Book Review: The Emperor Far Away: Travels At The Edge Of China – David Eimer

Finished reading

This book named on an ancient Chinese proverb, ‘The hills are high and the emperor is far away’ is an excellent travelogue by David Eimer, the Post correspondent and the former China correspondent of Britain Sunday Telegraph, who travelled around the periphery of China between 2005 to 2012 to understand the lives of Chinese ethnic minorities (China recognises 55 of them and they are said to number about a 100 million) inhibiting the periphery of China. His travels took him to Xinxiang, Tibet, Yunan, Dongbei and to Heilongjiang. Interestingly, to circumvent the restrictions that Mr. Eimer would face in visiting some of these minority areas as a journalist, he used his second passport (which the Chinese don’t know about) which was stamped with a tourist visa.

His travels to Xinxiang and Tibet clearly reveal the chafe that the Uighurs and the Tibetans feel under the Han Chinese rule. There is a lot of distrust and resentment between these minorities and the Han Chinese population and the government. The feeling is mutual with the Hans too not having too much love lost for them. One Han which the author met characterised the Uighurs as Pandas, few in number and coddled by the government.   On the other hand, a young Uighur tells the author that we are not like the Chinese, we are Muslims and believe in Allah, they in turn believe only in money. Adherence to Islam is seen as a major problem by the regime and the Chinese government has done all in its power to control Islamic beliefs and practices. It has taken over the mosques and there is the China Islamic Association which appoints all Imams. Those under 18 are barred from going to mosques and Uighur only schools are also banned. This makes the Uighurs fear for their language and traditions. However, Uighurs still try and keep their own version of Islam alive by praying in some of the older non-governmental mosques. The author describes the changes he noticed in Kashgar, (a 1000 year old city), from the time he visited it earlier as a student. He mentions that the entire old city has been bulldozed in the name of modernisation and replaced with concrete apartment blocks. This obviously makes it easier for the police to monitor the citizens and their activities.

The situation is not much different in Tibet. During his entire trip there he is shadowed by an appointed guide with the old part of Lhasa city subjected to 24 hour armed patrols. (As a Hindu what was fascinating for me was his trek around the Mount Kailasa and Mansarovar. I did not know that Kailasa was a holy place for the Buddhist, Jains as well as the animists like Bon worshippers.) Further it was difficult for both the Uighurs and Tibetans it is to leave China as they are discriminated against also in issuance of passports. Generally, the young find it difficult to obtain a passport.

Interestingly the author finds different and subtle ways by which minorities have found ways to resist the Chinese (Han) government attempts at domination and homogenization. While the Uighurs show their resistance by open acts of terrorism and the Tibetans by their monks committing self-immolation, the Dais living in the sub-tropical climate of Dailand in Yunnan province do so by maintaining their own and ‘wearing a smile’ as the author says. They are seen as the ‘model’ minorities by the Chinese and so the government does not take a hard line here. But they maintain a janus like face and maintain a low profile seemingly being the ‘model’ minority but in their private space maintain their culture and traditions thus resisting homogenization.

The author takes a journey down the Mekong river in a boat in the area bordering Myanmar and Thailand, probably one of the most dangerous areas of the world which forms part of the infamous drug producing and supplying ‘golden triangle’. He manages to make a journey to the narco-state of Wa sitting at the border of China and Burma which is effectively independent. His host is the General of the Wa province and he describes a night spent there inhaling meth with hookers in a club having the son in law of the General and his lackeys for company. It is surprising the with all its addiction problem, the all-powerful Chinese state has little control over this place just across the border which is full of ‘child soldiers and teenage hookers…precious gems sold next to vegetables’.  It was heart wrenching to read about the trafficking of young girls from Myanmar’s Pengshang and being sold as brides for 5000 Euros in China. China with its one child policy has huge imbalance in its sex ratio due to the natural preference for boys. This problem is father accentuated with many young girls who are now better educated moving to cities in search of jobs. This has left many villages in rural China only with men and old women. The growing number of Chinese bachelors are referred to as ‘guand guan’ or ‘bare branches’ across rural China and they are willing to pay for these trafficked women. Poverty is also another reason forcing many Burmese women to migrate to China illegally for better jobs.

Of all the Chinese minorities it is the Koreans who occupy the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Province and seem to be the most well integrated and most trusted by the Chinese authorities. Unlike in Xinxiang and Tibet where the Hans live in segregation in their own parts of the cities, in Yanji the Hans and the Koreans co-exist in a far more amenable atmosphere. They have privileges that are denied to many other minorities like right to education in their own language at school or college. They also find it easy to obtain a passport.  Since there is no conflict between being Chinese by nationality and Korean culturally, the Koreans have little reason to resent the Han. One interesting aspect that came out in the book was the increasing interest that the Koreans are showing towards Christianity and also evangelical activity which is gradually unnerving the Chinese Communist Party which even served diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 in an effort to assert control over China’s Catholics.

The book ends with Mr. Eimer’s journey to the far north (Manchuria) where the city of Heihe sits just opposite the less prosperous city Russian city of Blagoveshchensk across the river Amur. Today many Russians cross the border every day to buy cheap stuff from the city of Heihe. The Chinese however it seems have not forgotten the 1858, Treaty of Aigum which formalised the division of Manchuria and allowed the Russians to occupy large parts of Manchuria without firing a shot. They were also for a long period of history the poor less important and junior partner of the USSR, post the communist revolution in 1949. Now that the power equations have changed, it seems they are doing everything possible to make the Russians realize it.  The author writes, “Every evening at 11 o’clock sharp, the street lights of Heihe dim abruptly. The electricity that fuels them instead is diverted to the multitude of neon lights and displays on the buildings displayed on the buildings overlooking the Amur. A Dongbei version of the glittering Las Vegas Strip, it is an unsubtle boast of how Heihe is thriving at the expense of far less luminous Blagoveshchensk, a nightly show whose significance is understood by every Russian.’ Further, the Russians while crossing the border after their shopping are treated rudely by the Chinese customs officials. The Russians of the far east also fear that the Chinese would expand in the resource rich areas of Russia, (under the classical principle of ‘lebensraum’), after all they are merely 6.5 million as compared to 100 million Chinese (in the north eastern provinces alone). Also the book brings out clearly the apathy of Moscow to these areas (air tickets to Moscow are exorbitantly high and many Russians in these areas find it easy to live in and visit China than go to the western parts of their country), thus making Russians living in these areas look more at the growing China for the betterment of their future than Russia. Systematically Chinese capital and traders are taking over the commercial enterprises of far east Russia, thus making it a commercial rather than imperial conquest.

All in all, an excellent read. One gets to understand how the Chinese state maintains its control over the minorities through a mix of military presence, suppression of local cultures and mass Han migration. It is pertinent to quote here what Mao had said, ‘We say China is a vast country, rich in resources and large in population. As a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich’






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