These groups include Tibetans, ethnics Koreans, and the mostly-Muslim Uyghurs. So David Eimer’s The Emperor Far Away, a record of a trip along China’s borders – including vast deserts, tropical jungles and Siberian-style wastes, populated by groups who are ‘sometimes reluctant citizens of their own country’ – could not be more timely.
Travelling on a succession of clapped-out buses, rented jeeps and at one point a flat-bottomed barge along the Mekong river, Eimer – a former newspaper journalist in Beijing – begins his trip in the far western region of Xinjiang, where central-Asian Uyghurs have become a minority following decades of Chinese migration from the east.
He finds ‘palpable tension’ in the region’s modern capital, Ürümqi, where armed police line the streets and the cousin of a man jailed for stabbing a Chinese migrant to death during inter-ethnic riots in 2009 tells him: ‘He was a good boy, he went to the mosque.’
But even amid the gloom, Eimer is an amiable guide, not ashamed of getting tipsy at local bars, romantically pursuing a fellow tourist, or dodging wrecking balls in ancient Kashgar to find a spot where he spent ‘nights smoking hash’ in his early 20s.
So it is no surprise that in Tibet – where Eimer evades restrictions on foreign journalists by using a second passport – he makes a beeline for a local ‘Nangma’ bar where ‘traditional Tibetan music, with an added electronic backbeat’ pumps out as recent arrivals from the harsh Tibetan countryside dance away their troubles.
And, as Eimer catalogues, there is no shortage of trouble. Monasteries are tightly controlled, the ever present paramilitary police patrol main roads – while local despair is almost completely ignored by Chinese tourists who have ‘sanitised and pacified’ its capital, Lhasa.
The limits of Eimer’s approach are most apparent in Tibet – he remains a tourist, with little time to build up relationships or paint a more nuanced portrait of regions that only feature in the Western media when hit by unrest.
The strongest sections of the book come when he stays for longer than the average backpacker – such as in China’s under-reported border with Myanmar, part of the lawless ‘Golden Triangle’, home to ‘rogue elephants’ and a centre of the international heroin trade.
Here he spends a wild night with of a young scion of the United Wa State Army, a group pedalling amphetamines across Asia, which Eimer duly samples – washed down with some blasts on an opium pipe for good measure.
Alongside the adolescent antics, he also takes a rare look at the Dai – an ethnic group who have more in common with the Thai than Chinese, but who have maintained friendly relations by hiding their religion and language behind an ‘unseen veil’ of smiles and friendship.
China’s borders are generally its poorest areas, but in the northeast – where glittering skyscrapers face off against underdeveloped villages in Russia – Beijing’s rule appears in a more appealing light, with locals struggling to get into China to profit from its booming economy.
Eimer arrives at China’s border with North Korea – where ethnic Chinese Koreans retain close ties with their relatives, even as Beijing clamps down on border-crossing refugees for fear of destabilising its ally, Pyongyang.
Economic development is seen by China’s ruling communist party as a panacea for discontent, but as Eimer ably demonstrates, an ever-present wealth gap between Chinese incomers and locals has only served to stoke tensions.
Sadly, Eimer skips past much interesting territory – including borders with fractious neighbour Vietnam and the resource trade with Mongolia. Most glaring are the absence of China’s maritime borders in the east, the subject of increasingly hot disputes with Japan.
As Beijing often denies – but as Eimer demonstrates – China’s borders have expanded and contracted for thousands of years. Now as it pushes its sea claims, China’s neighbours are finding the ‘far away’ Emperor can sometimes be too close for comfort.
THE EMPEROR FAR AWAY: Travels at the Edge of China by David Eimer, Bloomsbury, £20