After my two brushes with crime in China — a mugging, which resulted in the theft of my Nokia N95, and catching a catburglar trying to break in to my apartment — the reactions among Chinese people were all pretty similar:
- Did you see his face? Did he look like he was from Xinjiang?
- Was he a Xinjiang person?
- A Xinjiang guy stole your phone, right?
By “Xinjiang person” the speakers mean a Uighur, a Eurasian minority from Xinjiang that is genetically and linguistically related to Turkish people. In Tianjin and other large Chinese cities, Uighurs are among the lowest of the underclass, making a living selling dried fruits or Muslim food or, yes, by stealing and selling stolen goods.*
What was striking to me, however, was the automatic assumption on the part of Chinese that “thief = Uighur.” Is this just a Tianjin thing or are such reactions common around China?
* Note that I’ve never been robbed by a Uighur but they’ve offered me (presumably) stolen cell phones dozens of times.