Profiling

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The other week, my graduate students were working on the unit "Safety and Crime," so I asked them in class about any incidents they recently had seen or heard. None of them even knew about the Sichuan man who detonated a bomb in an Urumqi office building two months ago. Finally YT, one of my agriculture students, piped up that after leaving a bar late one night in Urumqi, he witnessed three Uyghurs jump out of a taxi and stab an innocent bystander to death. Soon, other students, completely unprompted, claimed that they feared minorities in Xinjiang because "Uyghurs were thieves," among other slanderous comments. That same day, my sophomores were studying stereotypes in their textbooks. Of course I mentioned what had happened in my morning classes. Immediately ZCC, whose family still lives in Kashgar, protested "but that's PREJUDICE!"

These brazen words surprised me because Han students often insist that everyone lives harmoniously in China. Instead, YT and ZCC's comments represent a wide range of opinions about the so-called minority question, which forced me to think about two issues: first, the stereotype of Uyghurs, and second, the definition of theft in China. In my limited experience here, I had not encountered any pickpockets in China, let alone Xinjiang, until last Friday night. I was walking around the night market in Urumqi, when I saw a Han Chinese shopkeeper slap a young Uyghur man over and over again, screaming "Thief! Thief! Thief!" (In Chinese, 偷! 偷! 偷!, or literally, "Steal! Steal! Steal!"). Given the overwhelming response from my graduate students, I only can assume that while both Han and Uyghurs pick pockets, Uyghurs tend to target Han. This suggests other motives beyond petty theft, like frustration or retaliation against what Uyghurs see as systematic discrimination. Moreover, CWB raised the concern that the establishment criminalizes certain sections of the population; that is, Uyghurs in most Xinjiang cities, except Urumqi and Kashgar, do not have opportunities for upward social mobility. In such a situation, many people turn to crime, and others suffer its consequences-- namely, a terrible reputation.

Besides Uyghur stereotypes, I also wondered what exactly constitutes theft in China. For instance, a month ago I bought a lemon at a fruit stand near my neighborhood. As I was about to pay, the Han seller asked me, "Are you Uyghur or Hui?" When I told her that I was an American, she instantly gave me a one-kuai discount. Though negligible in amount, this discount shows some of the racial discrimination that occurs in a shopping culture where people accept inflation and bargaining as the norm. Likewise, taxi drivers bully me to pay up to three times the market price once they see that I am not Han. Their profits sometimes equal what a thief could steal from my wallet. Cheating customers can be considered a more overt form of thieving; if this is the case, then both Uyghurs and Han try to undermine each other in the marketplace, only using different means.

2 Comments

Might the lemon seller have given you the discount not so much for your not being Uighur as for your being American? Maybe she can win your future custom with a gesture like that - and how great to have a real meiguoren on your client list, instead of just another boring old Han/Hui/Uighur!

Visiting this place first time today through a link at fool's mountain blog...great place, pity I did not know about your blog before.

I guess your 10 months in China / Xinjiang are coming to the end soon. Good luck for whatever you are doing next!