On Uighurs, Han, and general racial attitudes in China

Three more views on racial attitudes and tensions in China, following this and previous dispatches.

From a foreigner with experience in China

Regarding the "no Uighurs" sign, that type of thing is pretty common in China.  Many advertisements for foreign English teachers will include something like "Whites only" or a "Looking for Caucasian teachers" sentence somewhere in the text.  Additionally, many a native speaker have flown from their country to China only to find upon arrival that  regardless of the applicant's qualifications, the job could only be performed by a white person.  At these times the Chinese are usually polite and a little embarrassed (most Chinese are very nice people and mean no harm), but they will remain very firm in their conviction that a person with darker skin than theirs could not possibly make a good teacher.

I have experienced this on a number of occasions.  But after living in China for a while I realized that what we would consider racism in the West is simply a deeply ingrained cultural characteristic of mainland Chinese people.  White skin (the Chinese like to consider themselves white) and or being a Han (the dominant ethnic group) means a person is good.  Dark skin or not being Han means a person is inferior (and more likely to be a bad guy/a thief/incompetent etc.).  It does not equal KKK style hatred.  It does not even mean a Han Chinese wouldn't be friends with a person from India or Africa.  It simply means that if a person is non-white or a member of certain Chinese minorities, they simply are to be considered less smart, less competent and less trustworthy than the average white person or Han. [Ed note: This accords with my observation, with the caveat that I have observed this all as a middle aged white guy. Early discussion of Obama in China fit this pattern -- but changed after he took office.]
On a lighter note, the Chinese are not inflexible and when exposed to nice people of color they usually will change their minds quickly.  [Agree, as with Obama.] However, the tendency towards ethnic and racial chauvinism is a current running through Chinese culture that is unlikely to change in any meaningful way anytime soon.  "Truths" are rarely challenged here.

From a person with a Chinese name:

Your mentioning the sign ["Han Chinese only"] in Xinjiang provides half the question.  It's pretty obvious why the Uighurs are angry, but that doesn't explain why Han Chinese in Xinjiang are angry. I think that if you see this simply as a majority group trying to crush a minority group, then you miss the fact that the average Han Chinese in Xinjiang probably feels as oppressed and repressed as the Uighurs, and since they are competing for the same pool of jobs.  Just because you are Han Chinese doesn't mean that you are going to be in the Politburo.
One very tricky problem for the government is that if they start encouraging preferential treatment for Uighurs, this may have the effect of increasing resentment among Han Chinese in Xinjiang.  Remember that this whole thing started in Guangdong, when you had a Han Chinese worker that spread a very nasty rumor against Uighurs working for a toy factory, because the Han Chinese worker was fired.

This seems similar to the situation in the US south where you had class conflicts on top of racial ones.  There tended to be less racial tension in the upper classes, because people weren't fighting each other over jobs.  This also accounts for another curious thing which is that while there is a lot of sentiment among college educated Chinese against the foreign press, I've detected absolutely no sympathy for the Han Chinese demonstrators in Xinjiang amount college educated Chinese.  In fact, if you ask them privately I think that most Han Chinese outside of Xinjiang think of them as thugs and hooligans.  Also, the amount of anger directed at the foreign press seems to be a *lot* less than it was during the Tibetan protests a year ago.

There is another irony here and that a lot of the condescending attitudes that Han Chinese have toward Uighurs, and which provoke a nasty reaction are pretty much the same condescending attitudes that the West has toward China.  in both cases, what causes the anger is this idea that "you aren't smart enough to solve your own problems so we smarter people have to solve them for you."  Something that I've noticed is that there are a lot of people that have been quoted offering advice for what China should do, and this misses the point that given the mess in Iraq and the long struggle for social equity in the United States, there is no particular reason to think that outside solutions would work better than the solutions that Chinese come up with.


I am Chinese American  and I think that Uighurs are "Chinese too" and should be treated fairly and their rights and interests should be respected.

Anyway, as long as they are not fairly treated, the they will continue to agitate and Han Chinese will suffer too.

I think we should have a civil rights law in China (like we do in the USA) that protects Chinese minorities too and that bans discrimination.

Besides, just because you don't want to eat a certain type foods, does not mean that you can not cook it. [This in response to Chinese arguments that since Uighur Muslims can't eat pork, the restaurant is doing them a favor by saying they can't apply for a job.] A lot of Han Chinese have food preferences, but they can cook whatever on the menu that the customer wants.

I have traveled to many countries around the world, including Europe, Asia. and South America. and the USA is only one of the very few countries that have laws protecting minorities and baning discrimination. 

I think that this is an American example that the rest of the world needs to adopt.

Many more in the queue.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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