Don’t Let Them Eat Cake: How Ethnic Tensions in China Explode on the Streets

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Filip Singer / Anzenberger / Redux

Uighur men are seen in old-town Kashgar in Xinjiang province, China, on Sept. 5, 2009

On the streets of China it is a common snack, a dense nougat made from nuts, candied fruits, flour and corn syrup known informally as qiegao — literally “cut cake.” It is shaped into large, thick sheets and sold on the back of motorized tricycles by Uighurs, a central Asian ethnic group from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. The treat is delicious, but buy it once, and you’ll probably never want to again.

That’s because qiegao is often sold by extortionate means. The unit price is always reasonable, but the vendor might not give you the amount you request. Instead he’ll cut off a chunk that ends up costing vastly more than you expected. Once the slice is cut the peddler won’t take it back and, as he’s probably holding a large knife, it is unwise to argue.

On Monday a report about an altercation over the cake in central Hunan province quickly became one of the most discussed items on Chinese microblogs, revealing a current of frustration about ethnic policy in China. Police in the city of Yueyang reported that a dispute between Uighur vendors and a customer ended in a mass brawl with two people injured and the destruction of about $25,000 worth of qiegao, plus $6,500 in hospital bills and damage to the peddlers’ vehicles. A local customer was arrested and 16 Uighurs sent back to Xinjiang.

(PHOTOS: The Shifting Sands of Xinjiang)

The since-deleted message touched off a wave of resentment from Han Chinese. Many felt that the peddlers pulled off the mother of all qiegao scams, receiving enough in damaged-cake compensation to buy a car. One widely reposted image showed a piece of the nut cake set on a ring like a diamond. The sharpest criticism touched on the idea that the Uighurs, as members of an ethnic minority, got off easy. “Uighurs where I live rob, beat and insult people,” wrote one person from central Henan province on Sina Weibo. “You can’t cross a pedestrian bridge without trembling in fear. I don’t understand why the government’s policies allow them to bully Han people.”

China recognizes 55 ethnic minorities that make up just 8% of the country’s population. They are largely concentrated in China’s northern, western and southern border regions. China follows a system of ethnic autonomy based on the Soviet model, meaning they are given nominal administrative authority in their home regions — Xinjiang for the Uighurs, Tibet for the Tibetans and Inner Mongolia for Mongolians — but in practice they have little real autonomy. Ethnic minorities are also given exemptions from the one-child policy and favorable treatment in university admissions. The goal was to break down social and economic barriers between minority groups and the Han majority. In practice, minority groups like the Uighurs still face significant economic discrimination, while preferential policies only heighten resentment from the majority Han.

Sometimes the animosity between Uighur and Han explodes with little warning. In 2009 race riots swept the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, where young, mostly unemployed Uighur men went on a rampage, attacking Han Chinese. Days later Han vigilantes retaliated, saying the local government was failing to protect them. All told nearly 200 people were killed, according to official reports.

Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economic professor at Minzu University who is often targeted by police for his outspoken views on discrimination in China, said while the problem of crimes committed by Uighurs exists, the qiegao dispute risks further fanning Uighur-Han tensions. “The problem of Uighurs committing crime isn’t as frightening as some media and public figures say it is,” he wrote on his microblog on Wednesday. “This not only harms Uighurs, it also brings about Han society’s rejection of and discrimination against Uighurs.”

On Wednesday the Yueyang police updated their report on the incident, saying the total amount of cake damaged was over 2,700 kg, putting the assessed value at less than $9 a kilogram. A reasonable price, but many people will still think twice about buying.

MORE: A Year After Xinjiang Riots, Ethnic Tensions Remain

11 comments
maopai
maopai

Muslims are all terrorists.

stepheny1972
stepheny1972

The first bully I got from Ulghurs was the day I went to a middle school. I was a 11 year old boy. Suddenly, a tall guy, and three other guys came. Two held my arms and the tall guy kicked me. I could not understand this untill many such incidents. Since then, I knew that Ulghurs hate Han people.

I felt bad that this hatred is mutual, once you know it is a certain group of people who has such attitudes toward you. I have two Ulghur classmates in my middle and high school. But because of those experience, I tend to stay away from Ulghurs.

If Ulghurs continue such hatred towards Han, I know Ulghurs are doomed. I am now in U.S. but whenever I heard such similar news, my resentment towards Ulghurs occur again. However, I do hope we live in good relationships.

ozturkka
ozturkka

Uighurs,  are not "a central Asian ethnic group from China’s far northwestern Xinjiang region". They are an ethnic Turkish group from East Turkestan. And this is a shame for Time that discussing about the problems between Uighur vendors and Chinese customers while ignoring the fact that the Uighurs are the object of every kind of ethnic, economic and religious oppression in the East Turkestan region! (like ban on fasting on Ramadan but especially forced labour of Uighur girls in the far regions of China)

LEEFUCHEN
LEEFUCHEN

 uighurs are not ethnic from China. that's absolutely right. get out of China ASAP plz!!!we don't wanna see you uighurs anymore. so disgusting ethnic, swindlers,  murderer and terrorist!!!!!

ozturkka
ozturkka

@LEEFUCHEN You invaded the East Turkestan, you ignorant. The historical homeland of the Uighurs. They live under the invasion and the worst conditions of suppression and persecution in the world. You don't want to see Uighurs? Then get out of their country. They are not desirous to live with you tyranny colonists!

LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories

@ozturkka @SnowTester  

Uyghurs are as autochthonous to Xinjiang as any of its other inhabitants are. In other words, everybody in Xinjiang migrated there sometime in the past, because it is the crossroads of Central Asia, being an important part of the Silk Road. However, to claim that Chinese involvement in Xinjiang only started in 18th century is willfully ignorant and instead shows your Pan-Turkic bias, since Chinese were politically involved in Xinjiang's affairs since 2nd century BCE (back then, it was called Xiyu). Oh, and the Uyghurs themselves never called their homeland "East Turkestan". That is an invention of Pan-Turkists linked to Jadidism who preached their ideology in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs themselves called their homeland "Qurighar" since time immemorial.


All this information and more about Xinjiang can be found in James Millward's "Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang". 

ozturkka
ozturkka

@SnowTester "look at their faces, you will know they are from Syria or Iraq." 

I really wonder if you have ever met someone from Syria or Iraq :) Look, Uighurs have nothing to do with Arabs or any middle eastern tribe. They are the autochthon people of the Central Asia and East Turkestan. And they had their independent and sovereign countries until you have invaded in the 18th century. So just stop this nonsense. This is not a Chinese web site which is controlled or under  surveillance by the Chinese gowernment.

maopai
maopai

Go back to Turkey.

SnowTester
SnowTester

@ozturkka @LEEFUCHEN Oh really, these islamic people were from middle east about 300 years ago with the help of Russians, look at their faces, you will know they are from Syria or Iraq. Although we Chinese fought really hard to stop them entering central China, they still took some lands in Xinjiang. There is no such a ethnic group "Uighur" in any history record before the islamic invasion of Xinjing, it was "created" by Russians for the purpose of creating a puppet state in China.

ozturkka
ozturkka

@LEEFUCHEN "if Xinjiang was invaded by East Turkestan" What is that huh? What do they teach you at schools over there? Firstly, the "Xinjiang " word is just a fabricated one by you, which replaced the original East Turkestan. Or for your low understanding, let me tell you more clearly: They both mean the same area! But the worse is you really believe the East Turkestan is a part of China since 2nd century? Man, of course  I had some ideas about the brainwashing in China, but I could not imagine such that. Esat Turkestan had been the historical homeland of the Uighur Turks until the Chinese invasion. But although that, even in the recent times they suceeded to build sovereign independent states two times one in 1863 and the other in 1933 which lasted until the gradual Chinese invasion in 1949. So, stop exposing your brainwashed ignorance and maybe read something.

LEEFUCHEN
LEEFUCHEN

 @ozturkka wake up wake up plz!!i wonder if Xinjiang was invaded by East Turkestan from POC, and your funny independent East Turkestan is a poor country set up by Rassia, and never given nominal administrative authority in any minute, that means East Turkestan is not a sovereign state.According to history, Xinjiang be a apart of China since Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC.... so you just SHUT UP