Is There Really No Racism in China?

Is There Really No Racism in China?
Jul 09, 2009 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang, www ,

Most of us have heard a Chinese friend say, quite confidently, that there is no racism in China. Students have asked me about racism in America, imagining, perhaps a 1950s pre-civil rights era place, where African Americans are forced into separate schools and routinely beaten. Of course, explaining the subtleties of race in a country where multiculturalism is an unknown concept is nearly impossible. Part of the reason most Chinese can assert that China lacks racism is because China, for the most part, lacks race.

But recent events in Xinjiang province remind everyone in China that there are indeed races here, and that cultural differences do exist. The Uighurs in Xinjiang are perhaps the most ethnically and culturally different from the Han majority of all of China’s 56 minorities. They do not share a common Confucian based cultural ethic, a religion, or a language, with the Han. They even look different. By all definitions that most societies use to define race, the Uighurs are a different one from the Han, and what’s more, they are distinctly visible in almost every larger city, often living in enclaves of their own, sometimes speaking rather poor Mandarin, wearing distinctive clothing, and just standing out in general.

According to the authorities here in China, recent rioting in Xinjiang was sparked by Uighurs gathering to protest the killing of two Uighur workers in a factory in Guangdong province. Apparently there was a feeling that not enough had been done and that the deaths had been largely ignored due to the victims being minorities. Of course the violence which erupted, targeted largely at the Han majority, is deplorable and, make no mistake, there is certainly no justification for such violent acts, however, perhaps we should consider, for just a moment, the original complaint of the demonstrators, and ask, did they have a point, one that got lost amidst all the violence and mayhem that followed?

Even before these recent events, if you asked many Han Chinese people, average people you’d meet on the street, how they felt about people from Xinjiang, particularly Uighurs, you’d have no small number of people telling you they couldn’t be trusted, that they were thieves, kidnappers, and possibly terrorists. My own husband resisted the idea of traveling to Xinjiang for years, claiming the place was “too dangerous,” and that “terrorists” lived there (in a stroke of irony, I had finally convinced him to take a trip to Xinjiang this year, when these events happened. I figure our trip is now postponed until at least 2020). Part of this is due to the fact that the Han Chinese and these Islamic, Central Asian people find it hard to find a common ground, outside of their shared Nationality. Another, rather big part, I am sure, is due to high profile Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, and Hollywood movies portraying terror, almost universally, as the result of Islam. And Xinjiang does have fundamentalist groups, radical Islamic elements, and yes, probably a few terrorists or wannabe terrorists. However, fearing and distrusting the Uighur guy selling walnuts on the street or the owner of the restaurant where we happily eat noodles and mutton is about as misguided as an American blaming the Pakistani family next door for 9-11, and is, of course, an example of just the racism that isn’t supposed to exist in China.

So which is it? Is there racism here or not? The truth is, China has never dealt well with difference, especially within the citizenry. While lip-service is played to the idea of preserving minority culture, it is clear that most of the Han majority are far more comfortable with the kind of culture you see in Lijiang than the kind of culture you might see in a place like Kashgar. One kind of


culture is clean, neat, packaged and ribbon-tied, presented to be consumed in a non-threatening way. There is very little threat of the Naxi people, after all, telling the Han to take a hike and take their culture with them. But this is exactly what some minorities, like the Uighur, have done. It must be hard for Han Chinese, not used to multiculturalism, to not take the resistance on the part of this minority towards, say learning Chinese, or their choice of religious schools for their children rather than public schools, as a form of rejection of Chinese culture, rather than preservation of their own culture. And maybe they are right. Because in many ways, China forces a choice: you either embrace us or reject us, but there can be no in-between.

The truth is, there is racism here as surely as there is race. This is, in fact, unavoidable. But there is an important message behind the violence that has taken place in Urumqi, one that should not be lost, and that is: in order for multiple cultures to exist harmoniously in one country, there needs first to be a self-awareness, an awareness of prejudice and the roots. It does no one any good to simply say “but there is no prejudice!” Certainly thousands of people would not have taken to the streets over an imagined slight. It is possible that sometimes the authorities, being human and having their own biases, might sometimes allow those biases to get in the way of their judgment. When biases translate into action, that is racism, (and its relatives, classism, and sexism). The mistake is for any country, anywhere in the world, to assume that these biases don’t exist and to declare racism extinct, for it exists, and when ignored the consequences can be deadly, for all sides of the equation.

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