This last week I made two interesting trips courtesy of the Fulbright visiting lecturer program, which funds visits to universities across China to offer lectures, in my case, in American history. So far I’ve given 1 talk on the Civil War, 1 talk on slavery, 1 talk on American labor law, 3 talks on the American opium trade to China, and, suggesting what Chinese people are really interested in, 7 talks each on the history of American exceptionalism and on the Second Amendment and American gun rights and laws.
For the first trip I traveled to the city of Urumqi in northwestern China. When I told my friends in Hangzhou of my plans they were surprised. One said he thought foreigners weren’t even allowed to go. Two weeks ago Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang attacked a shopping center in Urumqi, killing 31. Uyghurs, about 43% of the population of Xinjiang, are Muslim, different from the Chinese majority Han people, who are largely secular, or Buddhist, or Christian (in Xinjiang there are also, in addition to Uyghurs and Hans, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Hui, Kyrgyz, and Mongols).
Security in Urumqi, already tight, has obviously become moreso. I thought of canceling the trip, since the whole family was scheduled to go, and the American embassy actually called to say, “have a great time. Be careful.” But the invitation was in place for some time and I hardly wanted to chicken out.
The trip proved interesting, of course. Everything is interesting. Urumqi is very much like…Ankara, Turkey. A lot of government and university buildings and associated state security. Stores sell beautiful veils, dried apricots, nuts, silk, and inlaid, razor sharp pocket knives, for which Xinjiang is famous. There is a beautiful huge mosque in the city, complete with sparkling minarets, the first one I’ve seen in China. My basic Turkish expressions “Merhaba, nasilsiniz?” and “Tesekkur ederim,” (Hi, how are you? and Thanks very much) went a long way in the marketplace: Uyghur is a Turkic language.
Urumqi is 3,900 km northwest of Hangzhou. But China has 1 time zone. The effect of this – both horological and political – hit me the second night we were on a street. I saw a big clock show it was 9:30 p.m. Funny – it was still pretty much bright daylight. I asked a student about what that was like. “Yes,” came the explanation. “the time system we have makes summer days very long.” Pause. “It’s 9:30 in Beijing. But it’s really only 7:30 here.” Huh? “Well, we consider the local time 7:30…. Beijing time is communist time.”
Not really by design, when I finished the visit to Urumqi I flew, in fact, to Beijing to give additional lectures. Urumqi’s weather was turbulent: blazing hot the first day, hard rain the second, winds so severe the third day, cracking car windshields, that a day trip we had planned to the ancient Silk Road city of Turpan was canceled.
Beijing was more predictable – hazy, windless, and, given the significance of early June, thick with security.
Journalists’ reports seem largely true that the government has made the events of a quarter-century ago this week a matter, a little like religious belief, of private conscience, kept by older people, now pushing 50 or more. I mused to a student with me on a Beijing subway, “I guess the square tomorrow [the 4th] will have a lot of security.” The student replied, “Yes, of course. The Uyghur terrorist attacks a few weeks ago have made everyone a little nervous.”