Now based in Bangkok, British journalist David Eimer was the China Correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China
What was the inspiration for writing The Emperor Far Away?
The genesis for the book was a 1988 journey I made through Xinjiang and into Pakistan. It was my first time in China and I was pretty ignorant about the country. I hadn’t even really heard of the Uighurs. Then, suddenly I was surrounded by them in Xinjiang. It sparked an interest in China’s borderlands and the ethnic minorities who populate them. So when I moved to Beijing in 2005 to work as a journalist, I decided I wanted to explore the furthest reaches of China and write a book about the peoples who live in the borderlands and their relationship with the Han Chinese.
China has so many ethnic minorities that covering them all in depth would have been impossible. How did you choose which minorities to concentrate on?
I never wanted to write a comprehensive guide to all 55 of China’s officially recognised minorities, so I made the decision very early on to concentrate on the most contentious borderlands: Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and Dongbei (the northeast) and the peoples who live there. To the Uighurs and Tibetans, the Han Chinese are essentially colonisers occupying what they regard as their countries. In Yunnan, the big issue is crime, because the frontiers with Myanmar and Laos are so porous, so there’s a massive amount of drug-smuggling and people-trafficking, as well as environmental crimes and illegal gambling. Dongbei is interesting to me because it’s where China meets North Korea and the Russian Far East and Beijing is very vigorous about expanding economically into those regions.
What are the main themes of the book?
I think in the West there’s still a sense that China is this culturally and ethnically homogenous entity. But in fact there are 100 million people living in China who aren’t Han Chinese, and who are little-known even in China, while China itself is less a country and more a vast, unwieldy and unstable empire. I wanted to highlight how China has always been an imperial power – it was the Qing dynasty who really expanded China’s borders by pushing into Xinjiang and occupying the Yunnan borderlands. And of course, Tibet only came under the full control of Beijing in 1959.
What is the situation with minority languages in China? Are the slowly dying out?
Sadly, I think many of them are dying out, just as many of the smaller minorities are disappearing because of inter-marriage and assimilation with the Han Chinese. In the future, I think it’ll only be the largest of the minorities who will maintain their own languages.
What difficulties did you encounter on your travels around the border regions?
I was lucky that I travelled when I did, because it’s so hard to travel around Xinjiang and Tibet now. In Tibet, you need to be in a group and have a fistful of permits, while foreigners travelling in Xinjiang are automatically suspicious and the authorities keep a close eye on them. But even the Yunnan borderlands are more heavily policed now – mainly because Uighurs are heading down there to escape China by going first to Myanmar and then Bangkok. But I was fortunate in that I managed to reach almost everywhere that I wanted to go.
Do minorities in China face discrimination?
One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to show how different minorities are treated differently by Beijing. If you’re a so-called ‘model minority’, like say the Dai in Yunnan, who aren’t agitating for self-rule, then life is a lot more comfortable than in Xinjiang or Tibet, where there are tens of thousands of armed soldiers in place to prevent insurrection and there are very real restrictions on what you can and can’t do. But I think all the minorities occupy a space at the fringes of Chinese society, just as most of them live at the far edges of China. The reason most Han Chinese know very little about the minorities is because they’re so distant from mainstream life.
You lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2012. Do journalists reporting on China for western publications need to be based there?
I think it’s logical to be based in the capital of the country you are reporting from. Of course, China is huge, so it offers the chance to be based in a few other places too, principally Hong Kong and Shanghai. But Beijing is the political and cultural centre of China, so it’s where the action is. The crucial thing is not to restrict yourself to just reporting from Beijing. The best foreign correspondents get out and about, because there are so many stories elsewhere in China.
How did you get into journalism?
I wanted to be a journalist from an early age. Too much Tintin I guess. I started writing for magazines when I was at university in London and then progressed to the papers. Like most people who make it as journalists, I had a bit of talent and a lot of luck. I think journalism is still a great gig if you are interested in people and their stories – Ian Fleming said it’s the only job where you can meet a president one day and a prostitute the next -, but being a print journalist is a much harder career now. Newspapers are so squeezed financially that foreign news especially isn’t well-resourced anymore. And it will only get worse in the future, because the clickbait culture is really taking hold of newspapers now.
Why did you move to Bangkok?
I felt it was time to move on from China. I didn’t want to spend my entire life there, although I still go back regularly. But Bangkok is really just a base. I’m working on a book about Myanmar, so I spend most of my time there now. Bangkok isn’t as interesting as Beijing, but it’s an easier place to live.
The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is published by Bloomsbury.
To hear David Eimer talking about his book with travel writer Robert Kelly listen to Episode 2 of Travel Tape.