Nov 16, 2011

East Turkestan: Discrimination Persists in Beijing

Beyond the borders of Urumqi, ethnic Uyghurs face heightened social discrimination in China’s metropolitan cities.  The metropolitan Uyghur community resents the indignity of forced segregation and feels as if they are displaced refugees in their own country.

Below is an article published by the Asia Online Times:

For anyone moderately experienced with Beijing's bustling street life, the image of the swarthy, Caucasian-featured kebab street vendor is an easily identifiable sight. Yet beyond stereotypical representations and a few misconceptions, little is known about the social reality of the Uyghur emigrant, a Turkic-language speaking Muslim ethnic group original from Xinjiang, China's largest by land area and western-most province.

Lack of official registration makes it difficult to obtain reliable figures, but a few thousand Uyghurs - mostly students, artists and entrepreneurs seeking their fortune - are estimated to live in Beijing today. For most of them, integration and life in the capital is far from easy.

Kaysar, 23, is a student at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music. He comes from Urumqi - Xinjiang's capital. He has round eyes, a straight nose, he doesn't look Chinese. At the bar where he plays guitar every evening, located in the touristic area of Houhai, foreigners often approach him to ask where he's from. When he says, "China", they often stare at him in disbelief. When he adds, "Xinjiang", some don't even know Xinjiang is a part of China, or have trouble reconciling his looks with their stereotype of a Chinese.

He is used to it, he says. "Sometimes, even Chinese find it hard to believe that I am from Xinjiang. They say I don't look Uyghur." The majority of Uyghurs claim there is little knowledge and understanding about their culture and complain of a marginalization at national and international level.

There is in fact little international news coverage of Xinjiang and the representation of Uyghur ethnicity has been largely controlled by the Chinese authorities. The national media usually offers an idealized portrayal of ethnic minorities, emphasizing their exoticism and folklore and stressing the fact that they live in harmony and unity with the Han majority.

This is regarded by most Uyghurs as a distortion and simplification of their culture and social reality, and as a strategy to undermine the threat that their difference or "otherness" represents. Unfortunately, this is not the only challenge they face.

Ailkam, from Urumqi, returned to Beijing after six years living in Ireland, not long after the clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese that took place in Urumqi in July 2009, and that resulted in 156 people dead and at least 1,000 injured, according to the Chinese government.

Ailkam soon found a job as an English teacher in a school, but received a call, a few days after the job interview, with the news that the school principal had changed his mind and would not give him the job anymore. Only because he was a Uyghur. He got his second job, also as an English teacher, under one condition: the need to conceal his ethnic origins. Given the current political climate, his employer said apologetically, parents would never accept a Uyghur as a teacher for their children. Ailkam was jolted.

"They told me I should tell the students I was a foreigner", he explained. With his Caucasian looks, he would have easily got away with it, but he turned down the offer. Nurtay (a pseudonym), a Law student in Beijing, travelled - also in 2009 - to the United Kingdom to visit his sister.

Upon his return, when he and his family reached passport control, they were asked not to stand either behind the foreign passport line or behind the line reserved for Chinese nationals. Uyghurs, they were told, had "a special line of their own". In recent years, the treatment of Uyghurs in Beijing has steadily worsened with fear and resentment rising over riots in Xinjiang.

This situation reached its peak after the 2009 clashes in Urumqi.

Today, the police still pay a visit to Uyghurs and Tibetans who check into a hotel in Beijing, and many have reported the difficulty of renting an apartment, as they are often subject to suspicion. Large numbers of Uyghurs started to migrate to Beijing in the late 1980s, several years after the introduction of a free market economy. Most of them came to Beijing in search of better opportunities, and concentrated in the areas of Ganjiakou and Weigongcun, located in west Beijing, and also known as the "Xinjiang Villages".

The majority of them worked in the food business, and the image of the kebab street vendor eventually became a symbol associated with their ethnicity. In 1998 and 1999, the Xinjiang villages were demolished by the authorities, but in subsequent years, Uyghur communities began to grow in other parts of the city.

The majority of Uyghurs living in Beijing has experienced some form of overt or covert discrimination and as a result feels a sharp antagonism towards Beijing's rule, and by extension, towards Han Chinese. The overall sense of resentment is so pervasive that even trivial cultural differences have become the target of criticism, standing in the way of unbiased communication and contributing to further segregation.

"Han Chinese has the habit of using their own chopsticks to put food in their guests' plates. This is just cultural, but we Uyghurs regard it as dirty", explains Nurtay, who acknowledges the existence of a cultural bias. In fact, many Uyghurs admit having few or no Han Chinese friends. It is not uncommon to see Uyghurs drinking and eating together, and chatting in their language. Like other migrants, they have formed exclusive communities in Beijing, in which frequent gathering creates a sense of belonging which they otherwise find hardly available in the capital.

Further, in a reflex of passive resistance against a society which quite systematically denies them integration, Uyghurs have come to regard Han Chinese as a threat to their culture, and tend to strengthen their national identity by emphasizing the cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious aspects which distinguishes them from the Han. But the biggest problem perhaps is that whereas Uyghurs don't feel at home in Beijing, they don't feel at home in Xinjiang either.

Today, Xinjiang has 40% Han Chinese and roughly 60% ethnic minorities, of which 45% are Uyghur. Only in 1949, Uyghurs accounted for more than 90% of the region's population, while Han Chinese accounted for only 5%. Uyghurs regard this as a form of colonization.

They also complain of sharp and ongoing repression in Xinjiang: lack of freedom of speech and religious freedom, forced attendance to political education sessions in their work units are only a few examples. They also argue that good jobs are taken by more qualified Han Chinese. Today, a large number of Uyghur students in Beijing have expressed their reluctance to return to Xinjiang because they claim the job market is controlled by Han Chinese who is not willing to employ Uyghurs.

"The experience of many of the Uyghurs who live in Beijing is closer to that of exiles and refugees", argues Nimrod Baranovitch, a professor at the University of Haifa, who has done extensive research on Uyghur communities. Baranov itch reminds us of Edward Said's words, who defined exile as "the tragic fate of homelessness", which brings "an essential sadness that can never be surmounted.”

Therefore, besides a need to assert their identity, Uyghurs also struggle with a sense of oppression, alienation and lack of roots. "When we get together, many of us indulge in binge drinking and get into fights," explains Nurtay. "These are not things to be proud of", he admits, "but sometimes, these habits and lifestyle are only the result of a need to vent out a deeply ingrained sense of alienation".

Uyghurs feel integration is more problematic for them than for other ethnic minorities, who may come from other regions, but remain Chinese. Many simply claim they are not Chinese. Not only are their religion, customs and values totally different, but their looks as well. In this respect, their very appearance gives them away and makes it difficult to even momentarily create the illusion of integration into the mainstream. With no sense of belonging either in Beijing or in Xinjiang, they are trapped in a no-man's land.

"For other people, its different", says Nurtay. "They might feel ill at ease in a place, but you always have the possibility to return to your country. For us, it is not the same. We don't have a homeland to return to." The alternative? Going abroad, which is what many of them do. Some, however, do not contemplate this option. On the one hand, it is not easy for Uyghurs to obtain a passport. On the other hand, this pattern of emigration is not the result of a purposeful and motivated decision, but rather an escape.

Nurtay doesn't see this as a solution, because, he argues, "if you don't have a clear reason to go, why would you be willing to leave your friends and family behind for an unfamiliar place that is not your own?" This, again, would be closer to exile than to migration.

Many Uyghurs in the capital see it as a hostile environment that exacerbates their sense of alienation and their need to assert their cultural identity and ethnicity while at the same time preventing them from doing so.