Six Malaysian sceptic liberals on tour in China (Part 2)

From Beijing to Kashgar, a different way of looking at China

Portrait of Mao in Tiananmen Square - SUKESHINI NAIR

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My travel to China last month with five other women gave me an opportunity to know its many faces from the inside. The journey was as enlightening as it was physical.

Some say “we should not be tourists but travellers” and that “one’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things”.

As tourists, our trip was about China’s beautiful and diverse geography.

But as travellers, we were confronted by its quintessential contradictions and paradoxes. 

A friend who had once visited China told me the country was soulless. 

China appears materialistic, the pursuit of wealth overshadowing the pursuit of happiness and spirituality. 

However, in recent months, with its political and economic uncertainties, I felt it may be finally turning inwards for inspiration and substance.

For one, the tourist sites, both historical and religious, were packed with locals, including hundreds of students on study trips.

School students on field trips, queuing at tourist sites – SUKESHINI NAIR

We saw people everywhere, some clasping miniature flags of China, while a few were seen in full period costumes. 

Nature and man; the past and the modern (Note the woman at the bus stop in period costume) – SUKESHINI NAIR

It was as if the past was being harnessed to consolidate and rebuild flagging Chinese pride in the wake of the US paranoia over China on matters pertaining to Taiwan, the trade war, TikTok and its possible hegemonic military aspirations. 


We wondered if China’s long and bloody history – full of intrigues, betrayals, bloody battles and the rise and fall of dynasties and emperors – could have affected its military and political psyche. 

Interestingly, we thought that because of its particular past, China was now full of contradictions and paradoxes. 

Sometimes, we felt we came close to knowing China’s lost soul, caught somewhere between its 4,000-year-old past and its glitzy present, between its traditional values and its modern challenges, between the famines and its insatiable pursuit of prosperity, between socialism and capitalism. 

Locals in period costumes in China: Reliving the past? – SUKESHINI NAIR

Not many realise that most of Beijing’s historical sites such as the Summer Palace, the Forbidden Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Drum and the Bell Tower are all linked by a Central Axis that runs for about 8km through the city, to include … of all things, the Bird’s Nest Stadium of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

Contradictory? Paradoxical?

It was as if the last has been wilfully positioned to earmark China’s transition from its past to its arrival into the modern era. 

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In Tiananmen Square, it was impossible to miss a massive portrait of Chairman Mao, still revered as the father of Communist China. Yet, we wondered, how modern China could ever have come to terms with Mao’s turbulent cultural revolution and even the Tiananmen Square deaths of 1989? 

Whether they were glorious or dark blots, the past is all neatly labelled and displayed in museums and even in public squares (as on huge oil portraits) to be revered and remembered, sometimes with wreaths, incense and candles as one would do to observe the traditions of Qingming (ancestor worship).

It was still April and Qingming was thick in the air. It was time to pay one’s respects and to move on.

The covenant?

And then, there was the Great Wall! Not only was it an incredible legacy of mankind to mankind, but also a grim reminder of the men who had constructed it – not only from clay, rocks and stones but with their own fallen bodies. 

I wondered then, if the values of this ancient civilisation could best be described as “eusocial” – not unlike that of a colony of ants in service of the queen (or emperor) where the needs of the individual are inconsequential over that of the colony and the leader. 

Perhaps China was still caught within this culture of ‘exchange’ between the roles and the responsibilities of its people and its rulers: obedience, loyalty and sacrifice from the people in return for peace and prosperity from the ruler. 

Nowhere else was this idea as symbolically presented as in the Temple of Heaven, perched on a hill somewhere in southeastern Beijing. There, it was said, the emperor would offer sacrifices of livestock to the gods, in return for heaven’s blessings of a bountiful harvest. 

The Temple of Heaven: The colours of interdependency and symbiosis in traditional Chinese culture. Brown represents the people, blue the emperor, and gold is for God – SUKESHINI NAIR

Here was an apt metaphor for the covenant between God, the emperor and his people – his offerings, his sacrifices and his sword, in exchange for food and peace. 

Local tourists throng one of the gates of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing – SUKESHINI NAIR

Was this simple philosophy then the secret to understanding modern socialist China? 

Famines and starvation in China, almost always sparked revolutions. So today, from the window of the bullet train that rolled at 320km/h, between Beijing and Xi’an, and even further west in the semi-arid lands between Dunhuang and Turpan, we saw kilometre upon kilometre of farmlands flash by. 

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Aliran members at the sand dunes of Dunhuang – SUKESHINI NAIR

If one could be well fed, be free of poverty, live in peace and even manage to be prosperous, should one be dissatisfied with that little thorn called ‘free will’ nagging at one’s toe? 

Wouldn’t it be more prudent to pluck it out and conform to the ‘rules’ of the eusocial community. 

So, is ‘conforming’ a bad word?

We all conform. School students conform to rules. Office workers conform to rules. Road users too conform to rules.

However, everything boils down to the degree to which those rules are ‘too loose’ or ‘too tight’. Moderation is key! 

From my perspective, Chinese philosophy seemed to be centred over the creation of wealth and prosperity, prioritising the ‘whole’ over the ‘individual’. ‘Freedom’ is a threat if it compromises the whole. 

It is easy to miss this when one judges China through the yardstick of liberalism. It makes more sense to look at China from the perspective of its own history and its cultural philosophy. 

In the end, what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ will depend on one’s own political orientation and education. 

Darker tone

So, travelling into Kashgar in the Xinjiang region as liberals, we felt the tone shift darker. During our flight into Kashgar, we were told by the crew to roll down the windows before landing, contrary to normal pre-landing procedures. 

We later understood that the commercial airport doubled up as a military airbase. There were rumours of ‘re-education’ internment camps around Kashgar airport for ‘dissenting’ Uyghurs leaning towards extremism. But no one would speak or tell us anything. 

Unlike the festive air of Qingmíng that we experienced in the other cities, here there was only silence and hollow gazes. It was as if there was another hidden world palpable in the air. 

Kashgar by night: Yet to be as developed as the other big cities in the east – SUKESHINI NAIR

It was apparent to us that the Uyghurs in Kashgar were not quite on the same page as the rest of China. To them, ethnicity and religion were probably more important than the concepts of Nationalism and Patriotism, of Service and Loyalty – a clear cultural fissure! 

To override China’s divisive realities with the Uyghur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the ‘covenant’ of prosperity can already be seen, especially in Urumqi. Multi-storeyed apartment blocks, business hubs, highways, airports, underground rail systems and train stations are sprouting, attracting hordes of Han Chinese into the area. 

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Yet, as a Muslim, it is difficult when your space is being diluted, when madrassas and headscarves are made illegal, when your freedom to express your religion publicly is suppressed, when surveillance is tight and when your movement is controlled. 

But already things are beginning to change, welcome or not. We were told that the ethnic identity of the younger generation of Uyghurs is already beginning to blur. 

We were told they speak Mandarin better than they do the Uyghur language and, with the provision of educational and employment opportunities, things are perhaps poised to change in the coming years. 

Are promises of inclusivity, opportunities and prosperity making more of a difference in Xinjiang than the internment camps, the security cameras and the military presence?

A Kazak Muslim woman in Urumqi spoke to us about her Muslim daughter being accepted on merit into the University of Shanghai, which ranks 32nd out of over 3,000 colleges and universities in China. “She is now already working in Shanghai in a good company,” the mother told us proudly.

Good or bad, kind or cruel, it was hard to tell. It all depended on which side of the fence one stood.


At some point, it became really hard for us not to think about Malaysia in comparison to China in so many ways. 

Could inclusivity and education have been a more positive approach to foster a stronger spirit of nationalism among our fragmented people? Could we have then become more open to assimilation? 

Is it too late now for Malaysia, with its exclusivity, special rights together with poor overall prospects for prosperity? Have corruption and irresponsible rogue leadership removed much of our hopes?

Meanwhile, China is desperately trying to find its way again, through its many contradictions – between its diversities and security, between surveillance and peace, between re-education and inclusivity, between its traditional spirituality and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Growing spirituality in China – SUKESHINI NAIR

For the CCP, I believe, religion, ethnicity and even gender are not as significant as the singular public National Identity one assumes, as long as one conforms to lifelong service and loyalty to the CCP in exchange for opportunities for prosperity. 

Everything now hangs on whether it can deliver.

Read Part 1 here

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Robert Tyabji
Robert Tyabji
16 Jun 2024 7.14pm

Thanks for that insightful ‘alternative view’ of China. Quite different from the more ‘normal’ awed impression of China’s progress and the obvious (newfound) prosperity of millions. How did they do it? How long will it last? Where is it leading to? What does it mean to be (mainland) Chinese? A wonderful read!