It was in search of money that the Ningxia government last week held the third annual International Halal Food and Muslim Commodities Trade Fair, which closed here over the weekend. "This fair is Ningxia's chance to march into the world," provincial governor Wang Zhengwei proclaimed at the opening ceremony.
For four days, local producers manned stands offering meats and vegetables, which Hui Muslims consider halal if they don't use manure made from human or animal excrement to grow them. Vendors also sold clothes, ceramics, and other goods aimed at Muslim consumers.
Yussuf was one of the few foreign buyers at the fair, however, and his supplier, Ma Shengke, seemed to be one of only a handful of success stories so far in Ningxia's efforts to break into the competitive Islamic food market.
Most producers are having difficulty carving out a niche, a challenge to all newcomers but one that is heightened for Ningxia's would-be exporters by the recent rise in the value of the Chinese currency, which makes their goods more expensive on world markets.
"We have lost our price advantage, so the solution is to produce better quality meat," says Zhang Hongen, a local sheep farmer. "We need to impose standards."
Ningxia's halal food industry is worth nearly $700 million a year, according to government statistics, but less than 3 percent of its output is sold abroad, Ma Yingqiu points out. "We are still at the beginning of this and we have to work on it," the deputy mayor acknowledges. "But since we are starting from such a small base, it should be easy to grow fast."
Connecting with Islam
Ningxia has, nonetheless, managed to attract some attention from the Arab world, whence came the Muslim traders who introduced Islam into China more than 1,000 years ago. Today's 10 million Hui people are descended from those merchants.