Traveling in China’s heavily Islamic, far-western region of Xinjiang a few years ago, I stopped on a whim to get a haircut before boarding a flight from the capital, Urumqi, back to Shanghai. As I chatted with the two barbers in their tiny shop, I was surprised to learn that both of them were engineers. Why were they cutting hair? “Because Chinese people don’t hire Uighurs for skilled jobs. They work with their own kind.”
In the Orwellian geographical nomenclature of modern China, Xinjiang, an area as large as Western Europe, is not called a province. Instead it is known as an “autonomous region”—a description that could hardly be further from reality, given that Uighurs play little role in running their historical home. But that’s not all. Xinjiang, which borders Mongolia, Tibet and Kazakhstan, is enjoying a remarkable economic boom, even by Chinese standards, fueled by the exploration for and production of hydrocarbons: They are more abundant in Xinjiang than anywhere else in the country. Yet the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic group, complain that they get almost none of the action.
David Eimer’s “The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China” is a work of reportage about the fortunes of men like my barbers—the 100 million or so Chinese who are not members of the giant Han majority. These characters are scattered among China’s 55 officially recognized minority groups and are mostly draped along the country’s perimeter, a testament to the fact that they and their lands were incorporated into China during a long and fitful process of imperial expansion that reached its peak in the 19th century.
Mr. Eimer, the Beijing correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, fittingly opens his book in Xinjiang, which vies with Tibet as the most alienated part of this vast imperial concoction. Both are supposedly autonomous areas that have been the targets of what the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has called a “cultural genocide” carried out by Beijing. The difference is that many in the West have come to identify with Tibet, not least because a number of Hollywood actors have made it a cause célèbre, for reasons that have to do with Westerners’ warm and fuzzy notions of Buddhism.
The Emperor Far Away
By David Eimer
(Bloomsbury, 322 pages, $28)
The Uighurs not only have no commonly recognized leader—never mind one as charismatic as the Dalai Lama—but also practice Islam at a time when, fairly or not, that religion enjoys anything but a warm and fuzzy reputation. As a result, their plight has remained nearly invisible to much of the outside world, despite China’s intense efforts, which began under the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, to homogenize the region and assimilate its population. Beijing’s approach in Xinjiang, as it is in Tibet, is soup to nuts: The Communist Party pushes hard to impose the Chinese language by conducting all basic education in Mandarin. It encourages the mass migration of members of the Han majority to Xinjiang. And it takes stern measures, such as prohibiting beards among state employees and barring mosque attendance for those under 18, to discourage the practice of Islam by Uighurs. This strategy was apparent this year during Ramadan, when state media issued propaganda that fasting was unhealthy. And according to reports from the BBC, some Muslim college students were forced to eat meals with professors in order to prove that they were not religiously observant.
Beijing’s efforts to cement its hold on China’s fractious borderlands—often literally, through transportation networks and other public works—is a topic of weighty concern. Its success or failure will go far in determining what kind of country China becomes in the 21st century. Will it remain a highly centralized, unitary state? Will it develop a more fully fledged multiculturalism, or even pluralism? Or will today’s sputtering, low-grade Uighur terrorism—a form of resistance to the Party’s repressive policies—morph into something more convulsive? Finally, will China break up or at least fail to fully jell, falling victim to the splintering that its leaders almost obsessively warn against? Mr. Eimer’s Uighur contacts dream about a sharp economic downturn in China or help from the outside world as their best hope for some degree of autonomy or cultural survival, but the author rightly attaches little credence to such outcomes.
Mr. Eimer occasionally shows a fine touch with descriptions of place. Describing a trek to Mount Kailash, a sacred place to several religions, he writes: “From far off, Kailash appears as a beautiful black and white diamond that has been planted arbitrarily on Earth. Close up, it is a brooding, unsettling presence.” Unfortunately, he has taken on an intricate subject and treated it weightlessly. He skips along China’s circumference, enumerating ethnic groups like a 19th-century colonial, gravitating toward bars and night clubs as his chosen listening posts and engaging in rank stereotypes even as he denounces them.
Mr. Eimer displays a boyish enthusiasm for these remote locales, but he rarely pauses long enough to convey much beyond the surface. “Smart, pretty but single women are an increasingly common phenomenon in China,” he asserts at one point. “Like so many ordinary Chinese I’d met, the future wasn’t something he planned for: Things just happened, good or bad, whether you liked them or not,” Mr. Eimer writes about one character. “Mostly they were bad. . . . China is a cruel and unpredictable country, so it is understandable why most of its people concentrate on the immediate—the next meal, the next bus ride—and leave the rest to fate.” Not only are passages like these suffused with dumbfounding generalizations and cliché, but they also ignore the fact that most Chinese, whatever their individual problems, have witnessed startling improvements in their standard of living over the last generation.
As the situation of its minorities suggests, China remains incompletely baked as a nation. Its attempts to unify such a vast and varied population is one of the great unfolding stories of this century. It’s a story of enormous complexity that deserves more serious treatment.
Mr. French teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.”