One Chinese journalist's gesture of solidarity with Uygurs draws support amid ethnic tensions
By this week, Yang has passed through security checks at train stations and airports in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen wearing a ‘doppa’
Yang Haipeng, a Shanghai-based Chinese journalist, recently decided he would wear a traditional Uygur hat at security checkpoints as a gesture of support for the minority ethnic community, who are often subjected to stringent and even “humiliating” scrutiny in their own country.
Yang, who is of Han Chinese roots, has lived up to his pledge. By this week, he has passed through security checks at train stations and airports in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen wearing a ‘doppa’ – as the traditional Uygur headware is called – a controversial act that has landed him applause from both Han Chinese and ethnic Uygurs.
The journalist says he took inspiration from former US president George HW Bush, who earlier this year shaved his head in support of a two-year-old boy battling leukaemia.
A veteran investigative journalist and enthusiastic microblogger, Yang first revealed his “resolution” on Weibo on November 2, days after a terrorist attack in Tiananmen Square killed five and injured 38.
China’s government has blamed that attack on Uygur “terrorists” from Xinjiang backed by international militants. This has prompted fears among Beijing’s Uygur community that their daily lives could be disrupted with increased mistrust building among the capital’s Han majority. The authorities have since stepped up security checks against ethnic groups in Xinjiang and other major cities, according to reports.
“My Uygur brothers, if you feel humiliated by excessive security checks, please know a Han Chinese person is willing to go through this with you,” Yang wrote. He also published a photo of him wearing a doppa he had ordered from Taobao, China’s popular online retail store.
Discerning readers quickly pointed out that Yang had ordered a hat intended for wear by young Uygur girls. Many offered to send him a hat more “appropriate” for men.
Despite this bumpy start, Yang’s action has drawn support and appreciation from friends and strangers alike.
“I am deeply touched that a Han Chinese person is willing to take action to support us,” Eliar Abla, a media practitioner living in Urumqi, in China’s far-flung Xinjiang province, told the South China Morning Post. “It’s rare and precious.”
Abla said that as ethnic Uygurs, he and his friends are regularly subjected to excessive security checks. And when they travel inside the country, they often have trouble finding a place to stay. Many hotels, especially budget hotels, flatly turn him down, citing “government regulations,” he says. When Abla does manage to find accommodation, a visit from local police to “register” his personal information is always required.
One microblogger who commented on Yang’s Weibo shared a similar story about how his wife and mother-in-law, both holding Xinjiang ID cards, were refused registration by hotels when visiting Shanghai. In the end they had to go to a local police station for help. Officers then “escorted” the two women to a hotel prepared to accept them.
Yang has heard such stories repeatedly. Two years ago, a Uygur lawyer friend told him of the trauma her friends suffered after they were forced to go through what they had found “discriminative” security checks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games and in 2010, Shanghai’s World Expo. It was then Yang realised something had to be done.
“Hurting the feelings of the Uygur community by forcing this upon them is not acceptable,” he says.
Yang argues that if the checks had to be done, the government could have been more sensitive by employing ethnic Uygur workers to conduct the checks, or by offering gifts as a symbol of appreciation.
“But if I can’t convince the government [to change], I can convince myself,” Yang says. “At least it will make my Uygur friends feel better.”
The trips Yang has made to the security checks wearing a doppa have, so far, turned out to be exceptionally smooth, he says.
After being “live-tweeted” on Weibo, his endeavours have sparked heated debate among Han Chinese and Uygur readers. “Terrorism attacks should not be tolerated, and security checks are necessary, but we need to consider the feelings of the Uygur community, since ‘terrorists’ make up only a small percentage of them,” wrote microblogger Jun Lirui. “If we end up hurting the feelings of the entire Uygur community, the consequences will be huge and China will suffer.”
“But what about the feelings of the Han victims they murder?” retorted another microblogger, “How about their feelings?”
“Talking about murder, the Han people have murdered more Chinese than any other ethnic groups in history – so should we pick them out for stricter security checks?” Jun commented in response. “Tolerance is the only way to solve the ethnic conflicts in China.”