The most talked-about snack on China’s social media right now is qiegao (切糕), a dense, sweet cake made with corn flour, dried fruits and nuts. The cake is popular in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China that has suffered many recent incidents of unrest due to ethnic conflicts between the Uighurs, the ethnic minority native to the region, and the Han, who comprise 92% of China’s population. Uighurs vendors often sell these cakes in carts in cities around China.
On Dec. 3, the police department in Yueyang, a small city in Hunan province (@岳阳公安警事), tweeted on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, about an incident where Uighur snack vendors had a scuffle with a (presumably) Han customer. Two people suffered light injuries but “RMB160,000 (approximately US$25,000) worth of nuts, candy and cake” were damaged. The customer was arrested and 16 Uighurs were compensated and sent back to Xinjiang.
The tweet immediately attracted attention because of the seemingly outrageous monetary amount involved. Within hours, jokes and photoshopped pictures began to circulate on China’s social media. One popular joke put a twist on DeBeer’s famous diamond ad campaign: ”A piece of qiegao is forever. One kilo will make you broke.” @谷大白话, an expert in American culture, quipped: ”President Obama announced that the U.S. will repay its billions of dollars of national debt to China in the form of 100 kilos of qiegao.”
The discussion, however, quickly turned darker. One user posed a math problem–a piece of qiegao is 0.96m long, 0.52m wide, and 0.31m thick, and the Xinjiang vendor cut a quarter of it for you. Question: will anyone die?
Many of China’s mostly-Han Internet users shared their bad experiences with Uighur cake vendors. @gspbc志方稚荒 tweeted a very typical story: “I was a sophomore in college. I asked the vendor how much per half kilo of cake, the Uighur said RMB24 (US$4). Then he gave me a quarter kilo and told me it’s RMB24 per 10 grams. I said I didn’t want it anymore. He took out a very shiny knife and waved it five centimeters from my face and told me what was cut could not be put back again… So I gave in.”
While the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang is often reported in foreign media, the daily interactions between Han and Uighurs in other parts of China receive little attention. Many Han hold deeply-seated stereotypes against Uighurs, colored by poor personal experiences with snack vendors or bag snatchers.
The tweet by the Yueyang police department also confirmed many Han’s perception that the police engage in reverse discrimination, treating Uighurs with kid gloves because of lenient “ethnic minority policies.” @青春已老翁 commented, “This is clearly unjust. The government oppresses Han and helps encourage the criminal acts of these people from Xinjiang.” The policy is documented in high-level communique from the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1984 that stated that there should be “fewer arrests and fewer executions” against ethnic minority persons who have committed crimes, and generally treat them with leniency.
@阿将76 gave a more personal account: “I’ve seen this happen in Pudong [Shanghai's business district]. A man said he wanted 10 RMB worth of cake, the Xinjiang vendor gave him a big piece, weighed it and said it would be 110 RMB. He couldn’t refuse because other cake vendors also came over to threaten him. He called the police, but the police also told him to pay up. Everyone knows why they dare to do things like this.” @幽幽南山xxx commented, “Such partiality in favor of ethnic minorities is a tragedy.”
Perhaps unprepared for such controversy, the Yueyang police deleted its tweet less than 12 hours after publication, but the topic continues to gather steam. @zzz748 commented, “I have no issues with preference treatment or favorable policies for ethnic minorities, but you cannot do away with basic justice. No matter what ethnicity they are, they should be punished if they overstep the law and cannot be released without proper cause. What’s worse, the police would even punish the victims! This kind of injustice will only exacerbate ethnic conflict.”