each other. Consequently, it becomes easier for foreigners to get settled in Yiwu.
We believe that other cities in China can adopt similar practices in governance as those implemented in Yiwu, so as to increase foreigners’ willingness to come and stay, contributing to the local economic and social development.
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