'The Emperor Far Away' examines the ethnic groups that the Chinese government sees as a threat

From Tibetans to Uighurs, journalist David Eimer investigates the lives of some of the 100 million members of China's 55 ethnic minorities.

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    The Emperor Far Away
    By David Eimer
    Bloomsbury USA
    336 pp.
    View Caption

David Eimer traveled to the far corners of China, as well as across the borders to neighboring countries, to report on the lives of China’s ethnic minorities – and their often tense relationship with the Beijing government. 

About 92 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people are Han Chinese, the group that most outsiders think of when they use the word “Chinese.”

But that leaves about 100 million others who are members of 55 ethnic minority groups. Most live in border regions and “have much stronger ethnic and cultural ties with the peoples of the countries across the borders than they do with the Han,” Eimer explains.

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While some have assimilated, others “chafe under Chinese control,” Eimer writes, noting that the Tibetan Buddhists and the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang “have fought the Han ever since they started pushing into their homelands.”

The title of this book refers to the Chinese saying “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” meaning that it is difficult for a central government to exert influence on its distant regions.

But when it comes to groups that China sees as a threat – especially the Tibetans and Uighurs – Beijing takes a heavy-handed approach, no matter how far away those people are from the capital.

To write this book, the author undertook journeys that make Marco Polo seem like a homebody. Eimer traveled thousands of miles on rickety buses, in broken-down cars, on a cargo boat, and on crowded trains. 

He used subterfuge to avoid a ban on journalists traveling freely in Tibet. He endured filthy rooms in isolated villages. He bundled up in the frozen frontier near Russia and North Korea and sweltered in the area adjoining Southeast Asia. 

“To explore the border regions is to enter a very different China from the glittering mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai, one that is often lawless and prone to violence,” writes Eimer.

He concluded that China’s minorities are often marginalized or stereotyped. In Yunnan province, in the southwest, “attractive ethnic-minority women sashay across the stage in body-hugging dresses, performing fake versions of their traditional folk dances” for tourists, Eimer writes. 

While searching for minorities in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, he experienced one of his many humorous encounters. Pushing open the door to what he thought was a crowded restaurant, he discovered “I was at a wedding banquet, and I was now the involuntary guest of honour.” 

But many of his stories show a much darker side of the lives of China’s minorities. For example, he interviews a Burmese teenager who had been lured across the border at age 12 and sold as a “future bride” to a Chinese family, where she was held captive for three years before being rescued. 

During the turmoil of the Mao Zedong years, many of China’s minorities fled to neighboring countries, including North Korea. Today, Eimer discovered, border towns in China are much more prosperous than those on the North Korean and Russian sides of the border.

China’s minorities are exempt from the nation’s one-child policy and receive preferential treatment on the college entrance exam. Many Chinese of mixed ancestry therefore opt to classify themselves as minorities, Eimer points out.

On the world scene, Tibetans and Uighurs have the highest profile of China’s minorities. China contends it has helped to improve their living standards, while they feel the Chinese are suppressing their culture and religions.

"Just possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama can lead to arrest for any Tibetan,” says Eimer, referring to the exiled spiritual leader who the Chinese government refers to as a “jackal in Buddhist monk robes.”

Eimer describes his journey across Tibet as an elusive search for “a place that is neither the Shangri-La touted by naïve foreigners nor the backward region the Chinese stress it was until their arrival.” 

Eimer describes the endless cycle of violence over the decades – Chinese repression, Tibetan and Uighur uprisings, Chinese crackdowns – followed by protests and acts of terror by the minorities. 

Eimer was the China Correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph from 2007 to 2012 and so American readers will have to translate the book’s many Britishisms, such as a “sink council estate” (government housing project) and convert metric measurements and centigrade temperatures.

Some readers might also question whether a journalist should have actually participated in a drug party in order to report on the lives of drug lords across the Chinese border in Burma or felt it necessary to mention that he slept with an “enticing, cat-like” Chinese woman in Xinjiang.

Despite this, the book offers insight into an important aspect of China that will likely remain in the news for some time to come.

Mike Revzin, a journalist who lived in China, helps Americans learn about China with his ChinaSeminars.com programs.

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