Shunned and Embraced: The Familiar Tragedy of Uyghurs in Beijing

 /  Aug. 14, 2015, 11:17 a.m.


I didn't immediately notice Beijing’s sizeable Uyghur population. They tend to keep a low profile, or perhaps they keep to tucked-away neighborhoods I haven’t wandered into. That would be understandable: Xinjiangcun (“Xinjiang village”), a bustling neighborhood filled with Uyghur homes, businesses, and restaurants, had been demolished and razed by the Beijing government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, allegedly to clean up the unruly and disorganized district. It was a jarring act that scattered a fragile minority population throughout  an unfamiliar city. It also happened to coincide with some of the most brutal episodes of anti-Uyghur repression in their distant homeland of Xinjiang.

Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group whose culture and history tie it more closely to Central Asian Turks than to Han Chinese, are a largely invisible presence in the gas, coal, and mineral-rich northwest of China which they call home. Since the Mao era, Han Chinese have poured into their homeland, eroding their ethnic identity, way of life, and economic security. In 1945, 6.2 percent of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese. Today, that number is over 40 percent, and growing. In Xinjiang, simmering ethnic tensions constantly threaten to explode into violence that can leave hundreds dead on the streets. Disdainful Han Chinese openly discriminate against Uyghur natives, who find that the pressure is most acute in searching for employment. Jobless, powerless, and voiceless, they take to the streets to express their anger. Beijing has responded with fierce crackdowns, allegedly to protect Han Chinese from Uyghur separatist terrorists. Don’t bother watching state television to learn more—most coverage of Uyghurs provides harmless, smiling depictions of integrated ethnic harmony.

[caption id="attachment_2279" align="aligncenter" width="348"]A map A map that shows China's Xinjiang region (Photo courtesy Ran)[/caption]

In Beijing, a better way to learn about the tenuous space Uyghurs occupy in the city’s social fabric is through their food, which has become something of a local obsession. It was only on my way to meet an uncle at a Xinjiang restaurant in Beijing that I paid closer attention to the street vendors selling slices of dried fruit-and-nut cake (Qie gao, “cut cake”), a Xinjiang specialty popular in Beijing that’s akin to a candied, more intricate, and richer version of trail mix. They parked near the gate of Renmin University almost every night, and had tanned skin, straight noses, dark eyebrows and mustaches, features that spoke of their Turkic heritage. They spoke in halting, accented Mandarin, coming across as more reserved than the Han Chinese fruit-sellers shouting their prices to passerby.

I hadn’t expected that Xinjiang cuisine and snacks would be so popular in Beijing. The northwest is not considered China’s culinary heartlandof the country’s traditional “eight great cuisines,” nearly all originated in the south or and along the coast. Nonetheless, today, you can find restaurants dishing up Xinjiang (or Xibei, “northwest”) cuisine in most of the city’s massive, glittering malls. In narrow streets crowded with small restaurants and shops, the scent of lamb kebabs is never far away. Xinjiang’s climate is perfect for fruit-growers, and it has long been famed for the sweetness and size of its fresh and dried fruits, which are often sold as luxury gifts. As my uncle and I dug into thick and tangy bowls of yogurt (another beloved import), he commented that after Sichuanese, Xinjiang was the cuisine of choice for modern Beijingers. It wasn’t hard to see why: the yogurt, strewn with unconventional (by American standards) toppings of savory sesame, dried and candied nuts, and tiny melon cubes, made a delicious contrast with the spiced, gamey flavors of chicken and goat (but no pork, as per Muslim doctrine). Freshly baked naan bread and fragrant pilaf were on nearly every table. A heaping plate of nutty, slightly sweet breads and pastries reminded me more of baklava and rugelach than of steamed buns or sticky rice dumplings.  

As delicious as the meal was, my mind soon turned to politics. Had the bloodshed and unrest in Xinjiang not put a sour taste in the mouths of Han Chinese and Uyghur Beijing residents alike? The popularity of Uyghur cuisine seemed somewhat incongruous with the troubled history of Uyghur immigrants in Beijing. I recalled a particularly horrifying incident last year, in which over thirty were killed and over a hundred injured in the southern city of Kunming by eight knife-wielding men and women. State media was quick to pin it on Uyghur Muslims; convincing evidence has yet to follow.

As I chewed on ethnic politics, my uncle casually related a story his mother had told him as a lesson to never trust the Uyghur nut-cake sellers on the street, the very ones I had passed less than an hour before. In a small city, a customer began an argument with an Uyghur seller who tried to sell him a larger slice than he wanted, pressuring him into paying an obscene price, allegedly a common tactic among Uyghur sellers. In the ensuing scuffle, the seller’s entire cart was knocked over and the hard cakes landed in pieces on the pavement. The unfortunate would-be customer had to pay for every last penny of damaged goodsabout 100,000 yuan ($16,000). Penniless, he had to beg his insurance company to cover the incident.

The story was decidedly unsavory, but wasn’t completely made-up, though it might have been embellished in the retelling. Han Chinese tend to be suspicious of the knife-wielding vendors who slice small pieces off huge, dense blocks of the sweet stuff. The story my uncle told me had, in fact, blown up on Chinese social media in December 2012, with Chinese users quick to accuse local police of treating the Uyghurs too leniently. “This is clearly unjust,” one blogger wrote. “The government oppresses Han and helps encourage the criminal acts of these people from Xinjiang.” “A man said he wanted 10 yuan worth of cake, the Xinjiang vendor gave him a big piece, weighed it and said it would be 110 yuan. He couldn’t refuse because other cake vendors also came over to threaten him. He called the police, but the police also told him to pay up. Everyone knows why they dare to do things like this.” Anti-Uyghur sentiment ran rampant for days on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-style microblogging website.

My uncle laughed heartily over this story. I couldn't tell what his own opinions were, and if he really agreed with his mother that all Uyghurs are swindlers. Nonetheless, it left a sour taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with the yogurt. Here we were, sitting in a Uyghur establishment, eating Uyghur food, casually discussing how those people, those jobless, violent, minority people immigrating to the big city, were cheap, dishonest, dangerous, not to be approached, and most definitely not to be trusted. Chinese regularly keep their children away from Uyghurs and warn visitors not to get too near them, for their own safety. I was briefly struck by the similarities to how we discuss immigrant populations in the United States. They are darker-skinned, different peoplenot entirely trustworthy, and likely involved in some illegal dealings. But no mattertheir food is delicious (and cheap), and it’s easy to feast on their cooking while their troubles are far away. We don’t know the history of the people in the restaurant kitchen: why they’re here, where they live, what they left behind. Their daily misfortunes and struggles are distant from us and are rarely covered in the evening news. It’s not hard to eat lunch at a local taco joint while, on television, government officials drone on about voter IDs, immigration restrictions, and drug rings, all in the stock phrases and heavy undertones of political rhetoric.

It’s not a perfect comparison, of course. In the United States, there’s no mass migration of American citizens to far-flung, half-foreign territories to take that region’s highest-paying jobs. There’s no heavy police presence that enforces patriotism and pride in mainstream American culture, bans a native minority from practicing its religion in public, and cracks down on separatist terror cells that aren’t proven to exist. Those problems may have already passed by in the United States, and we’re too late to make our apologies. By the time the European settlers flooded westward through the Cumberland Gap, the long and bitter episode of Native American history marked by the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears had already been set in motion. If Chinese society develops along similar lines, then the Uyghurs, who are actively being assimilated in the name of economic opportunity and “ethnic cohesion, have little to hope for in reclaiming their autonomy and identity.

Indeed, the China of today has a similarly voracious appetite for expansion as the United States had in the 19th century, and for good reason: from Xinjiang and other frontier regions, it can reap not only gas and oil, but an entire cultural and historical legacy, complete with all its riches. Perhaps therein lies part of the appeal of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang to Beijing: they offer a hungry and ambitious state with a treasure trove of histories and traditions to seize and forge into its own national identity. The minority group’s own sentiments and complexities become insignificant in the face of a rising nation’s eager appetite.

Beijingers don’t seem to pay too much thought to that, though: Xinjiang typically enters in casual conversation as a place for a picturesque rural vacation to escape from the frenzy of urban lifethough it’s a shame about all that violence lately. If the Uyghur way of life is changing, well, it’s probably better for them in the end that we intervened before things got too out of hand. And whatever happens to those peopletheir jobs, livelihoods, and homeswe’ll still have the money to buy their wares and feast on their food.

The image featured in this article was taken by the author.

Elaine Yao