Faith flourishes in an arid wasteland
Muslim sect in Ningxia accepts Beijing's authority and is allowed to build a virtual religious state
In the poorest part of the far western region of Ningxia , Muslim leader Hong Yan offers faith to people who have little else in this arid wasteland.
From humble beginnings in his home village, Mr Hong has created a virtual religious state by building mosques, schools and libraries throughout the region. The Muslim religious sect his great grandfather founded now has 1.5 million followers across western China.
In return for the political cover which has allowed his organisation to flourish, Mr Hong toes the government line. He fosters relationships with officials, serves on the Standing Committee of the Ningxia People's Congress and praises state policies.
'Within the scope of state regulations, we have much freedom but there are differences with other countries,' he said. The mainland has about 20 million Muslims, but they must worship at state-approved venues.
Thousands make the pilgrimage every year to the 'Hong Men' sect's compound, whose twin white towers are visible from afar against the yellow earth.
'Chinese people are facing a crisis of faith. No one believes in the things of the past like communism and socialism,' Mr Hong said.
Emerging dressed in a dark blue polo shirt and skull cap, Mr Hong is surrounded by followers who offer a traditional Islamic greeting and reach out to touch him in a sign of the power and respect he commands.
'If I wasn't a religious leader, I would be a mayor or governor,' said Mr Hong, who carries the title 'sheik', or spiritual master.
About 35 per cent of Ningxia's 5.9 million people are members of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority, but in the region's south the proportion is more than 80 per cent.
Since the sect's founding more than 100 years ago, its teachings have spread west to Gansu and Xinjiang , north to Inner Mongolia and east to Shaanxi .
Dru Gladney, professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, said the sect had grown through co-operation with the government and the desire to build social and business networks among the Hui.
'Hong Men actually can be a little more open because the government perceives them as being patriotic and not a threat to the state,' he said.
Educated at the Peking University, Mr Hong went abroad and spent five years studying religion in Pakistan, where he heard Osama bin Laden speak and came into contact with fundamentalist Muslim clerics.
But when he returned to take over from his ill father, he preached a more moderate form of Islam. The form, Sufism, is a type of Islamic mysticism which came to China from central Asia more than 1,000 years ago.
Unlike the Uygurs, another Muslim minority, Mr Hong preaches co-operation with the government. The northwest region of Xinjiang has been the site of a series of protests and bombings by Uygurs, some demanding a separate state known as East Turkestan.
Mr Hong's sect has sought compromise with the government. The group recruits through existing mosques, avoiding the difficulty of having to register new branches. Ningxia has more than 3,500 mosques and about 5,000 imams, according to the government.
The growing number of followers has provided funds for the sect to build and expand through donations of money and livestock. Mr Hong maintains the compound at Honggangzi and a family house in nearby Tongxin city , commuting between them in a chauffeured sports utility vehicle.
The sect's schools offer religious education under the guise of 'culture', since the mainland bans such teaching to children. Xinjiang authorities recently detained a Uygur teacher and her students for studying the Koran at her home.
Mr Hong, 40, remembers secretly holding religious gatherings in his family's home during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Red Guards had burned the mosque and other buildings on the site. The government persecuted Sufi members in the 1950s and 1960s.