China’s Muslims, a diverse minority of approximately 23 million people, have played an influential role in Chinese foreign policy throughout the past century. Since the 1930s, Chinese governments have employed the transnational ties of the Muslim minority, as a diplomatic tool to establish and strengthen its ties with Islamic countries As one aspect of this Islamic diplomacy, China has sponsored the scholarship of Chinese Muslims at Cairo’s renowned Al-Azhar University – the most prestigious institution of Islamic learning. This paper assesses the influence of Chinese Al-Azhar students on Sino-Egyptian relations since the 1930s, focusing on the students’ individual agency.
In the 1930s, the Guomindang first sponsored the education of Hui Muslim scholars at Al-Azhar. As a weak and emerging nation state, the Republic of China attempted to foster relations with Middle Eastern states, while simultaneously, Chinese Muslims sought to improve their social and economic position within China. Thus, Chinese Azharites became influential in shaping relations between China and Egypt, often engaging in informal ‘citizen diplomacy’.
After the Chinese revolution in 1949, the Communist government terminated the scholarship program to Al-Azhar. Yet, it continued to exploit Chinese Muslims’ transnational ties to establish relations with Islamic countries. The economic and political opening of China since the late 1970s saw the re-establishment of state-sponsored scholarships to Al-Azhar. Since then, the number of Chinese Al-Azhar students has been on the rise; the vast majority of them, however, arrive without scholarships.
China’s increasing economic and political power, as well as the all-encompassing nation state, have rendered Islamic diplomacy continuously less important. Thus, the current generation of Chinese Azharites does not wield nearly the same influence, as the scholars of the 1930s. The once crucial transnational ties, seem to have lost their importance for Beijing’s atheist and increasingly powerful government.