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In Yiwu, a town in southeast China known as the world’s largest wholesale center for manufactured commodities for daily consumption, thousands of Chinese Muslims (Hui) work as middlemen between Chinese suppliers and foreign traders.
Despite their indispensable role in the trade, many of them act more like clerks than like entrepreneurs: they stick to a couple of foreign clients over years, follow paper trails with suppliers and logistical companies, repeat the same process in every deal, and make no investments and earn from commissions. This “relaxed” working life is attractive, as most middlemen had migrated from northwestern China as Arabic-Chinese translators with little capital and business experiences.
More importantly, this business pattern enables large numbers of petty producers and traders across the world, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, to join the global market. This underlies Yiwu’s economic success.
This essay explores how Yiwu achieves this through the notions of “channels” and “logistical power”. Traders’ channel making as their main business activity and the local state’s logistical power in turn impact religious life.