All trace of the last Muslim warlord in China, who was so fat he could not even fit into a car, has vanished from the areas he ruled until the communists drove him out in 1949. Ma Honggui was an imposing figure, about two metres tall and weighing 109 kilograms. He ruled the northwestern province of Ningxia from 1938 - and neighbouring Gansu for nine years before that - as if it was his personal property, giving jobs to his family and associates. He headed an army loyal to him alone, putting taxes and revenue into his personal bank account. The centre of his fiefdom was Yinchuan, now the capital of the Hui (Muslim) autonomous region of Ningxia, close to the Yellow River. His palace was in the downtown area, but it was knocked down by the communists when they developed the city. Left standing were elegant red towers with elaborately carved roofs built in earlier dynasties. 'I arrived here in 1960,' said an elderly Hui, sporting the traditional goatee beard and white cap. 'By then, Ma's homes had been removed. There is a home in his ancestral village in Gansu, but it is just an earth structure. It is nothing remarkable. 'I came by rail but there was no station. You just got off the train. There was just a main street and one-storey homes. Nothing like what you see today.' In 1949, the city had a population of less than 50,000. Now it is half a million, more than half of whom arrived from outside Ningxia after 1958, when it was turned into an autonomous region and the Central Government encouraged people to move there to develop it. Now it is a Chinese city, with its brown Stalinist party headquarters, sprawling PLA camp and central square where people practice tai chi in the morning. The Hui account for 18 per cent of the population. Ma belonged to a family that controlled much of northwest China for half a century. He made a union of convenience with nationalist president Chiang Kai-shek, who appointed him governor of Ningxia province in exchange for his adherence to Chiang's government in Nanjing. But Chiang was too busy to interfere with the affairs of such a distant place, giving Ma a free hand to run things as he wished. What people remember best is his army, amounting to about 100,000, or about one seventh of the population, in which young men were obliged to serve. Everyone had to carry an identity card with a photograph or fingerprint and could not leave the province without permission. 'My father left Gansu after the great earthquake in the 1920s to find new land here,' recalled Wei Deyuan, vice-president of Guangxia, one of Ningxia's biggest companies. 'The family settled here, but my father had to run away to escape conscription. Ma's police were fierce.' Ma imposed heavy taxes on the farmers so they remained poor, despite the excellent irrigation system from the Yellow River that waters a plain extending for more than 100 kilometres around Yinchuan. What little industry there was - including a flour mill and small power station - existed for the benefit of his family. But Ma's army, whose pride was its horses, was no match for the PLA and Ma moved his money to Hong Kong in 1949 and fled for Taiwan with the nationalist government. But Chiang looked down on him as a country bumpkin and he moved to California, where he died an anonymous death. The communist view of him is succinct. 'He was a warlord, who did nothing good for Ningxia,' said Ma Qizhi, the Muslim chairman of the region today, and no relation. 'Our judgment is negative.'