On Ethnic Harmony

Nick Holdstock, a writer who has spent a good deal of time in Xinjiang and wrote a fantastic piece about the aftermath of the July 2009 riots, is publishing a book about his time in Yining. Yining was the site of a 1997 protest/riot/massacre that saw Uighur citizens pitted against government forces, and Holdstock explores what happened on that day and in the years since then. He has posted an excerpt here, part of which follows:

Two Uighur men were waiting for us, one very tall, one short, both with thin moustaches. The smaller smiled, and said in English, ‘Welcome to Ghulja. I’m Murat.’

‘Does he mean Yining?’ I whispered to Eleanor, but Murat nonetheless heard. He snorted. ‘That’s what the Chinese call it. We say “Ghulja”. It means a wild male sheep.’

Ismail was the taller of the two. He and Murat ran an English course in a local school. We had lunch in a restaurant called King of Kebabs. A fat man sat outside threading lumps of meat onto skewers. A cauldron of rice and carrots steamed next to him. When he saw us he stood and boomed a greeting. He shook hands with Murat, Ismail and me, nodded to Eleanor.

Inside was dim and noisy with the sounds of eating. Ismail gestured for us to sit then said, ‘This is a good place, very clean. You know, Uighur people are Muslims. We shouldn’t smoke or drink. What would you like to eat? Have you had polo? It is traditional Uighur food.’

Polo turned out to be the rice and carrot dish I’d seen steaming outside. In addition, there were soft chunks of mutton and a tomato and onion salad dressed in dark vinegar.

‘Is it good?’

‘Very.’

Ismail grinned and said, ‘You must stay for a long time!’ After that we ate in silence until Murat said, ‘Many Han people make a noise when they eat.’

Ismail chimed in, ‘That’s just them speaking!’

I kept eating, quietly, a little shocked by the vehemence of their dislike. It also surprised me that they were saying such things to someone they had only just met.

After lunch we strolled through the square. Huge propaganda posters towered overhead. A composite photo loomed above, showing three generations of Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin (the then-current leader). Next to it was a 20-foot poster showing all 57 ethnic groups in China. They were smiling and wearing brightly coloured costumes. They seemed about to launch into song.

The book, entitled “The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge,” will be released later this week. I’m actually legitimately annoyed that current circumstances essentially preclude me from getting a copy, and if you have any interest in the subject I urge you to seek one out; based on his other work I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

His description of ethnic relations leads me to a subject I’ve wanted to write about since starting this site. “Ethnic unity” is a favored phrase here, used as a buzzword in any press conference or propaganda piece concerning the ethnic minorities of China. Posters like the one he mentioned- depicting smiling members of the 56 “minority nationalities” in traditional clothes- turn up frequently, and minorities essentially don’t appear on television unless they’re wearing several tons of jewelry and something outrageously bright. That this happy image conflicts with reality shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has so much as a passing interest in China.

But the openness of hostilities has struck me, just as it struck him. Foreigners need only spend a few minutes walking through areas inhabited by a number of minorities before they’ll be approached by people who hold nothing back. In one area I visited dozens of conversations went like this:

“A foreigner?! Hello, how are you?”
“Hi, not bad.”
“Oh, cool… Say, do you want to hear about something awful the government/military/armed police did to me?”

One man didn’t even get past saying ‘hello’ before he parted his hair to show me a long, deep scar running from immediately above his forehead to the back of his skull. “I held a banner asking for human rights. This is what they gave me.” Other times it isn’t physical warfare, but economic. A number of times minority vendors have sold me things for outrageously low prices, and then explained that they charge Han Chinese several times more- and some have gone on to do exactly that while I stood there. It’s a two-way street: while I’ve heard some Han complement specific minorities (normally about their ability to sing and dance, which makes me grit my teeth but is a topic for another day), I’ve also heard approximately a million derogatory comments. Such and such a group is very primitive, such and such a group is not very smart, such and such a group is very violent. Visit any city with multiple ethnicities and you’ll invariably find that each group lives in a different quarter, and little interaction is noted.

This is a tragedy for the individual people involved. The Han and Mongols and Uighur and Tibetans have been neighbors since time immemorial, however today they can live in the same cities but feel more comfortable talking to someone from the other side of the world. This hurts the Han as well as the minorities. Remember that Han settlers in minority areas aren’t driven there by a compulsion to erase the minorities, but rather by financial reasons- they’ll be able to make more money out west than in their hometowns, so they move. A lifetime of exposure to Chinese media also means that they may not even be aware of the conflicts. Media reports here downplay or bury stories about protests in minority areas, and consistently refer to them as ‘acts of terrorism’ planned by the Dalai Lama or Rebiya or whichever bogeyman is appropriate. History lessons in Chinese schools teach precious little about non-Han history, other than to say that these regions have ‘always been a part of China.’ Han settlers don’t have any intention of adding to these problems; they just want a better way of life.

Since the fall of the Qing Dynasty a number of different layouts for a New China have been proposed, applied, altered, and abandoned. Remnants of the old plans are everywhere- note that Beijing recently celebrated the long-defunct 17 Point Agreement with Tibet, and note that the Taiwanese government still maintains its Tibetan and Mongolian Affairs Cabinet, tasked with integrating Tibet and Mongolia (the entire country, not just Inner Mongolia) into China the better part of a century ago. Many promises have been made, and many promises have been broken. To achieve true ethnic unity Beijing must completely reevaluate its current relationship with the minorities, and deliver on their pledges. Different minorities may have different complaints, but common threads run through each. How can Beijing solve these problems? A good start would be by reading the Chinese constitution and the laws relevant to ethnic autonomous regions, and working to change these empty words into reality.

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