It was broad daylight in a busy part of Beijing when a local doctor—a friend of mine—rear-ended the car in front of hers. Though it wasn’t a major accident, she was frightened to step outside of her BMW to survey the aftermath of the collision. The 41-year-old pathologist says, “I wasn’t hurt and I don’t think I hit the other car hard enough to hurt anyone in their car. But there was no way I was getting out.”
What spooked her wasn’t any potential damage to her vehicle, or the honking cars negotiating the Chinese capital’s notoriously busy streets. It was the occupants of the car she hit. “I could tell they were Uyghurs, and they can be very violent,” she explains. “I thought they might attack me.”
Her prejudice, while seeming extreme, has sadly become commonplace among Beijing’s 20 million residents and across China. Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang province in western China. Many Uyghurs migrate to big Chinese cities in search of work opportunities, but they often face mistrust and oppression.
In much of the rest of the world, Uyghurs are considered socially and politically alienated victims of state suppression. But across large cities in China, they are seen as hot-tempered criminals who, for one’s own safety, should be avoided at all costs.
The doctor, who spoke to me from her home in a southeastern suburb of Beijing, told me she had a negative experience with “Xinjiang people” before the car accident: When she was a university student, she was pickpocketed by a group of Uyghur children. “I can still remember them laughing. I was scared,” she says.
That day on the roadside, she stayed in her car and called her husband. While she was on the phone, the other car drove away.
SIMMERING ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS tensions in Xinjiang between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese have made the region one of the Chinese Communist Party’s biggest domestic challenges.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous riots and other violent incidents in the province that have left hundreds dead and many more wounded. In July 2009, at least 1,000 ethnic Uyghurs clashed with police in a riot in Xinjiang. In 2014, there was a Uyghur-led mass knife-attack in a train station that killed 31 people, and injured another 140. More recently, Uyghurs reportedly have been seen fighting alongside the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot, in Syria.
Xinjiang is roughly the size of Iran and borders several Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The province is at the forefront of what the Chinese government labels the “three evil forces” of extremism, terrorism, and separatism, and authorities have vowed to take firm measures to defeat those so-called evils. In 2012, a top Communist official in Xinjiang promised to use “iron fists” to stamp out terrorist threats, and that extremists should have “no place to hide.”
Human rights organizations, on the other hand, say that heavy-handed government responses to isolated acts of violence are exacerbating the problems between Xinjiang’s Uyghur and Han communities, who represent roughly 45 and 40 percent of the province’s population, respectively. According to Human Rights Watch, “Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression justified by the government in the name of the ‘fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism’ continue to fuel rising tensions” in Xinjiang.
Uyghur activists and numerous other experts believe that the discrimination faced by Uyghurs isn’t confined to Xinjiang’s borders, however. They say that a xenophobic Chinese government, with the help of propagandistic media, has created a climate of fear and intolerance for the thousands of Uyghurs who leave Xinjiang every year for other parts of China.
ILSHAT HASSAN CANNOT BE blamed for having a jaundiced view of the Chinese justice system. Police have arrested the 50-year-old Uyghur activist more than once. According to him, the arrests were arbitrary and illegal.
Hassan says he was once detained, beaten, and electrocuted with a cattle prod after getting picked up at a railway station. On a different occasion, he says he and other Uyghurs were ushered off a crowded bus in the middle of the night, and made to stand on the side of a deserted country road while a security officer trained an assault rifle on him. Hassan now lives near Washington, D.C.—a prominent enclave of Uyghurs in the U.S.—and he says security officials arrested his sister in Xinjiang and held her for months in retaliation for an article he wrote from the United States about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs.
But the police encounter Hassan remembers most vividly doesn’t involve an electric shock or a machine gun. Instead, it’s the time an officer tried to search his book bag. Years ago, he says that he went with some Uyghur friends from university to Beijing on a school holiday, and the group of students attempted to go on a boat cruise. “As soon as we boarded the ship, two police singled out all of us Uyghurs and told us to empty our bags,” Hassan says. “At the time, there were no security checks. It was before 9/11, so it was a very unusual.”
Hassan says he asked the officer why only the bags of Uyghurs were being checked. The officer, he says, “said we looked different so we were suspicious.” Hassan sees his experience with the Beijing police as representative of a larger problem in China: Uyghurs are made to feel like second-class citizens. “We’re barbaric people to them,” he says.
Though there are few reliable, comprehensive surveys that measure the attitude of mainland Chinese people toward ethnic minorities, there have been some attempts to better understand Chinese opinions of government policy toward the ethnic conflicts in Xinjiang. In 2014, for example, a poll conducted by scholars from the University of Macau and Oxford University found that about 50 percent of Chinese believe that the city in which they live will experience some sort of violent Uyghur separatist terrorist attack. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would be unwilling to work in or travel to Xinjiang, for fear of violence.
On the streets of Beijing, it’s not too difficult to find attitudes similar to the ones expressed in the survey. On an overcast day in Wudaokou, the city’s popular student district, two Han Chinese students shared their thoughts with me on Uyghurs. Though they’ve never met anyone from Xinjiang, they feel uncomfortable around people from the region. “Xinjiang people have a temper and they speak very loud. They are [quick to] react with fighting instead of words,” says Vivian Hu, a student at a local university. “And there is a terrorist problem in Xinjiang,” adds Hu’s classmate, Kristen Xia.
Asked about their thoughts on the likelihood of a terrorist attack by Uyghur separatists in Beijing, the two young women are quick to point out a 2013 incident in which a jeep driven by Uyghurs from Xinjiang crashed into a group of tourists in Tiananmen Square. Police labeled the crash a terrorist attack. “Things like that can happen at any time,” Hu says.
In addition to being viewed as a security concern, Uyghurs are regularly discriminated against in housing and commerce. Earlier this year in the Guangxi region of southern China, the local government circulated a notice to local businesses instructing them to refuse service to Uyghurs. The communiqué stated that local Chinese should “politely refuse to rent rooms to Xinjiang people” and “refuse to sell such dangerous items as knives, fire lighters, gasoline, gunpowder, or sulfuric acid to Xinjiang people.”
The purpose of the notice, according to the town, was to “construct a secure and harmonious living environment for oneself and one’s family members.”
ISLAMOPHOBIA PLAYS A ROLE in mainstream China’s attitude toward Uyghurs, but religious bigotry is only part of the problem, says James Millward, professor of Intersocietal History at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. “Even before the violence of the past two to three years, in fact, even before 9-11 and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] rebranding of its Xinjiang problem as part of the ‘global war on terror,’ people in mainland Chinese cities were leery of Uyghurs,” he says. Millward has heard Uyghur stereotypes from Han Chinese many times. “They sell drugs, they carry knives, they’ll pick your pocket were all commonly said about Uyghurs. There was and likely still is very little understanding of ‘Islam’ per se, though now I suspect in some Chinese people’s minds it is associated with terrorism, and as a motivation for terrorism, by Uyghurs.”
Other experts say that Chinese media play a significant role in spreading harmful stereotypes about Uyghurs. Says Joanne Smith Finley, professor of Chinese Studies at Newcastle University in England: “Uyghurs do face problems when they’re living in big cities, but they’re not problems of political sensitivity. It’s broader. It’s an ethnic discrimination problem. But the ethnic discrimination is there because of the politicization of Uyghur identity in the media. It’s a direct of result of the way media represent Uyghurs on the television and in the newspapers and so on.”
For instance, Smith Finley points to the Tiananmen Square crash that the Chinese students mentioned. Although police and state media labeled the incident a terrorist attack, Smith Finley doubts the story that emerged—that a young man, his wife, and mother planned and carried out the attack together. “They produced this story that this was a deliberate terrorist act. To this day I’m just not convinced. It just doesn’t fit with everything I’ve seen and heard from Uyghurs over the last twenty years or so I’ve been studying them.”
More likely, according to Smith Finley, the car was being followed by police and simply lost control. But the media dutifully parroted the government with little or no investigation at all, she notes, contributing to the Uyghur-as-terrorist stereotype. “A lot of media outlets and a lot of Chinese people will just accept that story at face value.”
The media landscape in China is one of the most restrictive in the world, and press restrictions are only growing tighter. Earlier in the year, President Xi Xinping announced that “all news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” according to Xinhua, the state news agency. Xi also said that journalists “should enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking and deeds to those of the CPC Central Committee.”
According to Ilshat Hassan, the Uyghur activist, Chinese media plays a “very critical” role in stereotyping Uyghurs. More troublingly, he believes that the media has done Beijing’s bidding by promoting the government’s portrayal of the violence in Xinjiang as a fight between the righteous Chinese and machete-wielding Uyghur Muslim extremists. “After 9/11, the state media started to blame Uyghurs as terrorists, separatists, extremists,” he says. “Now, we’re public enemy number one.”
Matt Moir is a freelance writer. He writes about media, education, and politics.