Ethnic unity, Language and Discos.

A few good recent Xinjiang pieces, the first from Kashgar about the different responses to the massive social and cultural changes in the city caused by the destruction of the old town. The video is well-worth watching, and gives a sense of the scale of the demolition.

Students at Tongxin Middle School

In the wake of the Tibetan language protests in Qinghai and elsewhere, minority education as a whole is getting more attention. The Uighur Human Rights Project has a very good piece on the issues of so-called ‘bilingual education’, and the obvious political dimensions. The article focuses on a report that appeared in the Chinese press about a visit to a school in Tongxin, in the Kizilsu Kirghiz autonomous area of Xinjiang. The article notes that Tongxin Middle School’s facilities are almost the same as those of schools in eastern China, except for that

“in every classroom, next to the teacher’s podium there is a poster proclaiming an “ethnic unity” pledge, with the second line stating that “every teacher and student should, in thinking and behavior, be fully conscious that the biggest danger to Xinjiang derives from “ethnic splittism” and “illegal religious activities”.

Finally, there’s a review of an interesting new book on the region by Gardner Bovingdon. My grasp of Uighur was, at best, pretty tenuous, so I always had to rely on what people could tell me in English. As a result, I’m particularly interested in the part of the book that deals with

the number of daily public and private ways the Uyghur people defy the Chinese regime. From jokes to songs to stories, Uyghurs invoke the symbols of opposition to Chinese authorities. These varieties of resistance either circulate in trusted private conversations or in allegorical form at public performances.

Not a story about violent ethnic conflict

Girl in Kashgar, 2000

Having just posted that fairly bleak piece about the likelihood of further violence in Xinjiang, here’s a slightly more optimistic one from Radio Free Asia. It doesn’t seem to have been picked up by other news outlets, for reasons that emphasise what constitutes ‘news’.

On October 15th around 100 farmers began protesting in Kashgar against the high fees they have to pay the government to use land. They stayed outside the prefectural government building in Kashgar for 3 days, when the protest came to an end, but not in the manner in which such protests usually do in Xinjiang.

“We had expected armed to police to come take us away, but actually, top officials including the county secretary and village party chief came. Most importantly, they treated us very nicely,” Yusupjan [the leader of the protest] said.

Officials pointed out to the protesters that they would have faced harsher treatment a year ago, after ethnic unrest broke between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the regional capital. Uyghur men faced widespread arrests in the ensuing crackdown.

“The official said, ‘As you know, if this were last year, you could have seen yourselves surrounded by armed police and your destiny would have been the detention center. But that time is over and such a thing will not happen again. Please listen to us, follow us to return home and we can discuss anything you want with you.’”

The officials are said to have done so, and to be considering the request. Whether or not the land fees get adjusted, this is a unusual story because there seems to be a) agreement from both sides about what happened and b) the protest ended peacefully. I also find it remarkable how candid the officers were about what would usually happen- let’s hope this is due to some general edict about the need for more sensitive policing in the region.

Tibetan-language protest in Qinghai

There have been reports (12) of a protest in the western province of Qinghai, where over 1,000 students yesterday marched about plans to restrict the use of the Tibetan language in schools. The protest was peaceful, and the police made no attempt to stop the demonstration. Free Tibet said the protests were caused by educational reforms already implemented in other parts of the Tibetan plateau, which order all subjects to be taught in Chinese and all textbooks to be written in Chinese, except for Tibetan language and English classes.

I don’t have much to add, other than to say that the same thing is happening in Xinjiang, where the Uighur  language will soon no longer be used in schools and universities. This is not a new phenomena- in 2001, when I taught in Xinjiang, there were already Uighur children who had gone to predominantly Han schools (‘Min Kao Han’ students) who couldn’t read or write Uighur (which is written using a modified Arabic script:

ھەممە ئادەم زاتىدىنلا ئەركىن، ئىززەت-ھۆرمەت ۋە ھوقۇقتا باب-باراۋەر بولۇپ تۇغۇلغان. ئۇلار ئەقىلگە ۋە ۋىجدانغا ئىگە ھەمدە بىر-بىرىگە قېرىنداشلىق مۇناسىۋىتىگە خاس روھ بىلەن مۇئامىلە قىلىشى كېرەك.

(‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’)

Of course, this only matters if you think that language has anything to do with culture or identity. While it is a good thing for everyone to have a language they can communicate in (Chinese, English), this shouldn’t be at the expense of the language that their culture relies on.

‘God is doing great things in China’

Bible school in rural China

On August 24 the BBC reported that the Chinese government is encouraging the development of Christianity within the country. In addition to supporting the establishment of national seminaries for Catholic and Protestant clergy, the government has provided land, and 20% of the building costs, for a new church in Nanjing, which when completed will be the largest in the country. An official told the BBC that there are at least 20 million Protestants legally worshipping in churches in China. Though this may come as a surprise (on the grounds that a Communist state might be expected to oppose religion), freedom of belief is provided for by article 36 of the Chinese constitution.

It justifies this by arguing that ‘People in China, whether they are religious believers or not, in general love their motherland and stand for socialism. They all work for the country’s socialist modernisation programme. So, it is easy to see that the policy ensuring freedom of religious belief for all citizens is in no way against socialism.’

But although religion is tolerated, there are many restrictions on how people can worship. Believers must worship in registered venues, and all religious publications and appointments must be approved by the authorities. It is this level of surveillance that leads people to worship in house churches throughout the country, which not being registered, are considered illegal. For many years, human rights organisations have criticised the treatment of people arrested for attending these churches, many of whom, according to Amnesty International, ‘continue to experience harassment, arbitrary detention, imprisonment and other serious restrictions’.

Though the government claims that its goal in encouraging Christianity is to ‘better guarantee religious belief in China’, the official the BBC spoke to also made it clear that ‘the Chinese Communist Party believe there is no God in the world’. However, there are other reasons why the government may wish to encourage Christianity. One is that the government could be trying to bring more worshippers into open, where it can keep a watchful eye on them. Another, more pragmatic explanation, is to do with the social role a strong Church might fulfill. In the past, the Communist Party has sought to prevent the formation of national organisations outside the state’s control (such as its campaign against the Falun Gong), fearing these might serve as a focal point for dissent. But as the gap between the rich and poor increases in China, non-state organisations may be needed to deal with the social problems (drug use, homelessness, poverty) likely to result. Given that, in a recent survey of charitable behaviour, China came 147th out of 153 countries surveyed on measures like volunteering and giving to charity, the government may be hoping that state-run churches will encourage a growth in social consciousness. Whatever the reason for the government’s shift in policy, it has been welcomed by many Chinese Christians. One student interviewed by the BBC said, ‘I think this nation will change, and I think God is doing great things in China.’

Burning Books

I have a piece in the latest London Review of Books. This is how it begins:

I began burning books during my third year in China. The first book I burned was called A Swedish Gospel Singer. On the cover there was a drawing of a blonde girl wearing a crucifix with her mouth wide open and musical notes floating out of it. Inside was a story, written in simple English, about a Swedish girl who loved to sing. One day, passing a church, she heard a wonderful sound. When she went in, the congregation welcomed her and asked her to join their gospel choir. Through these songs she learned about Jesus, his compassion, his sacrifice, the love he feels for all.

It was originally longer, and took in all kinds of other personal stuff, but I think they kept the core. There’s no better cure for one’s tendency to be precious than having a thousand words just cut.

Minor update

Looks like my book, The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge, will be out in early October, at least according to Amazon. No doubt the thinking is that it will clean up at Xmas, which is of course the time of year when people are desperate to buy books about riots and ethnic tension. On Xmas day, I may recreate that scene from The Doors where Jim Morrison gives the rest of the band presents, which pleases them greatly, till they open them and find that they have each been given a copy of his book of poems. [following sentence deleted out of an attempt to preserve reasonable family relations].

Problems for Adam and Eve

From Jo McMillan’s piece on Chinese sex shops in the current issue of Granta:

Dr Wang opens her eyes. She is ready now to pronounce, to prescribe for my lack of man. She fishes keys from her pocket and unlocks a cabinet. ‘This is what you need,’ she says, and offers me a pink baton, a face moulded into the head, the shaft embossed with rows of nodules that look – here, in this clinic, in this doctor’s hands – like an unusually disciplined rash. She balances the vibrator in the tips of her fingers, showing it off to me. I catch the smell of garage forecourts.

Having stayed in a lot of Chinese hotels over the last few months, I am pleased to report that the quality and range of sexual health products supplied in the rooms has improved immeasurably from 8 years ago. Though there are still the lotions that misleadingly promise genital hygiene (which are dangerous, in that their use dissuades people from using more reliable methods of prevention) there are now always condoms as well, sometimes for free (for instance in Yining, which has a high rate of HIV infection).

798, Beijing

Despite my best efforts to do nothing in Beijing other than sit in a room and type while I wait for the flight that KLM so graciously gave me on May 4th, two weeks after my original flight was cancelled, I still occassionally find myself somewhere that threatens to undermine my dislike of this city. 798 is a district given over to galleries and studios, in the north east corner of the city not far from the airport. It began in the mid-90s, when artists were looking for cheap spaces and found that the closed factories of the district were available.

As in every other place in the world, most of the art was terrible: dull, derivative, overly conceptual. But there were things I liked (pictured below), most of all the sense of being in a Cultural space, which at the risk of making a horribly insulting, not to say idiotic generalisation, is not all that common in China, even in the highly developed cities of the east coast.

Sunday in Shanghai

Before this I was in Beijing. Perhaps, without crippling jet lag, it might have been fine. But with this, and the dust storm, it was pretty dreadful.

Shockingly, I only have good things to say about Shanghai. It is clean and modern without being antiseptic. Behind East Nanjing Road (pictured below) there are still smaller, older streets without the hysteria of consumerism. As posters on every surface tell us: only 4o days till EXPO! This is a huge international gathering of ideas about architecture and design- the stills look very promising.

Next stop: Huizhou, about which I know nothing other than that my old colleauge Mr Ma (who used to be a spy) is now teaching there.

Scottish Arts Council Grant

I’m pleased to say I’ve been awarded a professional development grant by the Scottish Arts Council which will help fund a trip to China in March. The purpose of the trip is to visit my old students, most of whom are either in the south east, around Guangzhou (which can be considered the new workshop of the world), in the south, in Hunan province (far poorer, more agricultural) or in the far west, in Xinjiang. I’m primarily interested in how they’ve fared in the far more open (and far more perilous) labour market that developed in the last decade. While all trained to be teachers, many have found their way into other occupations (soldier, businessman, postal worker), often in regions far from their hometowns. It is also possible that I may visit some interesting places in Xinjiang and have interesting conversations, and that these conversations, should they occur, may or may not help me understand the events of last summer and autumn.

It looks like The Tree that Bleeds will be out in the summer.

The photos of Lu Guang

I used to live in Shaoyang, a small town in Hunan province, in the south of China. When I told strangers where I was living they said, ‘There are many criminals there’ or ‘They have many oranges’. But the most frequent response was ‘That is a dirty place’. In many respects they were right. There were always piles of litter on the street, some of which were never swept up. The water in the Shao Shui river was a dubious green, like that of a jade milkshake (a colour some attributed to the presence of a dragon that slept in there). Even the people of the town said they disliked it being for dirty, though there was often a double standard at work- those who wiped the seat of a bus or chair in a restaurant, or who insisted on sitting on newspaper, were also the same people I saw throw cans and tissues out of train and bus windows.

But Shaoyang was in an agricultural region. Whilst I often saw rubbish caught in the sluice gates of the dam- and once the burst body of a pig -there were few signs of industrial pollution, nor of the alterations of landscape depicted in Edward Burtynsky’s photos (click on them to enlarge).


Tanggu Port, Tianjin 2005


Feng Jie #4


Wang Zhou #4

Though it is clear from watching Manufactured Landscapes (the documentary about his work) that Burtynsky has a strong environmental stance, his pictures often have a neutrality about them- the sense of judgement witheld. The same cannot be said of Lu Guang’s photos which make plain the environemntal costs of China’s reliance on coal-fired power stations (approximately 80% of their energy).


15-year-old boy from Tianshui, Gansu Province


Longmen town in Hanchen city, Shaanxi Province


Tianjin Steel Plant, She County, Hebei Province, March 18, 2008

An army with no uniforms

I have a letter in the new LRB (dated September 24) which expands on one of the major causes of unrest in Xinjiang: the massive resettlement of Han Chinese in the province, many of whom are part of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organisation that has a controlling presence in both agriculture and industry in the region. I also respond to the claim (made in a letter responding to my piece) that the reports of atrocities during the riots in Urumqi in early July were in all liklihood true.

When I lived in Xinjiang I thought I understood how pervasive the XPCC presence was. In the process of doing only mild research, I have come to realise that I still underestimated the extent of their influence- they have their own TV station, they have built their own cities, and even have a parallel education system, from primary schools all the way up to university. Although parallels are often drawn between Xinjiang and Tibet, perhaps an equally instructive one could be drawn between the Israeli settler movement and the activities of the XPCC.

Sale of stuff

In a rearguard action to gain some shelf-space (and to support various legal ‘habits’) I’m selling some magazines and anthologies I’ve been in. I only have a few copies of each, so fortune will favour the bold.

For £6 (+£1 postage, UK only) you can get a copy of The Southern Review, which my story ‘The Ballad of Lucy Miller’ appeared in. Here’s a short Review of it.


For the same price, there’s the Edinburgh Review special issue on China that has a non-fiction piece about Xinjiang.


For £7 ((+£1 postage, UK only) you can buy a copy of the Willesden Herald Anthology that features my story ‘Amy’, and a fine story by Jo Lloyd entitled ‘Work’. There’s a review here.


Payments only accepted by PayPal. Send the £7 or £8 to

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