For some Chinese Muslims, knowledge of Arabic translates into opportunity

TONGXIN, China—Arab oil wealth has begun to splash an unusual job opportunity on an ethnic minority in a depressed and remote area of China.

Members of the Muslim Hui minority are finding that their grounding in Arabic, used to study the Quran, allows them to work as well-paid translators for the Arabic-speaking traders flooding into China.

A boom in Arabic-language study has swept over small cities such as Tongxin, in the impoverished Ningxia Autonomous Region, which pumps out graduates with Arabic skills to send to coastal regions to work as translators.

Officials in this rust-colored city, set amid eroded canyons and gullies, say that at least 700 Arabic-speaking young people have migrated to thriving coastal Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, where Arab merchants converge to buy low-cost clothing and other goods.

"Very few people did this before. But there are more and more people studying to be translators. They can find jobs easily," said Yang Yuming, the bearded imam at the Tongxin mosque, a 14th-century shrine said to be the most ancient in northwest China. "Many Arabs are coming to China, and they all need translators."

Descended from Silk Road traders, largely Arabs and Persians who began arriving in the seventh century, the ethnic Hui (sounds like "way") share similar culture with the majority Han Chinese, although religion and dietary habits set them apart. The Hui intermarried with Han, making them China's largest Muslim community, numbering some 10 million.

The Hui are spread across China. Many live in Ningxia, in the country's northwest. Four out of five residents of Tongxin (population 325,000) are Hui. Hui men here wear white caps, and women wear violet head coverings.

Barely 17, Zhou Yu is the third sibling in his family to study Arabic. Two older brothers have emigrated to Yiwu, a thriving trade center in coastal Zhejiang province that's a magnet for foreign merchants. The markets of Yiwu are a modern Byzantium, a multiethnic bazaar.

The Zhou family has seen its fortunes soar from the remittances that the two older sons send home.

"We have a new house. We've got a television set, a refrigerator, an electric stove and other stuff," Zhou said.

Speaking by telephone from Yiwu, one of Zhou's older brothers said he's a translator for an Iraqi trading company. "I accompany our clients to markets and help them negotiate business deals," said Zhou Yun, 24.

The younger Zhou Yu studies here at the Yuhai Arab Language School, a three-story facility still coated with dust from construction. A Saudi-trained Hui businessman opened the school last year.

"We don't have enough classrooms," said Su Shaolin, a 26-year-old teacher. "Last semester, we had 30 students. Now we've enrolled 50 new students."

Many of the students are older, such as Wang Jiaming, 26, who's been a restaurateur and a truck driver but decided there was more opportunity as a translator.

Tongxin has almost no industry, and jobs are hard to find except in agriculture. Fields of corn and sunflowers surround the city.

The gusher of wealth from $70-a-barrel oil first brought a trickle, then a stream, of Middle Eastern traders to coastal China, and the pipeline of Arabic-speaking translators from remote Ningxia to work for them is growing.

Some 2,000 Arabic-speaking Hui translators from the Ningxia autonomous region work in the city of Yiwu alone, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in February. Some 3,000 Arabs live in the city, and 20,000 to 30,000 visit each year.

The Hui aren't the only Muslim ethnic minority in China. Another group, the Uighurs, live to the west in China's Xinjiang region. Some Uighurs have pushed for independence, and the central government has responded with repression. A Turkic-speaking people, Uighurs haven't commonly become Arabic translators.

An official in Tongxin, who declined to provide his name because regional authorities didn't immediately offer official approval to a foreign reporter, said Hui people who learn Arabic for religious study can learn enough of the language in three to five months to work as translators.

The least-trained translators earn about $2,500 a year, while top translators can earn as much as $25,000 a year, he said. That compares with China's average per capita earnings of $1,740 annually. Most send money back to their families.

"About 80 percent of the money they earn comes back here," the official said, adding that, "labor outsourcing has become a pillar industry for Tongxin."

At the city's largest language school, the Tongxin Arab Language College, a state-run institute, office secretary Chen Jianyi said demand for admission is soaring.

"Some students desperately want to come here, but we don't have enough space," he said.

The school regularly fields phone calls from Chinese oil companies and engineering firms working in the Middle East that are looking to recruit Arabic speakers.

"An oil company from Henan (province) called today and said they wanted to recruit three graduates from our school," Chen said. A regional health bureau also wants to send teams to the Middle East, he added.

"It's hard for us to supply so many translators."


(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)