Saturday, July 11, 2009

If I Were a Uighur, I'd Riot Too

http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/KashgarHotel.jpg

This poster is from James Fallow's blog.
Here's the significance of the sign: It's an advertisement for restaurant staff at the hotel, in roles from cooks to supervisors. Kashgar, of course, is a historic trading town on the extreme western frontier of China, much closer to Lahore, Kabul, and New Delhi than to Beijing. The original population there would be of Uighur or other Turkic ethnicity, rather than Han Chinese. But the last line of the advertisement says, "This offer is for Han Chinese (汉族) only, ages 18-30."
Apparently this kind of discrimination--often petty and small in individual examples--is very common in Western China. In a follow-up post, Fallows shared some responses he got from Han Chinese, which were amazingly paternalistic yet showed no consciousness of that paternalism.

Here in the U.S., it seems that most reaction to the Uighur riots have been of two stripes. One is the basic anti-Chinese reaction. China is ruled by tyrants who desire complete control and 1) treated the Uighurs intolerably bad so that tensions were so high that a riot was the likely outcome, and 2) responded with the heavy hand of state violence. The people who react thus to these events, if they see discrimination involved, see it as religious discrimination. The officially athiest Communist Party discriminates against practicing Muslims like the Uighurs. (And this is obviously true--but as the sign above suggests, not the whole story.)

The second reaction has been less common, and comes mainly from anti-Muslim bigots. Basically, it posits that the Uighurs who rioted are just a bunch of blood-thirsty fanatics. You don't see this expressed as bluntly as in the post linked to here very often, but you can see it reflected in the panic at the thought that the Uighurs we held in Guantanamo might be released into the U.S.

But I think what Fallows demonstrates is that the riots were in essence race riots. The Uighurs are an oppressed ethnic minority. To be sure, their resistence to Chinese racism is colored by their religious differences and by nationalism, but that happens a lot when oppressed ethnicities fight back. It happened here. But the point is, what the Uighurs are experiencing, and what they are responding to, is racism.

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