In the context of dispute resolution in Islamic courts, relationships between Hui and local cadre leaders are crucial to successful mediation. Muslim leaders work with local authorities to ensure that disputes involving Muslims are resolved in accordance with Shari'a, Islamic law. The complexities of these relationships arise from what is, on the surface, a formal mutual exclusion of Chinese law and Shari'a. In many Muslim countries, national law defers to Shari'a. In China, the government's law is absolute. How these relationships develop are at the center of Matthew Erie's research. The insight provided by this research is crucial to demonstrating how ethnic Han Chinese and Hui Chinese can resolve disputes in an Islamic locality within a system of rigid Han-imposed law, yet coexist with a unofficial system that allows Muslims to adhere to Shari'a.
One of the hypothetical examples Erie gave to illustrate the nuances of this situation involves a couple seeking to resolve a dispute within a marriage. They have had a traditional Islamic marriage ceremony, but since such a ceremony is not recognized by the Chinese government, there is no marriage certificate. If the case is taken to a Chinese court, there is no way to resolve the dispute, since the marriage does not exist on paper. In this case, a Chinese judge might use a connection to contact an Islamic mediator who might be able to resolve the dispute out of court. This process may be illegal, but it has become one most effective ways to resolve disputes in Islamic localities in China.
In Linxia, 40 of the 92 local cadres are Muslim and require mediators to resolve disputes under Shari'a. One such dispute mediator, known as "Old Dong," can read neither Chinese nor Arabic. Yet he is one of the most respected mediators in Linxia. With more than 107 cases resolved over the past few years, he has had a 100% success rate; none of the cases have returned to a Chinese court. He is not legally allowed to "enforce" Shari'a, yet he is able to talk about it, ensure that local Chinese leaders understand important concepts, and act as a go between to resolve conflicts. While he is not employed or paid by the government for his services, Old Dong is rewarded by locals. Local politicians have realized that Chinese law does not have provisions for every case and that, especially in matters with ethnic minorities, respectful resolutions should trump blind loyalty to the Chinese legal system.
Today, a formal body known as the China Islamic Association is doing everything it can to ensure that mutually advantageous relationships develop between the Chinese government and Islamic religious authorities, particularly those that might be called upon to resolve a dispute. It runs schools, publishes materials about Shari'a, and recruits the best and brightest minds to work on pressing issues that arise from discordances between Chinese law and Shari'a. Erie has shown that for the purpose of "harmonious multi-ethnic coexistence," the local government of Linxia has made the cooperation of Chinese law and Shari'a possible in reality, even if it can never happen on paper.