Voices from China

December 16, 2014

Eimer, D 2014, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, London, Bloomsbury.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Everything I know about ethnic politics in China I learned on the football field. As a foreign student at a university located in the Han heartland of eastern China, I was required to live in a dormitory exclusive to foreigners, way across campus from the Chinese students who could visit us only by passing through security and showing their ID cards. But my foreign classmates and I were allowed to play in the university-wide football competition, in an exclusively foreign team. Our rag-tag collection of Americans, Australians, Canadians, Danes, Japanese and Swiss managed to overcome our language barriers and football inexperience to win the competition. As university champions, we went on to represent our classmates against a rival university from the same Chinese city. A very large crowd of Chinese students from our university came to watch the game on our home ground, to support the other team. When our team won the game, the disappointed crowd immediately dispersed, except for a handful of students who came to congratulate us. These few students were Tibetans and Uighurs. The next year the Chinese authorities enforced new rules: foreign students were no longer permitted to play in the football tournament.

Book front cover

David Eimer’s new book about the borderlands of China looks carefully at the lived experience of ethnic minorities who survive under rules set by China’s Han-dominated political, economic, and military elite. Eimer first travelled to China in 1988 and lived there from 2005 to 2012, filing stories for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Comparisons between his first exposure to China as a young man and the current state of events inform this excellent and accessible book, along with diverse experiences collected during his years of journalism, and his extensive travels across the country.

China has grown immensely as a world economic power from 1988 to today, and Han dominance of the minorities has clearly increased, not without some ethnic violence such as the Xinjiang riots of 2009 that led to approximately 200 deaths (mostly Han) and 1,700 injuries. Large-scale and strongly resented migration of Han people into minority areas like Xinjiang and Tibet has continued, to the point where Han people now outnumber Uighurs in the so-called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and Uighurs make up only 10% of the population in their own capital city of Urumqi. Urban ‘renewal’ – or in some cases urban ‘apartheid’ – has destroyed or reduced the ethnic character of ancient cities such as Kashgar on the old Silk Road, or created ethnically divided cities such as Urumqi in Xinjiang and Lhasa in Tibet.

Minority language bans have remained in schools, and publication restrictions have prevented access to works on local history, literature, and religion, enforcing Mandarin on ethnic minorities and endangering ancient languages and cultures. Religious restrictions have remained in force or have been strengthened – such as the ban on children under 18 years of age attending the mosque, or the blanket prohibition on religious practitioners working for the Chinese state, the latter being one of the key reasons why employment opportunities are so limited for some minorities.

Many nomads have been forced to give up their traditional lifestyle and settle. Meanwhile, token or ‘Theme Park’ ethnicity has been perpetuated in a number of ways: minority delegates to China’s National People’s Congress dress up in national costume to take part in political theatre where the scripts are written well in advance by Han leaders, while ethnic dancing girls and boys in the provinces put on shows for Han and foreign tourists. (Sometimes Han girls and boys don ethnic costumes to perform, pretending to represent minority culture, but primarily to make money.)

The Chinese government and many Han people loudly proclaim economic progress for the ethnic minority regions brought by the Chinese state, such as highways and railway lines cut through mountains and jungles. Many locals and some foreign analysts view such development primarily as means to strengthen Chinese military control and facilitate resource extraction and economic exploitation of the borderlands for the benefit of the Chinese state and the Han majority. According to Eimer, “just 1 percent of the work force of the booming oil and natural gas industries, which account for over half of Xinjiang’s GDP, are Uighurs” (p. 20).

Four regions are the focus of Eimer’s narrative: Xinjiang, Tibet, the southern province of Yunnan that borders Myanmar and Laos, and China’s north-east bordering North Korea, Inner Mongolia, and Russia. Eimer’s intention is clear and his sympathies explicit: “Giving the different ethnic groups a voice – something mostly denied them in China itself – while journeying to some of the least-known corners of the world to do so is the principal motivation for this book” (p. 7). The minorities given voice through Eimer’s travels and interviews are mostly Uighurs and Tibetans, Dai from Yunnan and Myanmar, and a few Koreans, Manchu, Russians and Oroqen from the lands previously known as Manchuria.

As with many things, Mao Zedong was right in 1956 when he said:

We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; as a matter of fact it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich.

Han economic and spatial needs and demands, and minority-region opportunities to satisfy these needs and demands, explain why China will never relinquish control of Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and Manchuria. This determination is bolstered by the fact that foreign governments recognise Chinese sovereignty over border areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, which some Uighur activists would like to become the independent country of East Turkestan, was first populated thousands of years ago by non-Chinese people (see the mummies of Urumqi), but Xinjiang does not have a history of unified and sustained independence from China. Xinjiang (the name means ‘New Frontier’), was conquered by the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty in the 19th century. Xinjiang and Manchuria were fully integrated into China only relatively recently.

Han nationalists used to view Manchuria as alien territory. The Manchu conquered China from their homeland beyond the Great Wall and ruled the Han as subject people during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It was the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty that conquered Xinjiang in the 19th century, and it was only in that same century that significant numbers of Han moved into the traditional Manchu homeland. This migration has continued ever since, and the power relationship has changed decisively.

China is no longer geographically as large as it was under the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty (territory was taken by Imperial Russia, for example, in the late 19th century), but today the Chinese are far more numerous and powerful than in the final years of the last dynasty: the Manchu language has virtually disappeared, China has a population of approximately 1.4 billion people, and China is the world’s second largest economy (and growing fast).

In the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, ethnic Russians comprised less than 60% of the population. Moreover, many ethnic minority republics in the USSR had pre-existing experience of statehood or claims to independence that were revived or reinvented when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Some former Soviet republics are now independent countries that share borders with Xinjiang, such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. By contrast, in China, the Han still make up well over 90% of the population and there are no credible grounds or legal claims for Tibetan independence or Xinjiang independence. But in the first decades of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s minorities were promised greater freedom and autonomy than they have ever been granted in practice since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

A Uighur trader in Xinjiang state. Photo: Reuters

A Uighur trader in Xinjiang state. Photo: Reuters

If you are an ethnic minority in China and your priorities include economic and political self-determination for minority nationalities, religious tolerance, native-language education, cultural diversity, and freedom of thought, speech, and assembly, then Mao Zedong and his various successors have, as with many things across the whole of China – such as the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution – done great wrongs to the people.

Eimer’s book provides personal testimony of these wrongs and the ways in which ethnic minority peoples have variously responded to Han dominance. Some have responded by assimilating to Han society, with many languages and cultural practices having disappeared. Others seem resigned to a subordinate fate within a hierarchy of Han control: as one Uighur informant tells Eimer, “the Han are too strong. They have all the power and all the weapons” (p. 21). Eimer meets other minority people who show silent contempt for their Han rulers, or who harbour secret beliefs that are contrary to CCP orthodoxy.

These beliefs may be religious, such as the growing number of Muslims or Buddhists who worship away from state-controlled mosques and tourist-gouging temples. Or like the young Chinese Korean woman Eimer meets who wears a crucifix around her neck and has joined the proliferation of Christian ‘house’ churches.

But these beliefs may be politically or ethnically ‘sectarian’ or ‘separatist’, such as the Uighur’s who want to create an independent East Turkestan in Xinjiang, the Tibetans who dream of their own country stretching from the Himalayas to the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and west Yunnan, or the ethnic Koreans who believe that large tracts of north-east China truly belong to Korea. (Some Chinese Koreans and many South and North Koreans, including North Korean students I knew when living in China, share this belief in Greater Korea.) Eimer also discusses how some ethnic minority people respond through nationalistic agitation and open hostility (even through what the Chinese state calls ‘Islamic terrorism’ – a term that covers a multitude of sins and persuasions, just as we see in the West’s response to Al Qaeda, ISIS, and numerous political movements, or even the dress sense of Muslim women in the streets of Paris or the Federal Parliament of Australia).

Eimer does not shy away from the hatred and violence borne of frustration, humiliation, economic disadvantage, political persecution, and prejudice. He quotes people who admit to hating the Han and he interviews the relative of a man who stabbed a Han civilian to death during a riot in Urumqi.

On occasion Eimer’s comments are sweeping or impassioned: “China is a cruel and unpredictable country” (p. 88). Some readers may sense a tendency to stereotype Han people as money grubbing ethnic chauvinists who are domineering, unfriendly, and hard to get to know on a personal level. But I do not believe that encouraging hostility to Han people is Eimer’s personal view or intent. Rather, the negative impression is borne from the accumulation of distressing or tragic experiences from his ethnic minority informants who live in unjust circumstances. It is a mistake to conflate Han leaders responsible for such injustice with ordinary Han people who themselves have no say in choosing their leaders, writing laws, or setting the policy direction that subordinates minorities. Eimer is as clear as anyone can be that the Han killed in Xinjiang during the 2009 riots were just ordinary people. Han students sent by Mao Zedong to ‘develop’ the borderlands, Han political dissidents and prisoners exiled to Xinjiang’s network of gaols and labour reform camps, Han economic migrants fleeing poverty and overcrowding – these were the people, or their children and grand children – who were bashed on the public buses or stabbed in the streets.

In addition to the many and diverse people Eimer quotes or describes in this book, we learn about Eimer, his temperament, and capacities as he journeys through some pretty tough physical, political and emotional terrain. He is a bit cheeky and wants to break some rules if he can. This is not an unusual reaction amongst foreigners in China, where rules can be intrusive, arbitrary, and frustrating (as so many ethnic minority peoples and other Chinese citizens experience every day of their lives). In a little act of defiance, Eimer smoked lots of marijuana on his last trip to Kashgar, whereas he didn’t see any in 1988. (Clearly he didn’t know the right people back then, since Xinjiang dealers kept the foreign student community in Beijing, Shanghai and other big cities well supplied.) He tries to visit some remote parts of China closed to foreigners (a common and ongoing problem faced by many travellers, students, and journalists over the decades, and a testament to the persisting sensitivities of the Chinese state about the border zones and the sometimes rebellious ethnic minorities who live there). He sleeps with a Han woman in Xinjiang who works in Beijing TV (I assume that he protects her identity with at least a pseudonym, like he does with other informants in the book). And when circling a holy mountain in Tibet, he admits that he has less endurance than teenage girls and old grannies who can complete the trek in half the time it takes him. We also learn that he really, really doesn’t like Tibetan food: too much yak butter, roasted barley tsampa and salty tea. (But to be fair, how many people not from that elevated but austere region of the world actually do rave about Tibetan cuisine?)

In his desire to break the rules and to be bold and adventurous, Eimer gets himself into some practical problems and ethical dilemmas. He manages two illegal border crossings through the jungle between Yunnan and the self-declared Wa State in a disputed region of Myanmar. This is an area within the Golden Triangle, infamous for drug production, drug trafficking, warlords, and ethnic armies. Eimer visits the daughter of a general in the Wa army, and he learns a lesson in power from her husband. This major commands an army of largely teenage soldiers that fuels itself and its economy on the drug yaba and amphetamines.

Book back cover

After the women have left the room in the major’s mansion, Eimer plays table tennis with him while numerous armed bodyguards chase errant balls that roll across the floor, because that is what the major wants.
Eimer drinks lots of beer, because that is what the major encourages.
Eimer chases the dragon and takes lots of amphetamines in increasing doses dispensed by the bodyguards, because that is what the major expects.
Eimer watches the major’s German porn, and listens to the major’s misogynist comments about curvaceous white women, because that is what the major knows men watch and talk about.
In the middle of the night Eimer piles into the major’s pick-up truck, the one with the bumper sticker “Motherfucker Wants to Kill You That’s Right”, because the major wants to race in convoy through the streets to a nightclub.
For five hours in the nightclub Eimer dances and plays dice with a teenage prostitute, because the major gave Eimer that choice.

It seems clear to me that Eimer felt powerless on a night that began with a simple game of table tennis. And the next day he could leave. How much more intense and destructive, then, a feeling of powerlessness that exists for a lifetime? The feeling of powerlessness as your land is taken away, as your traditional homes are demolished, as your religion is ridiculed as superstition or suppressed, as your language dies out, as your nation’s natural resources are denuded, as your children are sold into slavery. How does powerless feel when you are subject to rules made by others, with no legal or peaceful right to protest? What does powerless do to you and society when you are forced to live your life according to what someone else wants?

Giving a voice to the powerless is one of the most important aspects of Eimer’s book, and one of the smallest, quietest, but most memorable voices from The Emperor Far Away is the voice of the teenage Dai girl Aba who was kidnapped in Yunnan and sold as a child bride to a farmer in a far off province where she was beaten and abused for three years before being accidentally discovered as an illegal migrant and sent home to her village.

But what is power? (It is a force that controls and rejects, but also attracts.)

Eimer ends his book in the grey, cold, economically stunted Far East of Russia. This is land taken from China in the 19th century, but it is now contracting or being unofficially re-absorbed. It feels cut off from European Russia, and the ethnic Russian population is steadily declining. The electricity supply isn’t even constant. Eimer looks over the border into bright, expanding China – where goods are cheap and plentiful, and opportunities are calling out to Russians to come and join in. Young Russian women are learning Mandarin and heading south to try their luck in China. China has a great attractive force. China is the heart of the Asian Century. So what of Aba, the young Dai girl sold into slavery? Just three months after being rescued she left her poor village and her family, drawn back to the city in search of work and a better life.


Glen Jennings’ articles and reviews have appeared in a number of publications including ‘Arena Magazine’, ‘The Australian Journal of Politics and History’, ‘Cha: An Asian Literary Journal’, ‘The China Journal’, ‘Mattoid’, and ‘The Melbourne Journal of Politics’.


One Response to “Voices from China”

  1. […] his own lived experience as a foreign student in the Han heartland of eastern China, in Voices from China, commemorates David Eimer’s courageous endeavour in his book, The Emperor Far Away: Travels […]

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