Postcards from the HNC: Yiwu edition

By Natalie Craig

December 16, 2019

Yiwu district one market main entrance
Photo credits: Natalie Craig

NANJING, China — A short train ride away from a diverse array of destinations, the location of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) provides a unique opportunity for day trips and unique research experiences.

In November, 2019, Professor Thomas Simon’s international law class traveled to the city of Yiwu, in Zhejiang province, as part of a semester-long research project on discrimination against foreigners in China. The class visited multiple business districts, with the goal of meeting foreigners. However, many were surprised to find not only a lack of foreigners, but also an apparent lack of business. 

Yiwu’s markets are divided by product, with items only available for purchase in bulk at wholesale cost. When asked why the markets seemed empty on a Saturday, most local shopkeepers responded with the same answer: business has moved online. An example of this shift is the establishment of Yiwugo, a website that aggregates market products for online sale. 

While observing bartering at the markets, students discovered that language barriers between buyers and sellers often did not impede deal-making. “Something that surprised me about Yiwu was people who did business there did not need to be able to communicate or use a translator, as long as they had a calculator to negotiate the price,” Wang Qimeng, an HNC Certificate student, remarked. 

Though the amount of foreigners fell short of expectations, students visited many more areas of the city to conduct research and talk with residents. Foreigners proved more plentiful at the numerous halal and Middle Eastern restaurants around Yiwu. 

Lunch at Beyti, a Turkish restaurant in Yiwu. 
Photo credits: Natalie Craig 
Bartering inside one of the shops in district one. 
Photo credits: Zhang Miao 
Holiday knickknacks sold inside the district one market.
Photo credits: Natalie Craig

Upon leaving the market, students proceeded to conduct research on their own topics. A group researching religious discrimination against foreigners in China visited a mosque and a church. However, workers managing both sites prohibited students from entering, claiming that it was not a designated day for worship. This aligns with the government’s new crackdown on religious freedom

Outside the mosque, not permitted to enter any further than this point.
Photo credits: Natalie Craig

Another group of students met with Afghani businessmen living and working in Yiwu. According to Erica Carvell, a Masters student at the HNC, “the main takeaway from Yiwu was the way in which it seemed that everyone really had put aside their ethnic differences for the purpose of business.” 

The day finished with a class dinner provided by Aziz Ullah, one of the Afghani businessmen, at a local Afghani restaurant. “Our meeting with Aziz was an interesting experience. He was both surprisingly candid and surprisingly optimistic in describing all of his relationships and dealings with Chinese businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats,” Aidan Greer, an HNC Certificate student, said. 

After dinner, students visited the night market before boarding the two-hour high-speed train back to Nanjing. 

Class dinner at Afghani restaurant with Aziz. 
Photo credits: Thomas Simon

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