Growing Up Han: Reflections on a Xinjiang Childhood

By Timothy B. Weston

The US media rarely covers the regular people who are living in the areas of China with large ethnic minorities. In chatting with a Han Chinese student (Han Chinese are by far the largest ethnic group in China) at the University of Colorado named Leong, I was struck by his nuanced perspective on his experiences growing up in Xinjiang, a province in western China with large populations of Hui (ethnically Chinese Muslims), Uighers (Turkic Muslims), and other ethnic minorities. Given the recent discussions in the Western media—in light of the situation in Tibet—of Chinese policies toward ethnic minorities, I thought China Beat’s readers might be interested to hear from Leong.

(Timothy B. Weston conducted this interview with Leong on April 23, 2008.)

Timothy B. Weston: Please explain who you are and where you grew up and when?

Leong: I was born in Urumqi to Han parents. I grew up in Urumqi and lived there for 18 years in a neighborhood of kids from different ethnic groups, such as Uighurs, Hui, Tajikis, Kirghiz, Kazaks and Han. My school was ethnically integrated. Though most students were Han, there also many Uighurs and Kazaks and even more Hui. There were two kinds of schools in Xinjiang when I was growing up – one kind had students of all ethnic backgrounds and the language of instruction was Chinese. There were also special schools for ethnic minorities where instruction was in their native language. Otherwise the curriculum was the same. It was up to the parents where to send their kids. More ethnic students went to special schools where there were no Han Chinese and instruction was in their native languages. Recently the Xinjiang government combined the two types of schools together, so the teachers have to learn the other languages. According to the old model, when the students took exams to enter the next level of school they took different tests and answered different questions depending on who they were. Now all the questions are the same. Han Chinese kids never have to learn ethnic languages. There was no serious tension or self-segregation among students when I was a student. That is because all students speak Chinese and share the same culture and talk about similar subjects. When I was a student at a mixed school virtually all teachers were Han, though there were also a few Hui teachers, but none were Uighurs or Kazaks because they don’t speak Chinese. The mother tongue of the Hui people is Chinese.

TW: Was your parents’ generation equally integrated with the other ethnic groups?

Leong: It was even more integrated than in my generation. My parents had a very close Kazak friend. My parents felt equally friendly toward all ethnic groups. Some Han Chinese were very biased, however. I lived in a mixed area of the city, where people regularly interacted with others from different ethnic groups. Some who live in more exclusively Han areas display bias toward other ethnic groups. I did not understand the difference between myself and other ethnic groups until I was 5 or 6 years old. I only knew their faces were different. In festivals they would dress distinctively, but otherwise we all dressed the same way.

TW: How are ethnic relations changing as some in Xinjiang are becoming more wealthy?

Leong: From the perspective of the market economy, now that there is a free market there are definitely some groups that are more talented, shrewd and able to take advantage of the new opportunities. In villages this is less true. Some who have become wealthier are traveling more to the Central and Western Asia for business and are exposed to Islamic fundamentalist ideas and as a result are becoming more fundamentalist. These people, when they come back to Xinjiang, sometimes propagate fundamentalist ideas such as the idea of a Holy War against the infidels and in favor of an independent East Turkestan state. Their immediate goal is an East Turkestan Islamic state. But so far there has not been a survey that indicates how much influence those radical ideas and are having in China. I do not personally know anyone who has become a fundamentalist.

TW: To what extent are members of other ethnic groups in Xinjiang trying to move inland, to other parts of China?

Leong: It’s a general trend that with a booming economy people want to move to more prosperous areas to make money, and many succeed. But that number is smaller than the number who travel to Central or Western Asia, where the ethnic groups are more similar and thus easier to navigate. Many who travel to Central and Western Asia are not radicalized. Only some are radicalized. I have a Uighur high school classmate whose father did business in Western Asia but showed no signs of fundamentalism.

TW: In your entire life in Xinjiang you never personally encountered any separatists?

Leong: No, never. It’s my sense that these radical ideas are not dominant among ethnic people. Another reason might be because it is very dangerous to discuss these ideas in public. In this sense, it’s consistent with the general political atmosphere in China. Of course, I did encounter racial discrimination and was at times taunted by students by other ethnicities because Hans eat pork and are not Muslims and are viewed as infidels. I was robbed many times by older kids from other ethnic groups when I was growing up. They picked on me because I am Han. But all ethnic groups have bad people. Generally, in the U.S. life is peaceful but we cannot deny that there are crimes and racism here, too. In every society, there are some people who are not satisfied with the status quo, who are discontent with others. For me, the taunts and robberies do not change the larger reality that the different ethnic groups mostly live together peacefully in Xinjiang.

TW: Are you still in contact with friends from your childhood and if so which types of people?

Leong: I call my friends in Xinjiang several times a month. I call them because they are my friends, not because they are of any specific ethnic groups. Some of the people I call are Uighurs.

TW: As someone who grew up in that environment, do you think you think differently about the recent troubles in Tibet?

Leong: Yes, definitely. The experience of living in Xinjiang, where there are other ethnic groups, leads me to understand that there are some problems with the Chinese government’s policies toward minority ethnic groups. I tend to think that some Tibetans are truly unhappy. In the free market economy local officials are more powerful and have much more leeway over the implementation of policies set by the central government and frequently they carry out polices that benefit themselves, which means they may distort or ignore the central government’s preferential polices toward ethnic minorities.

TW: How do you respond to the outpouring of Chinese nationalism in reaction to criticism of China’s Tibet policy from outside China?

Leong: First of all, I think it’s understandable because the claim from some Tibetan exiles is that Tibet should be separated from the People’s Republic of China. When we study Chinese history we know how much Chinese sacrificed to hold the country together. I understand the Han response to the separatist movement in Tibet. But I also think the extreme nationalist reaction is dangerous because it has resulted in a lost chance for all Chinese people to examine what is going wrong with ethnic policies. The outpouring of nationalism focused too much attention on patriotism and away from the very real problems at hand. There’s been too much focus on the separatist threat and bias in the Western media. Many Chinese people think about this the way I do but do not want to speak out because they are afraid of being labeled traitors, which comes in handy for those stupid so-called “patriots.”

TW: What do you think of Beijing’s handling of the recent ethnic conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang?

Leong: I think as a political party that is ruling over a modern and in some respects a post-modern country like China, the Chinese government’s tactics and actions are reminiscent of those used by nineteenth century political actors. They do not understand how to communicate with the rest of the world in a way the rest of the world can understand. They show little knowledge of public relations. I think there are many good things going on in the ethnic regions, such as preferential policies, but why does the rest of the world know so little about this? And why does the rest of the world have such a bad view of what China does in these areas? The public relations is terrible and stupid—for example, the recent decision to kick foreign journalist out of Tibet. As someone from Xinjiang, I mostly have no criticisms of the Chinese government’s current polices in the ethnic regions. Generally, the ethnic groups really do benefit more than the Han. On college entrance exams the ethnic groups are given preferential treatment, and they do not have to submit to family planning policy. They have their own TV programs in their own languages. The Han are actually the minority in Tibet and Xinjiang, in a numerical sense. I disagree with Western media accounts that report that Han Chinese are pouring into Tibet. Unlike Tibet, Xinjiang is rich in natural resources and business opportunities, and not located at a high altitude; it’s more comfortable for Han Chinese, so more Han come to Xinjiang than to Tibet. But at the same time, many first or second generation (after the founding of People’s Republic of China) Han Chinese left Xinjiang because they were disappointed by the policies and quality of life there, which is due to the huge gap between the western region and the eastern coast. This has been under reported.

TW: How do you feel about Xinjiang as your home?

Leong: I love Xinjiang, its culture and its people (regardless of ethnicity). It is my home.

Images borrowed from the following websites:
Xinjiang in China Map from: www.ccc.nps.navy.mil/images/si/xinjiang.gif


J said...

Great interview. He makes an interesting point on reverse migration, though from what I saw and heard in Tibet there still were many Chinese moving in- but then personal experience isn't a good judge of what's actually going on. Regardless, given that Tibet is such a difficult place to live in, and given how vast Tibet is, I'm optimistic about Tibetan culture's chances for survival.

Unknown said...

I came to the States in 1987 and currently reside in Missouri. My father went to Xinjiang as a volunteer to help develop the region and ordered to stay. I was born and grew up in Urumqi and left in 1979 to attend a college in Beijing, only to return a year later to help my family to relocate to HeBei province and never returned since the relocation in 1980. Interestingly, I am planning on taking my son who is about to graduate from high school to visit Xinjiang this summer.

I can only speak for sixties and seventies. I think the minority policies by the the central government went way beyond the affirmative action here in the states. The ethnic minorities are exempted from some restrictive regulations. The one stood out is the so called "one-child" policy. It applies to Han Chinese only. We had quota on jobs, college admission for the ethnic minorities. In my graduating high school class of 1979 we had about a dozen Han Chinese could not even make it to a college, while Uighers with the same score could attend the top ranking colleges/universities in Beijing and Xian. Another example I can share here is that the ethnic minorities could get away from just about anything other than "Independent Eastern Turkistan". The Han Chinese younsters learnt not to get involved in any arguments or fist fights with Uighers. At the time the Uighers could beat up Han Chinese and left unpunished while reverse is severely penalized all due this "Minority Policy". There was quite a bit of resentment from the Han Chinese in the region at the time as we got the short end of everything.

I agree with a lot been said here by the interviewee. I like to share my view on the PR portion regarding Chinese Government. I disagree that there is much can be done there. The Western media should be considered profit-seeking business rather than the symbol of democracy. I still remember NBC fabricating the video of GM pickup truck caught fire due to a side collision. More viewers means more $ and nothing more nothing less. When it comes to China anything goes. You will see in just about anything the Western media that 2/3 of it is copy and paste. Even those have reporters stationed in China would plug in the template with a paragraph about an event and maybe a photo. I for one know that this has been going on as long as I could remember. In regard to Tibet you just don't see anything go deeper that the claim of early 50's invasion. The West has adopted a uniform bible approach. They all take on the CIA line from the time. No questions allowed/asked. The invasion is in the Western media's bible. I've been living in the States about 20 years. I've yet to run into anyone who knows a thing or two about Tibet more than just one-line claim of Chinese invaded Tibet. The recent nationalism is the response/backlash to the long-time Western media/politician bias. I am not sure there is much can be done. I've given up trying to argue with stupidity. I find too often than not that Chinese, Chinese Government, and Communism been used interchangeably. I don't know a single American who knows even Chinese Government does not call China communist country. It is call "socialist country".

An interesting experience I can share here. When I was a student in China I fond myself defending the value of the West against the old school. I thought the west definitely doing something right to have a much advance economy and technological edge. I argued that there was no way everything from the West was bad. In the States here I fond myself defending China in specific cases.

Anonymous said...

How should China communicate itself to the world, has long been an underadressed issue. Somehow, there has never been an even relevation about how China sees the world, how China sees itself, and how world sees China. One hand does not clap. Western media organizations mostly are run privately, not by the government. So the biased reports may really come from a lack of knowledge, or consciousness about what is really going on, because the voice of China is missing. It can be only a perception, not something tested. I trully hope this is just the chance for China to realize the middle kingdom does not stand alone in the world, but as a part of it, with others. This new "self-consciousness" will help China to show what it is and find its true position in the world, not only to the ouside, but more importantly to itself. I'm so looking forward to what is gonna take place. Well, the "China Now" exhibition in London from Feb till July this year, says it's already happening.

Anonymous said...

This is a comment I am going to make as a Minkaohan Uyghur. I am not anti-Chinese because I am not a racist. I have several very good Chinese friends back in Xinjiang (my university classmates) but when we meet, we hardly talk about politics (or ethnic relationship if you like). I have only one Chinese friend overseas and we talk about these things freely, although she often ended up quite shocked by the stories that I had told her. After reading the interview of Leong and the comment by chunshengluo, I felt the sincerity in their thoughts and ideas, and how they were trying to make unbiased statements.

I agree that in the 70s and even 80s, the Uyghurs did have relatively comfortable and relaxed social and cultural settings to live, or to survive (I don’t want to talk about pre-70 period because that would not be my personal experience). I, as an ethnic minority kid at Chinese school did not face discrimination from neither fellow-students nor teachers. This is not to deny that there were some small incidents such as Uyghur kids and Han kids would get into fight and sometimes during the fight, there would be some malicious words targeting at each other’s ethnic background involved. But I would not elevate it to the level of racial discrimination. My parents and their Chinese colleagues would pay reciprocal visits at the time of Islamic festivals and Chinese New Year. The Uyghur kids and their parents enjoyed total freedom in choosing a school based on language instruction. But together with these quite rosy situations, I gradually realized the difference, or gaps existed between me and my neighbors who went to Uyghur schools. I had plenty, as a matter of fact, more than plenty text books, exercise books and dictionaries as study tools at Chinese schools; while my neighbors had only one text book to use for each subject and that would be their only tools to prepare for university entrance exams! This was not something to do with the financial situation, it was a mere impossibility in getting access to any because there were none available! Thus it is really not hard to imagine how a Uyghur student who merely relies on one text book to compete with a Han kid who has extraordinary resources in his possession for studying and learning. I often come across some Han people who mention vigorously on the preferential policies implemented by Chinese government on ethnic minority education. However hardly anyone would trace the factual situation. For example, in a certain urban setting in Xinjiang, only in the very recent 2003, the ratio of teachers to students was 1:12 at Han schools and 1: 22 at Uyghur schools. This did not mean that there were not trained teachers available. Many Uyghur graduates, some graduated from Beijing University could not get a job, even at a primary school because they are simply Uyghur. Most Uyghur schools did not have any heating system in long winter season and all Chinese schools had modern equipped heating system on nicely built campuses. This means, the Uyghur kids, even those 8, 9 year old kids have to make fire at their classrooms in turn on duty, with coal. And sometimes, they have to share the cost for this coal. One thing deserves to be mentioned: if you go to a ‘job market/fair’ in Urumchi, on most of the tables of the potential employers, it is clearly written ‘no Uyghur’. And this is not a ‘fairy’ tale but reality. There are too many examples like this and I don't want to make the story too long.

Chunshengluo mentioned how he knew that the Uyghur would beat up Han in ‘the past’ and the government would just let it go. I don’t want to comment on this because I never witnessed any. However in recent years, I personally, and my reliable friends witnessed plenty incidents that a Han beat up a Uyghur (or a Han and a Uyghur had an argument on the street) and some policemen came, even without questioning anything they would take away THE Uyghur and if a witness nearby commented on ‘what exactly happened’, this very witness was also taken away……

All in all, inequality and discrimination exist in many spheres of society and life. I just want to end this with two of my own experience:
1. Once I was taking a taxi from Beijing international airport to downtown Beijing. As usual, the taxi driver started to talk eloquently. When he knew that I was still holding a Chinese passport, he said, ‘hey, you should really get a greencard. As a Uyghur, it is very difficult for you to find a hotel that would allow you to stay, unless you go to Xinjiang Banshichu. If you have a foreign passport, people will look at you differently’.
2. In a certain occasion in a certain country, I got to know some very nice young Chinese students. One day I met one of them, a 20 year old guy from Wuhan on a train. He talked about how he would like to go to Xinjiang one day and how he thought that was an exotic place to visit. When I encouraged him to go and find it out himself, he said, ‘but would it be safe to go? I heard that the local Uyghurs hate the Chinese. Every Uyghur man has a long knife, 来一个杀一个. (they kill every Han Chinese as soon as they arrive)”…. I laughed.

enzehan said...

I am a Han Chinese currently doing some research in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Quite different from either Xinjiang or Tibet, here in Inner Mongolia the relationship between the ethnic Han and Mongol in general are quite amicable and there is not much going as in the other two places. However, one thing I notice from talking to many Mongol intellectuals, they hope the government or the society will do something about improving the majority Han Chinese' bias or prejudice towards the ethnic minorities, such as some Han Chinese would make fun of the Mongol's less fluent Mandarin etc. There are no big conflicts between the two group, and indeed intermarraige between the two are very high (in some regions more than 30%). But there are these small things that the majority would never notice, but as a minority one would. Indeed, I think this is something that the Han Chinese, and the same for most majorities in multicultural societies, should realize and show more understanding to the minorities. When I was back in the states, my students always complain about how affirmative action has negatively affected their chances for good universities (they were of course all white middle class kids). The same perhaps also applies in some regard to why some Han Chinese would complain about the special treatment ethnic minorities would get.

That said, I think there are lots of misunderstandings between groups in China, and this is far from unique in China's regard. More communication between the two would certainly make it better. For example, once I talked to a Han Chinese from Xinjiang, who complained that some Uighurs would taunt him to go back to where his parents came from. But for him, Xinjiang is his home. The impact of this kind of thing will eventually accumulate to build up a strong anti-feeling towards the other group. More communication and more understanding by both of each other is definitely worth the while for peace and stability.

One last thing. Something quite astonishing happened during the CCTV 3 (China's central television) hosting the annual national singing contest. And in final round of the "folk song contest (yuan sheng tai)", they provided translators for Uighurs, Khazaks, and Tibetans who couldn't answer in Mandarin. Also in one round test of one's knowledge, questions were designed to fit for each ethnic group that was present. For example, the Mongol singer picked the Mongol question that asked him about Gadamerin and of courese he had no problem of answering it. These kind s of support is the first ever that the hosting party has given, since previously all the questions would be the same and usually very much Han-centered. I hope more and more of this kind of measures will be taken in the future...

Anonymous said...

I'd like to believe what you personally experienced were true facts; the inequality and discrimination against minorities in China do exist. But by and large I assume that either in Xinjiang or Xizang things have not reached to a point of crisis, although there are so many unaddressed urgent issues that might threaten serious civil unrest, not unlike the situations in China’s other poor provinces.

I once met a Uyghur singer/writer born in the late 1970s, a graduate from Xian University, who happened to be strongly identifying himself with Han and other minority cultures, a modernist in taste and close to be a nationalist and lefty in politics—the first time he took a walk through Tiananmen Square he was for no obvious reason moved to tears. But most of his songs were about passionate love for homeland which for him it meant both Xinjiang and China simultaneously.

He told me that majority of Uyghurs and Han people were getting along well; people in xinjiang condemned the violence created by the religious extremists. He too admitted that he experienced some discrimination against him in Beijing. Once he checked into a hotel he had to give phone numbers for the hotel clerk to check with the authority in his hometown to know if he had had any criminal record. He said he could understand the situation as a series of violent incidents against Han conducted by the Uyghur radical extremists not long ago that year had shocked the nation; the police had to adopt certain messures.

I wonder how many minoirty people in China like this singer and others who must have felt caught up yet felt powerless to control the situation.

Anonymous said...

Well, this interview promised a more "nuanced perspective" on Xinjiang, but in the end we are told:

"As someone from Xinjiang, I mostly have no criticisms of the Chinese government’s current polices in the ethnic regions. Generally, the ethnic groups really do benefit more than the Han."

I don't feel like the views expressed here are particularly "nuanced". They sound very familiar, in fact. It's natural that as the Chinese government becomes more PR-savvy in its presentation of its domestic problems, the discourse adopted by educated Chinese towards these problems will change. But just because someone is not adhering to a simplistic "big-brother/little-brother" narrative, does not mean that they have an un-biased grasp of the situation. In particular, Leong's comment that:

"there are definitely some groups that are more talented, shrewd and able to take advantage of the new opportunities."

smacks of racism. When someone in the US argues that Blacks are naturally pre-disposed to miss out on economic opportunities, they are rightly condemned. Why should we lower our standards for someone from China?

I think there's a tendency for people in the West to promote such "open-minded" Chinese intellectuals, ignoring the fact that their views actually differ very little from the official CCP line.

Anonymous said...

"I think there's a tendency for people in the West to promote such "open-minded" Chinese intellectuals, ignoring the fact that their views actually differ very little from the official CCP line."

Come on, it was just an interview with someone who happened to have a first-hand experience of growing up in Xinjiang. You may interview someone with different life experience and post it here if you like.

What's wrong with the Chinese intellectuals sometimes siding with official CCP line as long as CCP is not a 100% evil government running out legitimacy, as long as that particular official line is in the interests of Chinese people and Chinese nation?

Anonymous said...

From an American perspective, it seems to me like the different perspectives on "affirmative action" for minorities in China is the same as the discussion in the U.S.

That is, the majority can't believe how well the minority has it, with preferential programs for jobs and education. Meanwhile, the minority can see clearly how much their lives are still disadvantaged compared with the majority, and continue to complain.

The truth about affirmative action and other preferential policies for minorities is that they are ONLY policies... and just having a policy doesn't mean the problems have been solved.

Anonymous said...

to Minkaohan Uyghur
I am a Han Chinese and I really appreciate your comments here. I spend all my life live, study, and work in the Han ethnic areas in China and never had a chance to talk to people from other ethnic groups (let alone making friends).

and a general question to people reading this blog:
What puzzles me about the discussion of ethnic tensions in Xinjiang is that it is always about the Uyghur and the Han. What happened to other ethnic groups in the region, such as the Kazakh, the Hui, the Kirghiz, and the Mongols?? They have no problem at all living with the the Uyghur and the Han?

I wish I could hear more from these minority groups in the region too.

The China Beat said...

I just wanted to add a clarifying note as I thought perhaps not all our readers would know what the fourth commentor meant by calling himself "minkaohan." As I understand it, "minkaohan" are minorities who learned (and attended school in) Mandarin, as opposed to "minkaomin," who grew up speaking their native language. I would be curious to hear more about how that distinction is understood and discussed in China, if anyone is interested in adding their own comments and clarifications.

The comments here have been wonderful to read, and I particularly want to thank all the posters who have shared their own stories.

--Kate M-H

enzehan said...

On Minkaohan and minkaomin, my understanding is for a minkaomin student, he or she will take the national exam in his or her native language. For example, a Uighur student take the exam in the Uighur language. For minkaohan, the exam will be in Han Chinese, but he or she can get lower passing grades to enter university.

Unknown said...

""there are definitely some groups that are more talented, shrewd and able to take advantage of the new opportunities."

smacks of racism. When someone in the US argues that Blacks are naturally pre-disposed to miss out on economic opportunities, they are rightly condemned. Why should we lower our standards for someone from China?"

But upon further reading, it appears that what was meant was that some business/political-savvy people went to Central Asia and Central China for business, and other business/political-savvy people moved into XJ. Then, some among those business/political-savvy people contributed to the intensifying of ethnic tensions. I don't think she was specifying any specific ethnicity to said "groups".

Furthermore, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by calling her an "open-minded" intellectual. Just a regular person. I think that's what the author meant by "nuanced". A regular person with a relevant background speaking without all the academic theorizing and holier-than-thou morality. I think the interviewee and especially Minkaohan both gave very interesting perspectives that are not charged with the melodrama and theatrics of mainstream media.

I also think that perhaps it's irrelevant whether the speakers are "open-minded" when they are sounding opinions. Although I'm not exactly sure what your opinion is, all of us have the same right to express ourselves however we choose. Please don't discourage people from expressing their views just because they happen to side with the un-trendy CCP. Remember that true freedom is the right to choose, not just to blindly rebel. Peace.