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A baseball team bridges ethnic animosities in rural China

Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese come together at a local university in the restless region of Xinjiang to surmount poor equipment – and decades of enmity.

By Jerry GuoCorrespondent / September 30, 2008

Urumqi, China

3:05 p.m.
The plane from Beijing has barely landed, and I’m already on my phone. The screen flashes 5:05 p.m., and for a moment, I fear I’ve missed the ballgame – that I’ve flown 2,400 miles to the heart of China’s “Wild West” for empty bleachers and discarded foam fingers.

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Then I remember that there are two worlds here in Xinjiang, each with its own definition of time. The Han Chinese run this hardscrabble autonomous region on official Beijing time while the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority who have long chafed under Chinese rule, prefer unofficial Xinjiang time.

Getting by on two different time zones is easier than you would think, for the Hans and Uighurs live in different neighborhoods, speak different languages, practice different religions, and attend different classes.

Some Uighurs have pushed for an independent Xinjiang, but with Beijing’s tight grip, any dissent is quickly silenced. In August, clashes between Han policemen and Uighur rebels left as many as 33 dead around Xinjiang.

Now, with the run-up to National Day on Oct. 1, the central government has sent some 200,000 police and paramilitary personnel into the region. Human rights activists fear another crackdown on Uighur separatists. But there is one place where these two worlds still coexist peacefully: on the baseball field.

3:50 p.m.

I’ve made it to the game (score one for Xinjiang time), but two problems arise. The first is that it’s raining. The second is more alarming. I’m standing on a soccer field, and the baseball players – college students from Xinjiang University – are not batting or throwing: They’re kicking a soccer ball.

Christopher Rufo, a young filmmaker from Sacramento, Calif., who has been following this team for the past eight months, sees my confusion and explains that the nearest baseball field lies 1,400 miles to the east. “Baseball is an outlier here,” he says. “Few people play the game, and that’s why it’s considered so cool.”

Even though they must make do with a soccer field for a diamond, and their gear – worn gloves, frayed balls, rough bats – wouldn’t be fit for Little League, these players have triumphed. On the field, they’ve transformed, in four years, from a skinny group of mostly freshmen (none of whom had ever seen a baseball game on TV) into a cohesive team that has held its own against bigger, better-equipped opponents from the east coast.

Off the field, their tales of overcoming bitter racial divides – there weren’t enough players to have separate Han and Uighur teams at the university – beg to be baseball’s answer to “Remember the Titans.”

“Before baseball, I had no Chinese friends,” says Parhat Ablat, the star pitcher and captain. “Then I became friends with them because we were forced to talk.”

6:35 p.m.

It’s the fourth (and last) inning, and while I’d like to say it was a close game, no one is keeping score. Nonetheless, Akbar Dolkun, Uighur freshman and material physics major, dashes from second base, off a hard grounder into left field. He rounds third and sprints for home, arriving in a tangle of legs and arms. I hear yells of “out-ta” (out).

There’s no umpire, so the catcher, Zheng Siming, a Han junior and computer science major, makes the call. He had inadvertently dropped the catch, and rightfully declares, “Say-foo” (safe).

Their coach, Jai Kuk Rue, a stocky Korean who never fulfilled his dream of making the pros, watches approvingly from the sideline. “Baseball to us is not about points or winning,” he says. “Most important is our teamwork. The Uighur and Han players are always in close contact, so their relations have improved.”