WHEN ALIM first attended a lecture by economist Ilham Tohti, he was stunned. Alim had spent most of his academic life cloistered in sterile classrooms where the lessons were, without exception, stale, uninteresting and infused with the unappealing rhetoric of Communist Party propaganda. The twenty-six-year-old student never took his lessons seriously; he gave them just enough attention to ensure he could pass.
But Tohti’s lectures were different. Alim listened with rapt attention from beginning to end, absorbing every word and scribbling notes on even the smallest details. Everything about Tohti seemed new, even his manner, a striking contrast to the staid instructors Alim was used to. Tohti was young, charismatic and forceful. He spoke with emotion, and his lectures were animated: he would punch his fists into the air to make a point, and his eyes would grow wide to match the import of his words. And, most importantly to Alim, Tohti spoke the truth.
Alim had travelled more than 4,500 kilometres to listen to these lectures. The journey had taken him away from his family and his quiet village nestled amidst the cornfields of Xinjiang, the rugged desert region of northwest China. He was one of only three dozen students from Xinjiang who were granted admission to Beijing’s Minzu University – the University of Minorities – set up by the Chinese government for students from China’s fifty-five minority ethnic groups. Alim’s companions were Uyghur, the Turkic ethnic group native to the western region. They, like Alim, had sacrificed much to get to Beijing. They arrived at the university together and stuck together.
In the Chinese capital, the Uyghur students quickly found they were strangers in an unfamiliar land, surrounded by people with whom they had little in common. Communicating in Mandarin was a strain. They also had different eating habits, with rules and restrictions their Chinese classmates found strange and amusing. Cosmopolitan Minzu University was a world away from what they knew. The university is a unique – and somewhat anomalous – bubble of diversity at the heart of China’s capital. A walk through its quiet campus presents a fascinating snapshot of China’s many peoples. Here, Uyghurs study and live together with Tibetans, Huis, Bais, Koreans and Mongolians. Separated by language, religion and culture, they are brought together by a common dream of education and advancement.
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