Nick Holdstock

Nick Holdstock is the author of China's Forgotten People and The Casualties, a novel.

From The Blog
11 September 2020

Liu Yifei, the star of Disney’s new live-action remake of its 1998 cartoon Mulan, posted a message on Weibo last year expressing support for the Hong Kong police as they were brutally suppressing protests in the city. Her comments prompted an online campaign to boycott the movie. The campaign received new impetus this month when it was discovered that parts of the film had been shot in Xinjiang in 2018, when it was already widely known that more than a million people, mostly Uyghurs, were being detained in ‘re-education’ facilities, subject to brainwashing, violence and intimidation. The movie credits thank the Communist Party’s publicity department and the Public Security Bureau for the Turpan prefecture, where at least ten internment camps are operating. ‘It has generated a lot of publicity,’ Disney’s chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy, said yesterday. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’

Burning Books

Nick Holdstock, 22 July 2010

I began burning books during my third year in China. The first book I burned was called A Swedish Gospel Singer. On the cover there was a drawing of a blonde girl wearing a crucifix with her mouth wide open and musical notes floating out of it. Inside was a story, written in simple English, about a Swedish girl who loved to sing. One day, passing a church, she heard a wonderful sound. When...

In Ürümqi: the Uighur Riots

Nick Holdstock, 6 August 2009

This is what we know for sure: on 5 July violence broke out in the northwestern Chinese city of Ürümqi, the provincial capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Cars and buses were set on fire. News reports showed footage of rioters beating and kicking people. We saw a four-year-old boy, his head bandaged, on a hospital trolley. He had been clinging to his pregnant...

From The Blog
3 April 2019

The Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash was arrested in Almaty last month, and charged with extremism and inciting ‘inter-ethnic hatred’. The police later raided the office of his organisation, Atajurt, confiscated computers and documents, and sealed the premises. For the past two years Atajurt has been campaigning on behalf of the Kazakh citizens detained in the huge network of concentration camps across the Chinese border in Xinjiang.

From The Blog
16 August 2018

When I met Professor Rahile Dawut in Urumqi in 2013, we didn’t talk about the soldiers and armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the Uighur neighbourhoods. I didn’t ask her about the transformation of Xinjiang’s capital into an intensively policed space, or the government’s spurious claims that the region was under threat from Islamist terrorists, in part because discussing such topics, even in private, seemed too dangerous for any Chinese citizen. It was far safer to confine our talk to her extensive, brilliant ethnographic research into Xinjiang’s rich and plural cultural traditions, most notably her work on mazâr, the shrines of local saints dotted around the region, most of them in remote desert locations. She was funny, modest about her work, and gracious enough to listen to my anecdotes about visiting shrines in other parts of Xinjiang. Last week, Dawut’s family announced that she has been missing since December.

From The Blog
30 November 2017

The last dodo was sighted late in the 17th century near Mauritius, but the creature’s place in popular culture was cemented by its appearance in Alice in Wonderland in 1865. After Alice and various animals fall in the Pool of Tears, the Dodo makes a suggestion. ‘The best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race,’ it suggests, and makes them all run round in circles. When asked which of them has won the race, the Dodo is stumped for a moment, but then declares: ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ Natural selection is a more brutal game: extinctions are inevitable.

From The Blog
22 August 2017

Last week, Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, admitted it had blocked online access in China to 315 articles from China Quarterly, at the request of Chinese censors. The decision was taken without consulting the journal’s editor, Tim Pringle, who wrote an open letter expressing ‘deep concern and disappointment’ at the decision. The blocked articles are concerned with such politically sensitive subjects as the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Tiananmen Square protests. The demand to remove them came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, which threatened to block the entire China Quarterly website if they weren’t.

From The Blog
3 November 2015

Last week the Chinese government announced the end of its one-child policy; married couples will now be allowed to have two children. The policy was introduced in 1980, when the population had almost doubled since the Communists took control in 1949. It never applied to all citizens. People living in the countryside were allowed to have a second child if their first was female or born handicapped. Exemptions were also granted to ethnic minorities and people in high-risk occupations.

From The Blog
11 September 2015

The huge blast at a chemical factory in Tianjin on 12 August, which killed around 150 people, was China's worst industrial accident for several years. Since then there have been two more explosions in Shandong province, and now another in Zhejiang province on Monday. There have been at least 38 explosions so far this year at chemical plants, firework factories and mines. Among the causes are a lack of oversight, local corruption and attempts to boost profits by employing less qualified workers or ignoring safety protocols. These problems are endemic to most areas of the Chinese economy, whether it be food provision, the rail network or domestic tourism, all of which have seen serious accidents or health scares in recent years.

From The Blog
3 June 2015

Last week China claimed it had arrested 181 terrorist groups in Xinjiang over the past year. Mass arrests, wide spread surveillance and an increased military presence have targeted 'religious extremism'; some Xinjiang terrorist groups have been said to have links to Isis. The crackdown followed a number of violent incidents including bombings and knife attacks. According to one estimate, 72 people were killed in less than eight months. At the start of the campaign last year, President Xi Jinping said that terrorists must be made to ‘become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting “beat them!”’

From The Blog
5 March 2014

On 1 March, a group of men and women armed with knives and machetes killed 29 people and injured 130 at the railway station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China. Nothing like this has happened in China in recent memory. Protests and riots are far from uncommon, but deliberate, co-ordinated attacks aimed at causing widespread fear and major loss of life are almost unknown. Still, as soon as the news from Kunming came through, social media were full of speculation that the attack was carried out by Uighurs from Xinjiang. When I first went to Xinjiang, in 2001, the main stereotype of Uighurs amongst Han Chinese people was that they led happy, colourful lives full of singing and dancing. But since the riots of 2009 this has been replaced by a common perception of Uighurs as violent terrorists. When the Chinese government compared last weekend's attacks to 9/11 and blamed ‘separatists’ from Xinjiang, who had ‘launched deadly attacks over the past months, years and decades', no one was surprised.

From The Blog
28 February 2014

The most surprising thing about the charges that have been brought against Ilham Tohti is that it didn’t happen sooner. Tohti, a 44-year-old professor of economics in Beijing, has for a long time been an outspoken critic of government policies in Xinjiang. The religious and cultural repression of Uighurs in the region is almost never publically discussed in China: apart from conditions in Tibet, and the legitimacy of Communist Party rule, few topics are more sensitive. When the Chinese media cover violent incidents in Xinjiang, such as the riots in Ürümqi in 2009, they always take the line that it's the fault of Islamic terrorists who wish to separate Xinjiang from China.

From The Blog
16 January 2014

In 2002 the photographer Lisa Ross was taken to the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in western China by her driver. She did not know why, but there was a path in the sand, and so she followed it, over the dunes: Colours began to reveal themselves. In the distance I could see what looked like wooden cribs or rafts, cresting on dry land, animated by coloured flags beating in the wind. As I neared the markers, there seemed to be animals with arms and legs stuck atop tall wooden posts.

From The Blog
8 November 2013

Last week a jeep exploded in Tiananmen Square after crashing into the wall of the Forbidden City. Five people were killed, including the three passengers, and more than forty injured. The Beijing police said it was a suicide attack, and that the passengers were all ethnically Uighur. The five people they arrested the next day were all Uighur too.

From The Blog
4 October 2013

Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan was a popular holiday destination during the Soviet era. After independence the tourist industry struggled, but in recent years the visitors have started returning, from elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, Russia or Kazakhstan. But they don’t go to Balykchy (‘the fisherman’), a town of 42,000 people at the western end of the lake. Once a major transport hub (it’s the railhead of the line from Bishkek), Balykchy today is a quiet, dusty place. Lenin’s portrait looks over the rooftops; his statue stands, arm outstretched, in front of the town hall.

From The Blog
5 September 2013

Bo Xilai’s fall from power was both dramatic and swift. The charismatic former Party secretary of Chongqing, once thought a candidate for a top government position, was dismissed in March 2012, accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power. At the same time his estranged wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood. In the following months the curtain of secrecy that usually conceals China’s political elite was yanked aside, as tales of Bo’s wealth and his family’s extravagant lifestyle spread.

From The Blog
17 July 2013

Schoolchildren everywhere cheat in exams. But British and American universities are said to be especially worried by a rise in fraudulent applications from Chinese students. In China, meanwhile, some schools are going to extreme lengths to prevent cheating on the gao kao, the national college entrance examinations.

From The Blog
5 March 2013

The people behind Game The News describe themselves as ‘the world’s first news correspondents who cover global events as games’. In Endgame: Syria, for example, you guide the political and military actions of ‘the rebels in their struggle’.

From The Blog
21 February 2013

On 13 February a documentary entitled Immoral Holiday was broadcast on state TV in Uzbekistan. The problem with Valentine's Day, apparently, isn't the crass commercialism or anodyne sentimentality – how could it be, when president Karimov's daughter makes pop videos like these – but that it promotes terrorism. Olloyor Bobonov, the head of the Uzbek Republican Spirituality and Enlightenment Centre, said that the aim of Valentine’s Day is to make young people 'slaves of their sexual pleasures', which makes their minds easy to control. 'In just one day they can easily be taken to central squares to topple governments. Their acts of terrorism or extremism are terrifying.

From The Blog
1 January 2013

On 9 December, Wanchen Kyi, a 16-year-old Tibetan schoolgirl, set fire to herself in Dokar Mo township in Qinghai. More than ninety Tibetans have done so since March 2011. Their last words have included calls for the return of the Dalai Lama, the release of the Panchen Lama and other political prisoners, protests against the Chinese government’s policies in the region (phasing the Tibetan language out of education; encouraging non-Tibetan settlers from inner China), and calls for Tibetan independence.

From The Blog
11 September 2012

Between 1999 and 2001 I lived in Shaoyang, a small city in Hunan province known throughout China for being dirty. This wasn’t just the prejudice of outsiders; many of its residents complained about the ‘poor conditions’. Rubbish bobbed on the milky green surface of the Shao Shui river, spread along its banks and choked the dam upstream. The street that led to the college where I taught was lined with food stalls, rubbish heaped around them. During the day people would pick through the piles looking for glass, plastic or metal they could resell; at night the rubbish was set on fire. People wiped their chairs in restaurants before sitting down, or carried newspapers to sit on on the bus, but didn’t think twice about throwing cans and tissues out of car windows.

From The Blog
2 August 2012

On 28 July there were violent clashes between thousands of local residents and police in the Chinese city of Qidong, north of Shanghai. The protesters were concerned about pollution from a Japanese paper factory’s planned new sewage outlet, which they thought could contaminate drinking water and harm the city’s fishing industry. They overturned several police cars, stripped the mayor of his shirt and entered local government offices, where they found expensive bottles of alcohol, condoms and cigarettes, all things that officials are often given as bribes. Some demonstrators were beaten by riot police. The protest came to an end when it was announced that the sewage pipe project would be permanently cancelled.

From The Blog
4 July 2012

In 1950 the Chinese Communist Party published a comic called 'Great Changes after the Liberation'. Its aim was to ‘awaken people’s disgust toward imperialists and counter-revolutionaries’ by contrasting the inequalities of pre-Liberation China with the promises of the new regime. The comic was recently posted on Weibo [Nick: isn’t Weibo like Twitter? In what way was the comic posted on it?], and generated a lot of online discussion before its removal. Though some of its predictions have come true, such as the rise of the renminbi against the dollar and the need for foreigners to obey the law, plenty of people pointed out the similarities between China now and before 1949.

From The Blog
25 May 2012

Ürümqi may be the capital of Xinjiang, but in most respects Kashgar is the province’s first city. Until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Ürümqi was a small garrison town. Kashgar, which was part of the Silk Route, has been at the centre of the region’s trade, and at the heart of Uighur culture and tradition, for more than a thousand years.

From The Blog
17 May 2012

Though there have been few large demonstrations in Germany against the austerity measures introduced by the European Union, it was inevitable that Frankfurt, the home of the European Central Bank, would become a target. Blockupy Frankfurt called for a series of protests and actions ‘against the austerity dictatorship’ from 16 to 19 May, culminating on Saturday in a march to the ECB. I spoke to Thomas Seibert, a philosopher and member of Blockupy Frankfurt, at the Subversive Forum in Zagreb. ‘We wanted to say there is a choice,’ he said. ‘We don’t have to stick to the German government. We wanted to say, in the Occupy sense, we are the 99 per cent.’

From The Blog
9 March 2012

Cairo's 20 million people produce an estimated 10,000 tons of waste each day. Piles of rubbish are found on the streets of many neighbourhoods. At first sight, the problem seems worst in Manshiet Nasser, which since the late 1960s has been home to Cairo’s largest community of Coptic Christian zabbaleen ('garbage collectors'). They say they recycle 80 per cent of the rubbish they collect, most of which is shipped to China.

From The Blog
20 January 2012

In 1997, I did a research project at the National CJD Research and Surveillance Unit at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital, supervised by Robert Will and James Ironside, who co-authored the 1996 paper in the Lancet that proposed the existence ofvCJD in the UK. The only reliable way to diagnose the disease was by post-mortem examination of the brain, which would reveal the tiny holes in the brain tissue caused by massive cell death – giving it a sponge-like appearance – and allow us to test for the presence of abnormal proteins.

From The Blog
17 October 2011

Around 600 protesters gathered in Prague on Saturday morning near the Old Town Square. 'No Corruption', the banners said: 'We are One'; 'Game Over. Insert CHANGE to Continue.' We marched first to the stock exchange, then on towards the Vltava River, surrounded all the way by police, who often stopped us for no obvious reason. At one of these halts a man in plain clothes took photographs, which caused some anger, but otherwise the mood was cheerful.

From The Blog
20 June 2011

After the protests in Ürümqi on 5 July 2009, thousands of extra police and soldiers were brought into the city. On 7 July the authorities reported that almost 1500 people had been arrested for taking part in the demonstration, which they described as ‘a pre-empted, organised violent crime’. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published eyewitness reports of official brutality, but there hasn’t been much corroborating evidence. Last week however a video appeared on YouTube that shows police and soldiers making arrests in Ürümqi. The clip appears to have been shot for state TV, since the reporter has permission to film.

From The Blog
31 May 2011

A given number of parliamentary seats in Lebanon are proportionally assigned to representatives from different religious communities. In theory, this prevents any one group from dominating the political agenda and encourages compromise (though it’s not really working like that at the moment). It also, however, assumes that everyone is religious, and that they want the country to be governed accordingly. On 20 March, 30,000 people took to the streets of Beirut to call for secular laws to be applied to marriage, domestic violence, child custody, divorce and inheritance, currently under the jurisdiction of the separate courts of each of the 18 recognised religious communities.

From The Blog
24 May 2011

One way to keep track of the shifts in belief and allegiance as you walk through Beirut is by watching the walls. In the backstreets of Gemmayzeh and Ashrafieh in the east of the city, they are covered in stencil graffiti for the right-wing, Christian Lebanese Forces Party:

From The Blog
31 January 2011

The Chinese New Year begins on Thursday, the Year of the Tiger giving way to the Year of the Rabbit. The government in Beijing recently removed from the internet an extremely violent cartoon called Greeting Card for the Year of the Rabbit, in which a group of oppressed rabbits overthrow an abusive government of tigers.

The cartoon claims to be ‘meant as an adult fairy tale’, with ‘no connection to real life’, but most of the events it depicts will be familiar to a Chinese audience.

From The Blog
7 December 2010

I took these pictures in the villages around Turpan, a small oasis town an hour's drive from Ürümqi, earlier this year. Propaganda murals used to be common throughout the Chinese countryside, but are much rarer now. The slogans are in both Uighur and Chinese. Language is a tricky political subject in Xinjiang at the moment, as it is in Tibet – there have been protests over plans to phase Uighur and Tibetan out of classrooms.

From The Blog
20 August 2010

Yesterday the People’s Daily reported that there had been an explosion in Aksu in southwest Xinjiang. Seven people were killed and 14 injured when a Uighur man drove a three-wheeled vehicle into a crowd and detonated explosives. This is the first major act of violence in the region since the Urumqi riots in July 2009, which led to more than 200 deaths.

From The Blog
20 July 2010

A friend who works in my local Blackwell’s told me that Conservative Party members get a discount at the bookshop. This seemed so unlikely that I phoned the Blackwell’s helpline pretending to be a paid-up Tory, and sure enough was told that I would get 20 per cent off. Joining the Conservative Party costs £25 a year: if you spend £125 a year on books at Blackwells you essentially get your party membership for free (a less catchy offer perhaps than ‘3 for 2’). It’s unclear, though, how the Tories’ encouraging people to shop at Blackwell’s fits in with their alleged support for small shops, unless they mean the smaller branches of Blackwell’s.

From The Blog
28 June 2010

Last Thursday the Chinese police claimed they had ‘cracked a terrorist cell headed by [Uighur] separatists’. At a press conference in Beijing, a Ministry of Public Security spokesman said that 10 people had been detained for their role in attacks on a police station in Kashgar in August 2008, and for ‘bombing supermarkets, hotel and government buildings’ in Kuqa.

From The Blog
28 April 2010

When I first came to Beijing, in 1999, the pollution made my throat swell up so much that I couldn’t speak. In 2003 I spent a week in hospital here, giving endless blood samples, having various body parts scanned, and answering questions like 'How often do you cry?' or 'Do you ever feel an almost uncontrollable rage?' I never found out what was wrong with me. When I got here this time, five weeks ago, I had such crippling jet lag that I barely slept for three days. Wandering the streets last month, hoping to exhaust myself into sleep, I came to the conclusion that Beijing was a terrible place: polluted, ugly, lacking in style, unredeemed by Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China or the few surviving hutongs. Unlike Shanghai, Chengdu or Kunming, it’s a city I can’t find it in me to like.

From The Blog
14 January 2010

The idea of film ‘trailers’ for books may look like yet another unpleasant twist in the commodification of literature, or, at the very least, an attempt to convince consumers that books really are just like movies, but all the same there have been some enjoyable results. Most trailers consist of the author reading a short (and usually dramatic) extract from the book over a montage of images. The recent one for Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed is a pretty representative example:

From The Blog
25 September 2009

On 16 September the Chinese government claimed to have arrested six people in Aksu (a city in western Xinjiang) for making bombs. Two of the six – Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut – have Uighur names. Li Wei, the director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, warned that 'terrorists have gone underground to organise different forms of terror attacks in Xinjiang . . . such as the recent syringe attacks in the region and plotting bomb attacks.’ He went on to claim that the recovered explosives were to be used in car and suicide bombings. The timing of the arrests is suspiciously convenient: in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, the government would like to show that it has the region under control.

From The Blog
9 September 2009

The riots in Ürümqi in July caused more than 200 deaths and led to the imposition of martial law. Though there were differing accounts of who was to blame – the police, for firing on ‘peaceful protestors’, or terrorists whose ‘goal was to undermine the social order’ – the violence was generally perceived as being due to resentment between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority. On 17 August there were reports that people in Ürümqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. There were no casualties, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in the following weeks, as the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. The government confirmed that most of the victims were Han, but stressed that Uighurs and other ethnic groups had also been attacked. By 3 September the hospitals had reported a total of 531 cases. However, only 20 per cent of these showed any signs of physical injury, which suggests that the greater problem was the fear created by the attacks.

Letter

In Ürümqi

6 August 2009

I am in complete agreement with Keith Sellars about government-sponsored Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang and should have been more explicit about it in my article (Letters, 10 September). Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, there has been a concerted effort by the government to ‘develop the west’. The main entity in this process has been the Xinjiang Production...

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