The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

This piece was republished by the World Uyghur Congress. It is also available on their website.

At 6pm on Tuesday, the 28th of February violence erupted in the desert town of Kargilik, between Kashgar and Hotan, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Armed with knives or axes (depending on the report), whether desperate or deranged, several men unleashed a short spree of bloodletting. The violence resulted in between 12 and 20 dead. The Washington Post, noting 12 deaths, reported,

Officials and state media said the bloodshed started when assailants attacked civilians with knives on a commercial street in Yecheng city, killing 10 people; police fatally shot two of the attackers, the official accounts said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei callled the attackers “terrorists” and said they attacked innocent civilians, “cruelly killing several of them in an appalling manner.”

This event is happening only days before the National People’s Congress is set to meet in Beijing, on 5 March. This is important in that the NPC will spend time passing into law the revised Criminal Procedure Law, which stands to potentially legalize a number of draconian policies for dealing with security, and terrorist-framed issues. Senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, points out that, in particular, Article 73 of the CPL poses considerable concern for human rights activists and members of Uyghur or Tibetan groups who are often framed as violent threats to the state. Understanding the violence in Xinjiang is part of a greater discursive battle, with physical and structural ramifications.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project reports that, “The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the international community to view official Chinese statements about the reported deaths with extreme caution until independent observers are allowed to investigate the incident.” And within reason.

Edward Wang’s piece in the New York Times points out that, “As with virtually all such events in remote parts of China, there were competing accounts of the violence on Tuesday… A report on a Web site run by the propaganda bureau of Xinjiang said Wednesday that 13 people were killed and many others injured when nine “terrorists” armed with knives stabbed people in a crowd… police shot dead seven attackers and captured the other two… Global Times, an officially approved newspaper, reported that attackers killed at least 10 people… Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that the police shot dead at least two attackers.”

As information about this episode of violence unfolds it is important to keep in mind Wang’s critical remarks, and understand the complexity of the politics of representation. The following examination is meant primarily for those with a limited knowledge of Uyghur history and aims to elucidate some of the situation in Xinjiang and provide a background for understanding the unfolding accounts of violence, and the framing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Although it is geared more as an introduction to the unfamiliar, it also presents information and ideas that those more accustomed to examining and analyzing the region will no doubt find informative.

Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim minority group which are culturally and linguistically distinct from the majority Han, trace their ancestry to the geographic region known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The word Xinjiang in Chinese, (新疆), means new territory or frontier. However, many Uyghurs, both inside the XUAR and abroad, tend to perceive this word as synonymous with colonial power. Perceptions that range from economic or political marginalization to victimization by an organized campaign to stamp out cultural identity and autonomy are best explained through a narrative analysis of the subjective meaning of name of the province for those who are purportedly autonomous within.

When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power. (A Uyghur student who has been living outside of China for five years, for safety reasons names will not be included.)

We hate that word. We don’t even have the right to say our hometown in our own language. (A Uyghur youth with whom I spoke in Kashgar, 2011)

This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region as Xinjiang. But how do we call it? But we don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money. (A Uyghur who has been living outside of China for two and a half years, and has since renounced Chinese citizenship out of fear of persecution.)

In this brief discussion, it is neither my intention to challenge nor certify the word Xinjiang but for consistency I will refer to the region as such. I do acknowledge the significance it has for many Uyghurs as a symbol of oppression or discrusive target of claim-making within a broader framework of resistance and cultural re-articulation.

The preferred name, once Uyghurs are more free to express discursive resistance outside of China and for those more daring who still reside inside China, is East Turkestan. In China, however, it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan,and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a blue field, is forbidden from public and private space.In December 1999, for example, two men were arrested and charged with 15 and 13 years in prison for merely hoisting the East Turkestan flag in place of the Chinese Flag at a courthouse in Xinjiang.

The reason for China’s response to the ‘East Turkestan’ frame, from central government perspectives, is clear. It presents an implicit history of an independent Uyghur nation which challenges the official Chinese history. Therefore, the Chinese government routinely conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and, particularly after the establishment of the US led War on Terror, with terrorism (Dwyer, 2005). The use and interpretation of the ‘East Turkestan’ frame has become a constituent of domination and resistance, when protests, non-violent or otherwise, flare up in the region the government hastily blames it on the influence of ‘East Turkestan’ terrorist groups or foreign interference, as it does with blaming the Dalai Lama for any contention among Tibetan groups.

Before we can even begin to grasp a more profound understanding of the last few years’ episodes of conflict within the province we must develop an understanding of the significance of the words ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘East Turkestan,’ and the social-historical context from which the phenomenon derives its meaning and force.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the region in what had been a long history of territorial conflict (Millward, 2007). China has at times admitted this history but used it rhetorically to state, “that the lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth to counter Uyghur claims to a 4000 year history of multiple independent kingdoms, as noted on the World Uyghur Congress Website. While the predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been an integral part of Han Chinese rule for centuries (Beijing, 2003; Shandong, 2010), others have suggested that the region was not incorporated into the empire until 1821 (Gladney, 2004: 215).

Conflict throughout this period was protracted. In 1864, Qing administration was jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria (Gladney, 2004). However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized anti-Qing resistance; and, although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to this point, it was shortly thereafter officially made a province in 1884 (Millward, 2007). The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 sank China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent (Gladney, 2004) as the region was split between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Guomingdang (Nationalist) and Communist party of China (Bovingdon, 2010; Millward 2007; Gladney, 2003, 2004).

Millward (2007) provides a vivid account of rapidly shifting power dynamics during this period. On 12 November 1933, the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. Its leaders were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. A year later the ETR would fall to the infamous warlord Sheng Shicai. On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in this time, and remain as Uyghur heroes.

The hope of lasting independence went down in flames on 27 August 1949. Although the negotiations for an independent Uyghur nation had essentially already been resolved much earlier, for the CCP had agreed to this in exchange for Uyghur military assistance against the Guomingdang, Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghurs were invited to Beijing to meet with Mao on the issue of independence. However, somewhere en route their plane mysteriously crashed. Their deaths would be kept secret until several months after the Chinese Army had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for the region’s Uyghurs. This lesson has not been lost and, although it is a strictly taboo subject to discuss in public both the two independent republics and the mysterious plane crash are well known and hushed topics.In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) President Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop (Kadeer, 2009; 11).”

Despite this history of indigenous resistance to perceived foreign—Qing, Russian, CCP—occupation, Chinese sources tend to represent the independent republics as the result of abusive foreign governments (Chen, 2009). Official media sources in China go as far to relate that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkestan’ and fabricated a history which had not even existed. While Chinese officials and scholars may have referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference (Bovingdon, 2010; 39).” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse within China and diverging from this discourse became a crime tantamount to terrorism. However, it has been continually contested by the Uyghur diaspora, and many third party scholars.

Because the Chinese government frequently blames domestic contention on the manipulation of foreign organizations, framed as violent separatist groups with no authority in China, it is important to quickly examine Uyghur deterritorialization.

Yitzhak Shichor (2003, 2009) provides a rich history of Uyghur diffusion. In 1949, Alptekin and Buğra led the first major wave of a Uyghur exodus from Xinjiang to neighboring Kashmir. By 1952, owing to Alptekin’s efforts, pressure from the US and the UNHCR Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri. This marked the second phase of Uyghur migration. By a decade later a sizable community had also started to form in Istanbul. The third phase of Uyghur migration can be divided into two separate waves. The first began with post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, with greater flight from China, mainly to Central Asian countries and Turkey. The second wave was composed of Uyghurs migrating from host countries such as Turkey to a third host country in North America or Western Europe (Shichor, 2003: 285). The global headquarters of the World Uyghur Congress is in Munich. Still, the diaspora is relatively small. The majority of Uyghurs still live in Xinjiang. There a different migration, Han moving from inner China, encouraged by uneven access to opportunities at the expense of Uyghurs, is perceived by Uyghurs as a direct economic and cultural attack.

Due less to migration of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang than to steady Han migration into Xinjiang, from 1947 until the present the demographics of Xinjiang have dramatically shifted. The majority of Uyghurs with whom I have spoken have brought this up as one of the gravest threats to their cultural survival. The Han population in the region has increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000 (Millward, 2007: 307). Information for 2010 from the National Bureau of Statistics in China reports the percentage of Han as 40.1 per cent and conflates the remaining 59.9 per cent to an amalgamation of the other ethnic groups. This census representation, I would argue, is done in part to stifle ethnic based mobilization and to legitimize official histories of Chinese presence in the region.

A few years ago, in Korla, I was asked by one Uyghur how many Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang. When I told him that I knew that the given number is usually around 9 million he replied that the number is actually double but that, “the government will never say there is more than 10 million Uyghurs. Because when a nation has more than 10 million,” he choked with emotion, “they have to get their own country.” This sentiment is illustrative of the perceptions of repressive intentions behind various forms of representation, including the census. Representing or misrepresenting population figures is a way to dominate a given group but it can also be transformed into a counter-discourse if the population claims greater numbers than official figures. Uyghur sources report from 15 to 20 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Admittedly, the history of this conflict has been represented in opposing narratives by Chinese, Uyghur, and third party historians. This is understandable considering actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases (Bovingdon, 2010: 23). At times, it becomes difficult to disentangle the opposing representations. It does appear, however, that some accounts (Bovingdon, 2010; Gladney, 2003; 2004; Millward, 2007; Shichor, 2003; 2009) are more resonant with Uyghur narratives. This is important to separate from narratives obedient to Chinese cultural and historical hegemony. Understood from an analysis of the literature and discussion with Uyghurs, official Chinese accounts can be seen as representational repression. It is important to keep in mind as news and representations of the violence in Kargilik unfolds.

We should keep in mind that prematurely conceptualizing cycles of violence in terms of dyadic ethnic clashes distorts the complexity of the phenomenon as to render analysis facile. Conflation of contention to one category whether male/female, rich/poor, or in-group/out-group fails to take into consideration a multiplicity of influences and identities, as noted by Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Similarly, be wary of attempts to present some definitive sketch of ‘Uyghur.’ There is none. On this, it is worth quoting Gaye Christoffersen in length.

“Western and Chinese discourse on ‘the Uyghur’ tends towards making essentializing arguments that assume there is a ‘Universal Uyghur’ with an unchanging essence and fixed properties, whether living in Xinjiang, the Central Asian diaspora, Afghanistan, Turkey, Germany or the United States. Uyghur identity formation, difficult to begin with, is complicated further by outside forces attempting to construct a monolithic identity that would fit their particular vision. It is their essentializing imagery that victimizes Uyghurs by forcing them to assimilate to alien visions. The vast majority of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have no voice in world affairs, instead becoming the object of the politics of representation by outside forces (2002; 3).”

PART ONE IN A PLANNED SERIES ON UYGHURS AND XINJIANG

Kashgar Old City, 2011

This article was republished on the Website for the World Uyghur Congress.

Works Cited:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2010). The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chen, Xi (2007). “Between Defiance and Obedience: Protest Opportunism in China,” in Perry,Elizabeth J. and Goldman, Merle (2007), Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 253-281.

Christoffersen, Gaye (2002). “Constituting the Uyghur in U.S.-China Relations: The Geopolitics of Identity in the War on Terrorism.” Strategic Insight White Paper: Centor for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Gladney, Dru. C (2003). “Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?” The China Quarterly, No. 174, Religion in China Today.

———- (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Kadeer, Rebiya; trans. Alexandra Cavelius (2009). Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China. USA: Kales Press, Inc.

Millward, James A., (2007). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, London:  C. Hurst & Co.

Sen, Amartya (2007). Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Shichor, Yitzhak (2003). “Virtual Transnationalism: Uygur Communities in Europe and the Quest for Eastern Turkestan Independence.” in Allievi, Stefano and Nielsen, Jorgen S. (2003), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe.  Leiden: Brill. 281-311

———- (2009). Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations. Honolulu: The East West Center.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

9 Responses to The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

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