Saturday, July 11, 2009

Questions regarding Xinjiang

I have not written sooner about the July 5th killing in Urumqi because the deaths of 156 (added: the number rises to 184 now) innocent people made me very emotional, and also because I have very limited knowledge about Xinjiang. Now, after the initial shock, I'd like to ask a couple of questions.

I will not ask questions about the Guangdong toy factory incident in June, for which three very different versions of the story have been circulating on the internet: the government's, the Uyghur's, and the Han's. I'm afraid the truth of it may not surface for a long time. And, in the scheme of things, that incident wasn't the root cause of Sunday's race riot anyway. (Yes, evidence suggests "this was a race riot, not a political insurrection," as an American Fulbright lecturer in Beijing (h/t James Fallows) pointed out.)

When I lived in the southwest city Chongqing, Urumqi was one of the farthest cities from me. I've never been there and my impression of the Uyghur came from books and films. "They are good at singing and dancing" was pretty much the only childhood impression I had of this ethnic minority.

Oddly, my only personal encounter with Uyghurs occured during a recent visit to Chengdu, in the summer of 2007. I was walking with my sister on a sidewalk when I felt a slight pull of my shoulder bag. I looked down to see a small hand fishing out something from my bag. Before I realized what was going on, I heard my sister's cry: "Pickpocket!"

The pickpocket was a boy no more than 11 or 12 years old. A thirtyish woman stood with him. What the boy took from my bag was the empty plastic case for my eye-glasses (which I was wearing at the time). His fingers must have figured it was a wallet.

Passersby quickly surrounded us and someone said, "They are Uyghurs from Xinjiang! They are all over Chengdu now!" True enough, with their high noses, they look closer to Europeans than Han Chinese. It was hard to tell whether the two were mother and son, or trainer and disciple. I took the glasses case back from the boy's hand, and said to the woman: "You are an adult. You shouldn't teach a child to do things like that." She said nothing and showed no emotion on her face. She just stood protectively holding the boy's hand.

Apparently my words were too soft to the Chengdu onlookers. Some shouted "Beat the thief up!" but no one made a move. Others told me to call 110, while the woman tried to drag the boy out of the encirclement. My sister asked the boy if he had taken anything else, and he shook his head. We let him go – he was only a child.

Later I heard again from a few Chengdu friends who complained about the recent migration of Uyghur thieves into town. I wondered why the Uyghurs would come to a heartland city so far away to live on theft.

So, I was quite surprised Monday when I read the following comment originally from Uyghur online (h/t Global Voice):

Thousands of Uighur kids were kidnapped and beaten to become thieves in Han Chinese region. Can we say that Uighur people are natural born thieves? Has the government done anything to help them? The fact that so many Uighur kids have become thieves indicates that Uighur people are at the lower strata of the society.

First, this seems to verify that many Uyghur kids are thieves in the Han Chinese region. However the reason given by it certainly can't explain what I saw in Chengdu. If the kids "were kidnapped and beaten to become thieves," who were those doing the kidnapping and beating? In the case I ran into, the abettor could only be that Uyghur woman.

A Han Chinese couple I know of traveled to Urumqi three times, first in 1987 and most recently in 2008. Their impression was that in general the Uyghurs were materially better off than the Han residents in the city. Apart from the government's favorable policy toward minorities, the husband figured, it was because the Uyghurs have always lived on the Silk Road and are very experienced commercial traders. "I don't know why though," the wife said, "the Uyghurs never showed the natural friendliness of other minorities I've met, such as the Tibetans. In Xinjiang the locals were kind of cold and impolite toward us."

This couple's impression certainly contradicts the opinions I read in recent days attributing the cause of the riot to the government's discrimination against the ethnic Uyghurs. I won't attempt to build a case based on one couple's observation, so if anyone has first hand experiences about this, or a plausible explanation as to why many Uyghur kids lead such wretched lives far from home, I'd like to know. Please note I have no intention of profiling the Uyghurs; rather my hunch is that whatever conditions contribute to the fates of those kids might shed some light on the riots in Xinjiang.

My second question is, since when has ethnic hatred against Han escalated to such an irreconcilable level and what was the primary cause for this? A Taiwan scholar says the hatred has hundreds of years of history, but the entrance of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in the 1950s dramatically changed the demographic structure of the region and intensified the hatred.

On the other hand, a widely circulated web article written by a Han Chinese cyber-named "Hebang" ("mussel"), who grew up in Urumqi as a second generation of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, portrayed a more complex picture. In his article titled "Tell you about a real Urumqi" on, the author said as early as the 1980s, Urumqi's urban population had already reached 80%, which was quite unusual at that time among China's cities. (This fact seems to weaken the argument that the disparity between rich urban Han and poor rural Uyghur is an important contribution to the ethnic conflicts.) "Hebang" described the Uyghurs as "veracious and kind-hearted" before the 1980s, and gradually became "ferocious" [toward the Han people] thereafter. (This certainly is consistent with my friend's experience cited earlier.) "For a long time we were all saying, it was the Han people who trained them to become bad."

To "Hebang," the 1980s was a turning point. As such it would be important to find out what exactly happened in Urumqi in the 1980s. I will be doing more research on this; I also hope anyone who has insights will chip in.

(I just saw a selective translation of the same article on Fool's Mountain, the part that questions the government's minority policy. So I'll refer you to read that part there.)

By the way, about the history of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, author Xinran has a curious chapter in her latest book China Witness (in English), in which she quotes a government website as saying:

After the peaceful liberation of Xinjiang [in 1949], a large army of 100,000 stationed in Xinjiang and led by General Wang Zhen, and nearly 100,000 members of the Guomindang Insurrection Army under Tao Zhiyue, all found themselves faced with a lack of food supplies. Consequently, opening up the land for cultivation became the main task of these units.

In 1954, those army units were transferred to the civilian Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, "to engage in industrial and agricultural production" there.


pug ster said...

What does FM also posted is that how the affirmative action policies towards Uyghurs in crime. According to FM, even if you had reported the mother/child duo to the police, the most that these mother/child duo would get would be a slap on the wrist. Whereas if the mother/child duo was Han, they would be sitting in a jail. Therefore, these poor Uyghurs kids can steal with impunity because they can.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend Wang Lixiong's book from 2007:
"My west land, your east country" if you want to learn about Xinjiang from a han chinese who have travelled in Xinjiang. Perhaps he can give you the answer to your mystery question about the Xinjiang kid.

Also recommend Woesers blog. She is a tibetan writer currently living in Beijing.

Anonymous said...

And finally, Zhu Rui's blog, unlike many chinese commentators on Tibet, she has lived many years in Tibet, and give interesting comments about Tibet related issues:

Xujun said...

Anon, thanks for recommending the book about Xinjiang. But please note this post is not about Tibet. Irrelevant comments might be deleted. Also, no matter how much you hate the Han Chinese (as your comment on another post suggests), no personal attacks on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Well, the widespread profiling of Uyhgurs as thieves is a well known fact. But then again, think of it - the Uyghur thieves steal some small material things, but as they see it - the Han steal something much more valuable from them- their culture, selfdignity and, of course, their entire land.
As for the affirmative action - I know a lot of educated Uyghurs, some of them at the universities in Eastern China - few of them have a job, even years after graduation.

Anonymous said...

My parents live in Shanghai and has caught Uyghurs trying to steal contents inside their bags twice. Both times, my dad went into a fit and called on the police nearby. The amazing thing is that the Uyghurs don't even bother to run away when caught, nor do they usually fight. The police would listen to my parents, then shortly after my parents walk out of the police building the Uyghurs would be release as well.

As the earlier commenter wrote, the police simply don't detain the Uyghurs. The good side to this is that the Uyghurs are not usually violent, at least in large cities. The bad news is that I can easily see them getting violent in the future.

I think it's very unfortunate that this negative stereotype has developed against the Uyghurs, but at the same time I don't see the Uyghur community remotely addressing this situation other than trying to shift the blame on the government or the han people. IMO, the more Western media bashes against China, the less likely Uyghur community would face up its own demons. No one made so many Uyghur thieves across China other than their own free will.

At the end of day though, I still enjoy eating lamb kabobs from the Uyghur vendors on the side streets. Despite health warnings I usually get some whenever I visit China.

Xujun said...

@the Tibetan anon: you said, "As for the affirmative action - I know a lot of educated Uyghurs, some of them at the universities in Eastern China - few of them have a job, even years after graduation."

If so, should the Chinese government abolish the affirmation action at all?

Anonymous said...

@ Xujun Eberlein: here's the thing - the so-called affirmative action in many cases exists on paper only- perhaps some minorities get extra points on their university entrance exams, but what's the point in all of it if then there's no job for them after graduation?
Secondly, to offer these people "preferential treatment" on their own soil is somewhat degrading in itself. The Hans should realize that in places like Xinjiang, Tibet etc. they are the colonizers, unwelcome, arrogant and with their own version of manifest destiny - students of Western imperialism, which they allegedly so abhor. This has been nicely pointed out by this well known Hui blogger:!3E504F0CE0206B19!760.entry

TS said...

Agree with the previous poster that affirmative action for minorities in China is mostly symbolic. It seems to primarily act to give Han the impression that minorities should have nothing to complain about.

Xujun, you are missing the main issue, which is the pervasive and open discrimination you find in China, particularly with respect to jobs in the advanced (non-rural) economy. This discrimination is not limited to minorities, but affects people with even slight disabilities, people from Guizhou, women not considered attractive enough even when it does not matter for the job, etc etc. China could save itself a lot of trouble, not just concerning minorities, by finally addressing this issue in terms of laws, enforcement, and awareness.

Note I am not saying people are more racist in China. In fact, racism is maybe less ingrained than in the west when you look at things such as South Africa and the American South. What is striking is the utter carelessness and impunity with which people are hired or not based on height, Zodiac, race, home province, whether their eye color matches the office furniture, or whatever else goes through the boss' mind. That gives me hope that a real effort could make a big difference.

The affirmative action issue, whether you give somebody $1.20 more lunch money during studies, is trivial compared to that.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I guess different cultures value achievements differently.

Apparently to some, 20 extra points on the national college exam is not much of a big deal. However, to the han culture which prioritizes education, given the stiff competition and the fact that most of the time this test score is the only criteria for university entrance that is a HUGE advantage.

Regarding discrimination in the job market, is there any concrete proof that people are hired purely over their racial background? I ask this because many of my cousin's Fudan University classmates have yet to find jobs a few months after graduation, and we are talking about the top university in China.

Most of the state enterprises have to hire minorities. Private enterprises do not have to follow this rule but there are plenty of business reasons why certain minorities face disadvantages in the job markets. Mastering the common language and culture of potential customers/market is perhaps the biggest challenge facing minorities in China, especially when these minorities feel that mastering the ability to communicate with the Han Chinese is somehow degrading to them.

Having done some business in China, if there is any type of obvious discrimination in the workplace it would be that folks from the Western countries have a huge advantage when it comes to jobs especially if they are caucasian. A white Business English teacher can easily make over 30k US in China, which is an outrageous amount compared to what the average Chinese English teacher makes. As the result, many young Chinese people entering the job markets are changing their names to Western names and are learning English.

Now, why don't Hans complain that Expats are taking over the best jobs. Why aren't we complaining about the assimilation of our own culture into a Western one? Perhaps one of the reasons why we Han Chinese cannot empathize with some of its minorities is that we ourselves do not treasure our own identity.

Matthew said...

One of my wife's classmates is Uyhgur. Last year she found out he's been living and working in Japan and doesn't want to move back to China. He's been trying to get his fiance to move to Japan as well, but the government won't issue her a passport so she can apply for a visa.

Also my wife (who is Han) has been harassed at Chinese customs just because she's from Xinjiang.

TS said...

@Anon: Are you seriously claiming that there is no job discrimination against minorities in China? In what reality do you live? What proof do you want? Try and multiple other reports.

Concerning expats, no real argument from me there. That was my point: make laws, and then enforce them.

Concerning education: (1) I didn't say there should be affirmative action, though I still maintain it is small compared to the disadvantages faced. (2) Part of the issue is of course whether it is a good idea to rely only on an entrance examination. People have discussed this forever, so we won't resolve this now, but examinations measure current knowledge not future promise, which gives an advantage to people who grew up in the right middle class circumstances. In general, most inequities in education happen before university, having to do with family income, school fees, etc., so the whole focus on university admissions is misplaced. (True for both China and US.) (3) If you are concerned about unfairness in university admissions, your main concern should be the different treatment of local and non-local students at schools in the major cities, which has much more of an impact in terms of the number of people affected. (4) My understanding is that there is also a lot of "tracking" going on, where minorities are steered towards special universities and away from Han-dominated schools. (This is not unique to China but also happens on some level in the US, but seems to contribute to the problem.)

Anonymous said...

@TS, you must be refering to the Central University for Nationalities, which was recently amusingly renamed to Minzu University.

Actually an Uighur economy professor from this university who ran a website for uighur which has been credited with promoted better understanding between han/uighur has recently been arrested. NYT has a story on this with the title "Intellectuals Call for Release of Uighur Economist"

Xujun said...

A reader named Leo just sent me this comment through my web contact:

"I couldn't post comment in your comment column so I post it here.

I have met Uighurs at various forums who got a good education through these affirmative programs and live in Urumqi, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen as typical middle class. I suspect that as your blog is a quite well-known China related blog, some people are carrying out an info war at this site.

I have tracked Chinese ethnic issues (Tibetan, Uighur) online for some time. I noticed that in comment columns there are always some familiar voices who want to push one-sided information.


Xujun said...

Thank you everyone for the lively discussion. I would like to hear more constructive suggestions as to how China should resolve its ethnic tensions. But please lets stay away from the idea of either Tibet or Xinjiang independence, because there's no point to talk about something that is not going to happen.

Anonymous said...


I though it was pretty clear in my earlier post I have never denied there is no discrimination in China. Surely, a person who has a degree from HBS will command a much higher income and better job prospects over someone who can barely speak English. I questioned whether hiring practices in China is strictly based on race or on other factors such as education and communication levels. I think this is an important distinction because a person cannot change his/her race, but any person can work hard to improve his/her education and communication skills through diligence.

Browsing the link on discrimination which you provided, it only confirms my points that minority job discrimination is based on the ability to communicate (page 20) and education levels (page 21). Nowhere do I find any evidence that minorities are not hired just because they are minorities. Indeed, this makes perfect business sense; If Uighur workers can perform exactly on the same level as Hans, companies which hire exclusively Uighurs should be able to out compete companies which only hires Hans because according to statistics Uighur are paid less.

Now, here is the real question: What should China do to help its minorities if the goal is to improve job equality. In this case, I would say to keep the bonuses on college exams for minorities until they catch up, but more importantly give all minorities extensive Mandarin training. Finally, lower the price of books for minority students to balance out the fact that Hans make more on the average. The goal here is to groom real Uighur success stories and role models who took advantage of the system and got the best out if it. Note that his is similar to the US policy towards its own minorities.

If the ultimate goal is to keep the Uighur culture intact as it is, then the best thing for China to do is to segregate the area by race and halt any funding to the region. This is what many in the Western media want, and ironically one of the more racist ideas out there. As I recall segregation policies ended in the US after MLK.