Book review: The Emperor Far Away

 

In a country of a billion people, living on the edge takes on a different meaning, especially in the Chinese hinterlands as David Eimer discovered, says Noel Baker

David Eimer

Bloomsbury €220.55; ebook, €9.70

THERE’S a point midway through this intriguing book where the author almost pulls the rug out from under his feet.

Writing about Tibet and the growth in the number of monks setting themselves on fire in protest at Chinese domination of the country, David Eimer admits: “Certainly, the self-immolations pulled me up sharply. 

"If Tibetans are so muted by what is happening in their country that suicide is the only way to make a statement, then it was self- delusion on a grand scale for me to believe I could give them a voice.”

This is a little harsh, not least because The Emperor Far Away — named after a traditional Chinese proverb — does shine a light on the fringes of a country that seems to get bigger by the day. 

The passage also captures something of Eimer’s winning candour as he smokes and drinks his way around the country.

It’s arguable that China, as a uniquely positioned world superpower, presents what it wants of itself to the world. 

Anyone with even a passing interest in world affairs knows that the county is run by the all-powerful Communist Party of China, which now oversees a vast capitalist enterprise and one in which its influence is also growing around the world, particularly in nearby countries and in Africa where its investments portfolio keeps expanding.

Added to this is the weirdness of viral material which shows Chinese infants driving forklifts and bizarre and tragic escalator incidents. 

However, as Eimer — formerly a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph and its sister daily — explains, this is not the full story. 

In a county with a population of 1bn people, its borders tell tales of different peoples who now live alongside the dominant Han — sometimes very uneasily.

According to Eimer, who first visited China in 1988: “The Han-dominated CCP assiduously encourages a view of the country that relegates the other ethnic groups to the fringes.”

On reading his travelogue across thousands of miles, it is hard not to come to the same conclusion. 

He begins his journey by focussing on the Muslim Uighur population, one which, along the continuing wrangle with Tibet, is causing most concern for CCP bosses. 

Eimer revisits the city of Kashgar, which he first saw as a student. At that time he viewed it as “a county within a country”, but that is no longer the case.

To give some context, it is worth recalling that earlier this summer the were disturbances in Turkey over the proposed deportation back to China of some Uighurs from Thailand. 

Stories abounded that Uighurs in China had been banned from fasting during Ramadan, causing anger in some of the Muslim world.

Eimer explains that for party chiefs, adherence to Islam is the main problem. It has even gone so far as to create its own China Islamic Association which appoints all imams. 

Those under 18 are banned from going to mosque, Uighur-only schools are banned, and among the Uighurs there are fears over the future of their language and traditions. 

It has resulted in a deeply divided society, one in which an Irish bar — and there’s always one — in the city of Urumqi is seen as one of the few places where Han and Uighurs can both go for a drink. By contrast, the Han are highly unlikely to go to a Uighur nightclub for fear of getting stabbed.

Some natives still believe in the idea of a Uighurstan, and the CCP response appears to be one of using force and a kind of economic apartheid. Eimer writes of a new Silk Road, but one on which the Uighurs are not travelling.

The story isn’t much different in Tibet. The exile of the Dalai Lama continues to lend it a profile, along with the aforementioned self-immolations. 

Eimer has a somewhat dispiriting trek around some of its holiest spots, but in doing so paints a picture of it as the Wild West of the Chinese nation. 

Shadowed by an appointed guide for much of the trip, he also sees 24-hour armed patrols in the Old town part of Lhasa city, and the Potala Palace looming over the town “like a phantom from the past.”

Resistance, however, comes in many forms. The Dai, who live in the sub-tropical climes of self-styled Dailand in Yunnan, are seen as being among the “model minorities”. 

The Dai charm the Chinese, all the while maintaining their own ways and wearing a smile. The fact that there was no firm borders around Dailand — as opposed to those which define the areas occupied by other minorities — helps explain why the CCP takes less of a hard line. 

Every village has its own temple, whereas the La Fosi “grand master residence” constructed by the Chinese for religious leaders lies empty.

Eimer also takes a Conradian journey down the Mekong river into the area bordering Myanmar and Thailand. There things take a darker turn as he observes some of the 20,000 United Wa State Army in ‘control’ of any area that appears to exist entirely without state oversight. 

This is the ‘golden triangle’ in which the heroin trade has been supplemented by yaba, a meth-based chemical manufactured in hillside shacks and sold to people across the region.

Ever the intrepid reporter, Eimer doesn’t make his excuses and instead finds himself spending a debauched night on the drug with some shady locals.

The grimness doesn’t end there either. In nearby Pangshang he hears of young women and girls being trafficked into China and sold by criminal gangs to China’s growing number of bachelors, referred to as Guang guan or “bare branches”, across swathes of rural China. 

A Burmese gang can charge as much as €5,000 for a ‘bride’. In another border area he comes across a small but poignant one-room museum in memory of prostitutes who had lived and died there in the past.

As we follow Eimer, there are inevitable longeurs, often as a result of the author getting stuck in the country’s permits-for- permits system. 

Sometimes these stopovers throw up some light relief or an unexpected insight, but other times it’s simply describing the tedium of being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. 

And, while Christianity comes under Eimer’s focus, it is in the context of its importance to much of China’s Korean population; something which might explain why there is not one mention of Falun Gong in these pages.

Following the Korean leg of his journey — via a trip to a North Pole village, in a superb example of Chinese kitch and its appropriation or certain elements of western culture — Eimer ultimately ends up on the Russian border, facing chilling Siberian winds. 

In Heihe, a retail boomtown lording it over its sadder Russian neighbour across the river, it’s clear which of these neighbouring superpowers is in the ascendancy.

It all points to China’s minorities facing an increasingly uncertain future as the empire expands. After all, in Russia, there are different time zones across its expanses.

But as Eimer observes in Urumqi, that city is 3,000km from the capital but it still runs on Beijing time.

Still bright at 9pm, and dark at eight in the morning — a potent symbol of centralised control.


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