Xinjiang or East Turkestan: Contending Historical Narratives and the Politics of Representation in China


July 5th marked the fifth anniversary of a series of bloody events in Xinjiang collectively labeled as the 7/5 Urumqi riots. Immediately afterward, state and international media set to reporting and analyzing the conflict, scholars and international human rights organizations soon joined. Meanwhile the government in Beijing launched damage control, exerting its monopoly of symbolic power by shutting down Internet connectivity to Xinjiang’s 22 million people for 10 months. From the violence and its aftermath numerous accounts emerged on the causes, significance, grievances, and policies that allowed or perpetuated the violence. Reports differed in placing the dead and disappeared in the hundreds to the thousands. Media and policy discussions ranged from dissecting socio-political to ethnic tensions. While some pointed at historical narratives others ignored them all together in their attempts to answer such questions as ‘who are the Uyghurs,’ or to identify the ‘East Turkestan’ threat in their search to prove or disprove that ‘China has a terrorism problem.’

Explanatory narratives on Uyghurs and Xinjiang have understandably grown more prevalent with rising instability and the violence attributed to Uyghur discontent. These accounts have ranged from statements by the Chinese government about mounting security threats and ‘foreign forces,’ documentation by human rights groups of structural inequality and abuse, or ranged wildly in tone and sophistication from both domestic and international media. However, too few accounts have set to the task of exploring the competing historical narratives, or the significance in controlling those narratives for the identities and lives they impact.

Competing narratives in the politics of representation not only play into how the CCP crafts its policy of dealing with the region and how it understands Uyghur grievances but also influences how Uyghurs perceive their place in central government policies and frame their grievances. In that sense, exploring the competing narratives of history, the provenance of place and the significance of name sheds light on contemporary discontent centered in this contentious region. They are present at the heart of the ongoing conflict. Rather than a passing reference or minor historical footnote they demand greater attention.

Why is it Xinjiang for some and East Turkestan for others? What is the significance in the terms and why has the name and history of the region become so contentious? Representations and narratives are a constituent of identity and group formation. They influence perceptions and the significance of grievances and the vocabularies of power.

I was in Xinjiang in 2009 and happened by chance to leave Urumqi five days before the riot erupted. I returned in 2011, traveling immediately afterward to Turkey where I spent several months doing research among the Uyghur diaspora in Istanbul. I always began my interviews by inquiring how they felt about the word Xinjiang, which literally means ‘new frontier’ in Chinese.

One Uyghur student, who had become a Turkish citizen in 2010, related, “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.”

Another graduate student related, “This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region Xinjiang. But how do we call it? 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.”

The preferred name among Uyghurs freer to express symbolic resistance, ‘East Turkestan,’ places them within a pan-Turkic identity and a distinct historical narrative. It is included in the name of many Uyghur rights, cultural and political organizations among the diaspora, as well as violent groups of questionable existence such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

In China it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan, and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a light blue field, is forbidden from public and private space. Human rights organizations have cataloged a number of Uyghurs being arrested and imprisoned for hoisting or displaying the flag in China.

For many Uyghurs ‘East Turkestan’ represents the history of an independent Uyghur nation, challenging the official Chinese narrative. It is little wonder then that the Chinese Communist Party conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and terrorism, says University of Kansas anthropologist Arienne Dwyer in a 2005 report on violence in Xinjiang.

It is a war of words and not just over whether to call an act of violence terrorism or not but how to situate a place in history and rectify its name, to use a Confucian concept.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the Western region in what had been a history of territorial conflict. China has at times admitted this history but used it to state that, as in “History of the Uygurs,” a 2009 China Daily article, “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 by the Chinese government to refute Uyghur historical claims to the region. While most independent historians tend to draw attention to the few thousand years of various Turkic empires that claimed jurisdiction in the region, from the Huns between around 200 BC to the 4th century AD to the Uyghur, Mongolian confederation from 1218 to 1759, Uyghur sources draw on the Turkic link of these empires to claim multiple independent Uyghur kingdoms in what is present day Xinjiang.

The predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been the homeland of multiple ethnic groups since ancient times and an integral part of Chinese rule for centuries. Official accounts sometimes claim that Xinjiang was part of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and that large numbers of Uyghurs, then foreigners, didn’t arrive in Xinjiang until the ninth century. Similar accounts stress Uyghur military cooperation with the Tang court in quelling rebellions in Eastern China.

Now when one travels through Xinjiang to sites such as the tomb of the 11th-century Uyghur linguist and cartographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, outside of the Southern Xinjiang town of Kashgar, they are greeted with an introductory plaque that situates him as a subject of the Song Dynasty (960 -1279). This is odd considering accepted maps of Song Dynasty territory don’t extend that far west. Some of Mahmud al-Kashgari’s most important works are stored in Istanbul; meanwhile, addressing the importance of rival narratives, Uyghurs and Uzbeks both claim Kashgari to their respective ethnic groups.

The Chinese insistence on a multiethnic history in the region, although factually not altogether contentious is arguably part of delegitimizing Uyghur claims to a titular national, historical landscape. Still, most independent scholars, such as anthropologist Dru Gladney in his Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects, tend to agree that the area wasn’t incorporated into China until 1821.

Conflict throughout the last two centuries of the Qing Dynasty was protracted. In 1864, Qing garrisons were jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion, which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria. However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized resistance to Qing rule. Historian and China expert, James Millward explains in his fastidiously documented Eurasian Crossroad: A History of Xinjiang that although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to that point, shortly after Yakub Beg’s death the region was officially made a province in 1884.

Uyghur expert Gardner Bovingdon claims in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that while Chinese officials and scholars had 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.” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse in national mythologizing after the founding of New China. Furthermore, China is generally understood in terms of the majority ethnicity Han, and another part of the nationalizing project of erasing any reference to Xinjiang as anything but always a part of China is the population influx of Han into Xinjiang. Han residents have grown from 6.7 percent of the population in 1949 to just around half in 2014.

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 plunged China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent as the region was torn between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Chinese Nationalist and Communist Parties.

On 12 April 1933, the independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. The leaders of the 1933 ETR were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. Among the goals of the new republic was the cultural and educational revival of Turkic and Uyghur identity. Kashgar, the roughly two thousand year old silk-road oasis, has long been considered the symbolic and spiritual heart of the Uyghur community, a significance that has been enhanced by the legacy of the 33’ republic. It is also this cultural significance that compounds perceptions of oppression with the destruction of Kashgar’s Old City, for example, or reifies feelings of colonization when the preserved sections of the Old City are cordoned off by a Han owned company that charges an entrance fee. When I visited in 2011, those residents willing to speak on the matter told me that they did not receive any proceeds from ticket sales. The first ETR fell within a year to the brutal warlord Sheng Shicai. The Chinese writer and activist Wang Lixiong mentions in his 2007 book My West China, Your East Turkestan that while some of Xinjiang’s Han residents laud Sheng Shicai’s methods, Uyghurs often angrily drew parallels between the savage 20th century warlord and Wang Lequan the hardline CCP General Secretary of Xinjiang from 1994 in 2010.

On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja, Yining in Chinese, a city in Northern Xinjiang very close to the border with Kazakhstan. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in the founding of the second republic. They remain Uyghur heroes in popular historical narratives and Ghulja has not lost its spirit of resistance. In 1997 it was the site of one of the region’s largest episodes of contention. On the eve of Ramadan, 5 February 1997, hundreds of Ghulja’s Uyghur residents took to the streets. Amnesty International collected testimony at the time that the demonstrations were a response to growing resentment at heavy police pressure, ‘Strike Hard’ Campaigns, and the direct targeting of cultural and religious rights, a recurring grievance in Xinjiang. According to Global Security, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was called in to suppress the demonstrations, killing 167 people and arresting over 5,000 Uyghurs. The 1944 republic ended in similar abruptness. All hopes of lasting independence for the Ghulja based East Turkestan Republic went down in flames on 27 August 1949.

Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghur intellectuals and political leaders had been invited to Beijing by Mao Zedong to attend the first Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The main task of the CPPCC was to discuss the particulars of the soon to be established People’s Republic of China. Ahmetjan Qasimi, who had kept the second ETR aligned with the Nationalists until toward the end, had switched sides and joined the communists at the encouragement of the Soviet Union and, according to prominent Uyghur narratives I have uncovered, promises from the CCP that Uyghurs would be rewarded with full independence. The plane, crowded with Uyghur leaders, never made it to the conference. In circumstances that would be repeated two decades later with the removal of Mao’s rival Lin Biao, the plane mysteriously crashed along the way.

Their deaths would be kept secret for several months, until the PLA had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well-educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress 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.”

Fearing a crackdown following the mysterious crash, Isa Yusuf Alptekin led a wave of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang into neighboring Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Similar routes have been replicated over the years by Uyghurs fleeing China’s borders, whether as would-be refugees or militants. I met Alptekin’s son Arslan, who was a child at the time, in Istanbul in 2011, only weeks before he passed away. He related the severity of conditions in the escape, remembering frozen corpses on the road as relatives dragged him along.

By 1952, through Alptekin’s lobbying and pressure from the UNHCR, Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri, South of Ankara. The establishment of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, and later countries, and subsequent waves of refugees out of Xinjiang are important elements in the shaping of the official Chinese narrative on Xinjiang and the threat of ‘foreign forces.’ Middle East scholar and Uyghur expert Yitzhak Shichor has written extensively about this.

Despite a history of indigenous resistance, Chinese sources generally represent the two republics as the product of abusive foreign governments. This is the official position outlined, for example, by Chen Chao in Xinjiang de Fenlie Yu Fanfenlie Douzheng (The struggle of separatism and counter-separatism in Xinjiang). Media sources in China are no different. A 2009 China Daily article following the rioting in Urumqi, “’East Turkistan’ a concept forged by separatists,” states 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 Turkistan’ and fabricated a history, which had never existed.

Contemporary official rhetoric has not changed. It continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances and labels the majority of domestic unrest as the result of ‘foreign forces,’ such as the Munich based World Uyghur Congress, The East Turkestan Foundation in Istanbul, or others. Ironically, as professor Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”

By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available institutional channels for Uyghurs to report grievances, the CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest, which is further labeled as the influence of ‘foreign forces’ because the government continues to deny the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances. And, soon, all Uyghur discontent, or scholarship, may be labeled as inciting separatism. After all, these designations are left to the government to decide.

Because the CCP has enforced a zero tolerance for critical historiography and public debate domestically, the historical narrative among the Uyghur diaspora has tended to take on more radical interpretations and criticism of Han Chinese accounts. In this sense, by its unrelenting monopoly of symbolic power within the country, the government has institutionalized a domestic narrative that guarantees politicization from foreign sources.

This refusal to acknowledge competing historical narratives is of course repeated in the Party’s silencing of discourse on the 1989 Tiananmen Pro-Democracy Movement and elsewhere. As such, that same year Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published his grand history of the Uyghurs, an impressive 6,000 year challenge to official histories. The book received considerable attention before it was banned a few years later, leading to Almas’ house arrest until his death in 2001. Subsequently, Uyghur historians and scholars have been marginalized as scholarship has become more politicized.

In 2013, with the disappearance and later arrest of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur economist and Beijing professor who has been an outspoken advocate for Uyghur rights and nonviolent civil resistance, the government continues to circumscribe the boundaries of Uyghur scholarship and limits the mechanisms for Uyghur participation in political and public discourse. The separatism charges against him, and the brutal treatment he has endured while in state custody have been criticized by human rights organizations as reprisal for his rights defense. Some of rights defense was expressed through Uyghur Online, a website he established as a platform for discussion of Uyghur issues and concerns.

Equally concerning is the 2013 disappearance and later imprisonment of Uyghur language rights activist and educator Abduwell Ayup. The severity of his detention continues to imply central government perceptions that Uyghur cultural activism poses a threat. Professor Millward in a recent LA Review of Books article suspects that Chinese leadership and Chinese scholars are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. I argue a step further in that central government concerns over Uyghur linguistic distinctiveness, the threat of Tohti’s Uyghur Online and Ayups activism for example, stems from its ability to position counter-narratives or alternate vocabularies for expressing grievances.

Xinjiang and Uyghurs have been represented by opposing narratives from all sides. This is understandable considering, as Bovingdon notes, actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases. Without contextualization, contemporary narratives are sometimes no more than amorphous vocabularies ripe for the politicization of myriad interests. Historical narratives in the founding of a nation are fundamental to how that nation sees itself. They shape the dynamic between the powerful and the subaltern. When that happens, not only the histories themselves but also the languages used to explore and disseminate them become political. In understanding central government policies, accusations of abuse and unrest, claims of domestic grievances or ‘foreign forces,’ and arriving at substantive policy recommendations requires equal acknowledgement of the fundamental narratives and the power of language that resides at the heart of any conflict. Unraveling Xinjiang’s contentious history is no different.



Revisiting Kyrgyzstan’s Bloody Summer

Originally published by The Diplomat on June 13, 2014. Available here.

Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of explaining the outburst of violence in 2010.

Late in the night of June 10, 2010, outside a casino in Osh a skirmish broke out between several groups of young men. A catalyst for greater belligerence, fighting continued through the night and by the morning Osh was in flames. The chaos lasted for days, with violence spreading to Jalalabad and elsewhere. This week marks the forth anniversary of those deadly riots, which sparked a wave of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley.

By August 2010, preliminary UN assessments estimated that 985,000 people had been affected by violence in the Ferghana Valley, resulting in 300,000 internally displaced. The International Crisis Group in late August placed the official casualty rate at 393 but Human Rights Watch quoted some numbers as high as 900. What caused such wanton violence in that summer of 2010?

With headlines from the New York Times’Ethnic Rioting Ravages Kyrgyzstan” to the Guardian’sKyrgyzstan killings are attempted genocide, say ethnic Uzbeks” the cause seems clear: ethnic-violence. But that is a dangerous simplification, not least so because it presupposes ethnicity is monolithic. Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of looking at what happened four years ago in Kyrgyzstan. And yet, where it is convenient, the cause of ongoing conflicts continues to be superficially discussed as ethnic-tension. Recognizing this is especially important from a policy perspective because if ethnicity is not at the roots of these episodes of violence then an ethnic solution will simply be another nostrum.

From Tulip Revolution to Burning of Osh

In March 2005, the Tulip Revolution brought an end to President Askar Akayev’s authoritarian reign. His fourteen years in power were marked by corruption, the absence of the rule of law, nepotism, and decreasing quality of life. In July 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev campaigned to eliminate corruption and improve living standards. He won the presidential election with a landslide 89 percent. Within a few years, however, his campaign rhetoric had proven hollow.

The changes under Bakiyev were seen as an intensified version of Akayev’s despotism. Bakiyev consolidated power in a new Constitution, appointed family members to key positions, and sold vast amounts of national resources for personal gain, leading to severe energy shortages in the winter of 2007-2008, the coldest in 40 years. In April 2008, after two days of popular mobilization, Bakiyev’s short-lived dictatorial reign came to an end but the country, impoverished by years of corrupt rule, was left with a political and security vacuum.

Tensions erupted on the evening of June tenth when groups of unemployed young men got into an argument outside a small casino in Osh. The violence escalated. Independent observers and human rights organizations quoted witnesses who claimed that security forces responded differently depending on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, that plain clothed security officials were seen distributing weapons to Kyrgyz men or protecting roving mobs. The local government, a long-time supporter and ally of the ousted Bakiyev, claimed that Uzbeks were committing atrocities while Uzebks reported being targeted by violence. Arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and torture in custody were reported.

While much of the violence was perpetrated along ethnic lines, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, noted the challenges were not confined to interethnic relations and pointed to the significance of disillusionment with the state and feelings of economic and personal insecurity. Indeed, along these lines Kyrgyzstan was very insecure.

Human Insecurity

In 2008 the official minimum wage was 340 som ($6.45) per month, yet the government estimated that the standard statistical “basket” of goods and commodities cost on average 3,354 som per person per month. Following global increases in basic commodity prices, 2007 saw a 23.5 percent increase in food costs and 2008 an increase of around 20 percent.

By 2010, around 43 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with an unemployment rate of 18 percent. Many families responded by sending off working-age sons to work in Kazakhstan and Russia, and China to a lesser extent, a palliative for economic woes but destabilizing for traditional family structures. The Economist reported that almost 22 percent of GDP was generated from migrant laborers, with as many as 500,000 in Russia alone.

High levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty often result in illegal economies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime routinely cites Osh as a regional hub for narco-trafficking, which decreases food security through the loss of croplands, environmental security through deprivation of soil and toxic chemicals, and personal security through gang violence.

Disillusionment with the state among certain demographics facilitated the rise of criminal groups who seized land and extorted protection money. The continued asymmetric protection of personal security institutionalized those groups and had a negative impact on social tensions and perceived inequalities.

But why did these tensions erupt along ethnic lines?

The Ethnicization of Insecurity and Competition?

Historically, the Ferghana valley was inhabited by sedentary Uzbek traders and farmers. The Kyrgyz tended to be nomadic. Soviet control irrevocably altered traditional structures of communal power through Korenizatsiya: the policy of local administration initiated under Stalin where titular nationalities – here the Kyrgyz – were elevated to positions of power not necessarily previously held by such groups.

Later, as Soviet regional authority waned, Human Rights Watch explains “grievances over land and water distribution increasingly took on an ethnic dimension during the perestroika and glasnost era in the mid-to-late 1980s, as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities became stronger.” Eventually grievances over territory and resource access culminated in a violent outbreak in Osh in 1990.

On the eve of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, precipitated by the vacuum of Kremlin control, an Uzbek group called for the establishment of an autonomous region to address concerns that their needs were routinely subjugated to those of the Kyrgyz. The ensuing conflict left more than 300 dead. KGB reports at the time, cited by the Crisis Group, noted perceptions among poorer Kyrgyz that the Uzbeks had become too prosperous. Meanwhile New York Times coverage was noting Uzbek frustration at the pro-Kyrgyz allocation of land for housing.

This lead to what political scientist Paul Brass has called an “institutionalized riot system,” where ethicized violent mobilization in response to perceptions of unequal access to basic human needs became part of the repertoire of popular mobilization. If anything, the perceptions of unequal access that sparked violence in 1990 only intensified under the policies of corrupt leadership in the following decades.

Under Bakiyev, employment in the public sector was skewed in favor of Kyrgyz language; fluency was a prerequisite for state employment. The education system did not require Kyrgyz fluency for Uzbeks, Dungens or Uyghurs, who were largely barred access to state employment and sought to make their livings in the private sector, fueling accusations that minorities got rich at the expense of the Kyrgyz. However, a Eurasianet article published on the first anniversary of the 2010 violence cited Uzbek feelings of alienation from both political and economic life.

The April 2010 rebellion prompted Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors to close their borders. The de-facto embargo from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China caused severe economic concerns for those who relied on cross-border trade, agriculture, fuel and food imports. Border closure lead to sudden unemployment and deprivation, while perceptions of economic and political inequality stoked the growing tensions.

Nowhere were tensions more noticeable than in the Ferghana Valley. After his ouster from Bishkek, for a time Bakiyev returned to his hometown in the South, where he attempted to mold tensions to retake the capital. To counter Bakiyev’s support network and stabilize provisional authority, the interim government under Roza Otunbayeva reached out to elites within the Uzbek population in the South.

Anthropologist Gerd Baumann asserts that ethnic identity is often found in the social processes of maintaining boundaries between groups who perceive these boundaries as ethnic. In this sense the Kyrgyz were political players and the Uzbek were business players.

These boundaries were drawn as much along class and community lines as along ethnic lines argues anthropologist and Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves. At the time, she observed that the oft-reported targeted violence should have been balanced by cases where ethnicity was irrelevant, such as when property was looted because it represented inaccessible wealth and opportunity to the looter or when mixed neighborhoods established self-defense groups from attack not because of shared ethnicity but because of shared feelings of community.

Bakiyev had created rifts in the South for political leverage, which were widened when the interim government called for Uzbeks to be included in the traditional political boundaries of the already economically and socially threatened Kyrgyz population. Longstanding hardships exacerbated by border closures further strained society and threatened human needs. These factors created a violent atmosphere prone to manipulation by elites. Because economic, political and community boundaries had mostly been demarcated along ethnic lines the violence took on an ethnic quality that was not actually at its roots. Ethnic violence was a more proximate factor; the ultimate causes of the conflict were serious economic, political, and social insecurity combined with competition.

Looking Ahead

Revisiting the causes of the violence in the Ferghana Valley in 2010 and questioning the narratives of ethnic tension can yield a transferable understanding to other contemporary episodes of conflict. It is a lesson perhaps particularly valuable in geographically close Xinjiang, for example, where a violent encounter near the Chinese border between a group of Uyghurs and a Kyrgyz border patrol left 12 dead at the end of January 2014. Regardless of the motivation of this group of Uyghurs, as militants or refugees, their illegal entry into Kyrgyzstan was undoubtedly spurred by insecurity in Xinjiang, a conflict that is increasingly characterized along principally ethnic divisions but one that could certainly benefit from a more nuanced examination.

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part III

This is the final section in a three part essay on violence and the politics of representation. Click here for Part I and Part II.

Framing: Violence by Definition

It is important to first acknowledge that not all processes of framing are violent. Obviously they are not; most are benign. It is only those which are clearly violent that concern this article.

Framing is part of the phenomenological and constructivist approach discussed above. As Lakoff explains, frames are mental structures, metaphors and connotations instilled in words and their usage, that give meaning to the way we process the world around us (Lakoff, 2004). Jabri notes, the guiding force of social interaction is communication. For this process to have meaning, “actors draw upon interpretive schemes which situate or typify actor’s stocks of knowledge and which sustain communication (Jabri, 1996: 82).” At best frames describe distinct social phenomenon and at worst they provide the framing agent with the power to construct the nature and identity of the Other.

Within a given discourse, unchallenged frames present a range of consequences. One example is presented in the following quote from Charles Tilly:

The terms terror, terrorism, and terrorist do not identify causally coherent and distinct social phenomena but strategies that recur across a wide variety of actors and political situations. Social scientists who reify the terms confuse themselves and render a disservice to public discussion (Tilly, 2004: 5).

The problem is this process of reification, as pointed out by Bourdieu above. The reproduction of these frames actually serves to construct a group that is bounded by the exogenous imposition of meaning.

Tilly’s point illustrates the central theme of this paper. Social scientists should be cautious of framing when it refers to undefined or loosely defined forms, such as ‘terrorist.’ Because there is no universal definition or distinct social phenomenon that falls within the frame, the meaning appears to be an organic construction manipulated to serve political and normative ends. This is done the same way as constructivists argue ethnic or other forms of identity can be manipulated for various nefarious ends.

Certain speech acts of framing presupposes that there is a referent meaning to the form to which the object of framing is being compared. However, when this is not the case, the problem of framing becomes considerably complicated when the act of framing is itself also a part of the construction of the referent meaning, as was explained above in terms of identity and boundary formation. This means that certain acts of framing function as forced categorization and construction of a social phenomenon. In this example, to talk about terrorists, or to refer to them, presupposes that there is a distinct terrorist form that exists; otherwise, the agent is given considerable lead-way to define the parameters of the frame and the accompanying legitimization of a violent response.

In this case the act of framing a given individual or group as a terrorist is more than a simple speech act. The violence of such acts of framing comes to light when the object of framing is to be degraded to the status of homo sacer. This designation as ‘ the life that is capable of being killed’ or being stripped of all basic human rights is a concept of ancient Roman law that has resurfaced in the work of Giorgio Agamben. The notion is clear in the case of the object of the terrorist frame within the current master discourse of the ‘war on terror.’ But this paper will divorce itself from the specific treatment of this one frame and discuss the problem in general.

It is not hard to find examples of how framing has lead to the designation of homo sacer. The construction and imposition of group identity and boundaries and the framing of ‘Otherness’ by a more powerful agent lead to the violence of, inter alia, Hutu massacres against the Tutsi in Rwanda and the high levels of disappearances and deaths of indigenous Guatemalans orchestrated by the US backed dictatorship during Guatemala’s long civil war. In the first case we see how local, grievance based framing resulted in extreme atrocities and in the second we see how the global master discourse of the the ‘cold war’ provided for equally violent framing as expedient for political elites. Furthermore, within both cases there were myriad examples of local elites seizing the opportunity of the master cleavage to act on personal vendettas through the reproduction of accepted frames, a phenomenon that has been noted by Duffield.

These events of framing legitimized the excessive use of physical violence against the objects of framing. Such framing amounts to categorical murder, Bauman argues. “In these cases, men, women, and children were exterminated for having been assigned to a category of beings that was meant to be exterminated (Bauman, 2008: 87).” But this only shows that framing is capable of leading to violent acts. It still does not adequately argue that framing can be a violent act. For this we will turn briefly to the philosophy of language.

Austin’s seminal work How To Do Things With Words provides the clearest answer. Here Austin pioneered the concept of the illocutionary utterance. This type of speech act refers to what we do in saying, or writing, something. In the famous example of ‘I promise…,’ the utterer is both doing (promising) and saying (I promise). In his definition of illocutionary acts Austin includes “making an identification or giving a description (Austin, 1962: 98),” which is clearly the most basic function of framing. Therefore, simply put, by Austin’s typology framing is an illocutionary utterance: the framing agent is both saying and doing.

If we accept this, excusing the brevity of the argument for confines of space, we have now established that framing not only can lead to action but is an act. In order to understand the violent element of framing, it is important to further inquire how or why certain frames stick. What conditions are required in order for one set of frames to be adopted and reproduced while others are abandoned? The answer returns to the power politics of Foucault. Indeed, what could demonstrate a greater dominance of biopower than the ability to construct the very identity, and legitimized treatment, of an individual through the forced imposition of meaning.

In order for an act of framing to be successful the agent performing the act of framing must be in a position to perform or carry out the act. Austin states that it often happens that a performative speech act is void because the agent is not in the state or position to perform the act which he or she purports to perform. “…it’s no good my saying ‘I order you’ if I have no authority over you: I can’t order you, my utterance is void, my act is only purported (Austin, 1963: 19).” Therefore one could theoretically argue that successful framing is in most cases one that is produced from within the walls of the powerful, exerting their control over the biopower of the object of the framing. For the act of framing to be successful, that is, to be reproduced as part of the prevailing discourse, implies that the agent doing the framing has some degree of authority or power.

The power disparity is further extended if the act of framing essentially strips any remaining agency from the object, turning her into homo sacer. As with the cases presented above where the referent meaning of the frame is a non-distinct social phenomenon, in such a case of framing the agent doing the framing has all the power. This dynamic falls neatly within an understanding of structural and symbolic violence. This is a modern adaptation of the divine right of kings manifested in the right to define.

Finally, violence, “is that which turns any person subjected to it into a thing… (Simone Weil, 1953: 12-13 in Muller, 2002: 23).” This violence exists in the quite literal sense of physical hurt, in that the thing is a corpse but it also exists in the far more devious way of turning a living person into a thing. In this sense, the act of framing is capable of turning the object of framing into a thing by reducing it to an agentless homo sacer.

The power of framing is one that is not given enough critical attention within mainstream discourses considering the degree of violence it is capable of inflicting on the object of framing and the power of proliferating violent master discourses. By virtue of its ontological and epistemological foundation critical discourse analysis is one of the only, if not the only, analytic tools for thoroughly grasping the potential violence of framing.

Austin, J.L. (1962) How to Do Things With Words. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Baumann, Zygmunt. (2008) Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?. Cambridge,   Harvard University Press

Jabri, Vivienne, (1996),Discourses on violence: conflict analysis reconsidered, Manchester and New       York: Manchester University Press

Lakoff, George. (2004) Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Muller, Jean-Marie. (2002) Non-Violence in Education. France, UNESCO.

Tilly,  Charles. (2004) “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists.” Sociological Theory, 22:1 March 2004.

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part II

This is part two in the discussion. To visit part one, see Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Identities and Boundaries: A Constructivist and Discursive Approach

Group formation is the product of a social process, made and remade using historical context, cultural and mythological structures (Brubaker, 2004; Wimmers, 2008). These myriad ingredients are part of the constructive and constraining forces of identity and boundary formation but Brubaker draws attention to an additional cause. “Certain dramatic events, in particular, can serve to galvanize and crystallize a potential group or to ratchet up preexisting levels of groupness (Brubaker, 2004: 41).”

Let us accept Brubaker’s claim. If we extrapolate this notion that dramatic events crystallize even previously tenuous or non-existent group bonds, then one can present an argument that dramatic framing can serve as a constructive force. This seems to hold true even if the framing agent subsumes previously disconnected and distinct groups or individuals into a single frame. However, such boundaries, lacking strong self-identification, are usually more durable in the eye of the observer/framing agent than in the objectified group. This dichotomy can play out in the protraction of inter and intra-group conflict that is inaccurately understood and framed by an observer, but that discussion is for another time.

Here we see the symbolic violence inherent in the imposition of meaning. If personal and group identities, treated by some as the most sacrosanct component of the human experience, are a constructed social phenomenon, then the forced imposition of a particular framed identity—based  on the constructed reality of the framing agent and not the autonomy of the object of framing—is a violent act. Of course we should not overlook the efforts of certain groups to engage in countervailing tactics in the face of imposed boundaries through such tactics as boundary contraction, expansion or blurring or inversion and resignification (Wimmers, 2008; also see Judith Butler). But this requires an examination of why and how certain groups are capable of extricating themselves from the imposition of meaning and others are not. There is not enough room to develop such an inquiry here.

Within the constructivist school Fearon and Laiton point out three main approaches. These are broad structural forces, discursive processes and individuals acting to produce or reproduce identity and boundaries. Identities are formed by either content, e.g. x cannot live with y, or boundary, e.g. a is part of b but not part of c (Fearon and Laiton, 2000). Actors within this constructivist biosphere are not necessarily free to choose whichever approach they like best. There exists three primary types of constraint: the institutional environment, the distribution of power, and networks of political alliances (Wimmers, 2008). For purposes here I will only focus on the discursive element of identity and boundary construction with obvious special attention on framing and the role of power.

Discourse theory is rooted in phenomenological and constructivist approaches: being concerned with an individual or groups’ reflection and analysis of the phenomenon around them and acknowledging that these phenomena are comprised of a multiplicity of constructed and dynamic realities to which people have ascribed meaning. It is from this milieu of intention, iteration, and interpretation that discourses are produced and reproduced. Discourses are boundary forming because they set normative relationships and expectations between different subjects. They are capable of delineating the border between the acceptable and unacceptable and of legitimizing, no matter how reprehensible the act (Apter, 1997: 3-4).

Discourse fits into the Hegelian dialectic. However, an important constituent of the dialectic process as Habermas points out, if a true synthesis is to be attained, is the intersubjectivity of various participants within the communicative process. This breaks down when the relationship of agents changes from one of subject-to-subject to one of subject-to-object. Discursive relationships become quite negative—and  theoretically violent—when they produce such a subject to object relationship where, in Kantian terms, the subject treats the object as a means to an end.

In this sense, the discursive process is also quite Foucaldian in that it is closely related to power. Agents with power often prevail in determining the dominant discourse. They have the power-to-define, the Symbolic Power elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu. However, it is also worth noting that sometimes discourses can take on an element of power on their own through popular reproduction, or a meaning far from the first intent of the originating agent. For some, like Austin, Searle and Habermas, language is part of social action and reality. Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action. This explains why, as Brass notes, it is often as equally important to ask who has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as who has a monopoly over the interpretation, framing, of violence (Brass, 1996).

Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action.

Discourse analysis is made more complicated by the fact that the discourse originating agent is often in a position to hide his or her intended effect through a web of sometimes opaque terms. Brass has noted that, “behind such discourses as ‘criminal law and order,’ ‘caste and community,’ ‘faith and sentiment,’ ‘profit,’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim communalism’ is a nexus of power and interest that fools both villagers and outside analysts (Brass, 1997: 96 in Fearon and Laitin, 2000: 864).” We also see this opaqueness in the following forms: the ‘Cold War,’ ‘War on Drugs,’ ‘War on Poverty,’ or ‘War on Terror.’ These vaguely defined but staunchly defended discourses show how easy and convenient it is to frame a war on the immaterial. What is important then is understanding not only how specific frames are used but also to understand the underlying potential of framing.

How do constructivists argue the discursive origin of boundaries? Bourdieu notes, by reifying groups, by treating them as things-in-the-world, framing agents actually, “contribute to producing what they apparently describe or designate (Bourdieu 1991a: 220 in Brubaker, 2004: 37).” This means that if the agent doing the framing is describing or designating an individual, institution or incident, regardless of the actual language used, then they are contributing to the constructive process. If this construction of identity is forced upon the object of framing then it is a case of directed structural and symbolic violence, if we accept that violating the autonomy of the individual is a form of violence. In terms of physical violence, Wimmer synthesizes the above discussion:

Only those in control of the means of violence will be able to force their ethnic scheme of interpretation onto reality by killing “Catholics,” “Shiites,” or “Furs,” or resettling “Tatars” and “Germans” a la Stalin, thus making Catholics, Shiites, Furs, Tatars, and Germans (Wimmers, 2008: 994).


Apter, David E., (1997), “Political Violence in Analytical Perspective” in Apter, David E. The Legitimization of Violence, New York, New York University Press, pp 1-32

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Brubaker, Rogers, (2004), ‘Ethnicity without Groups’ in Wimmer, Andreas et al (eds.), 2004, Facing Ethnic Conflicts: Toward a New Realism, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1-20.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.

Wimmer, Andreas, 2008, ‘The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory’, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 113, Number 4, pp 970-1022

Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence

This is the second post in a brief series on symbolic power and minority representation in China. Although the ethnic group under specific discussion is the Uyghurs, the deconstruction of representations and symbolic power is apropos of other subaltern groups. The previous post dealt with briefly just with the notion of controlling the taxonomy of designating ethnicity in China, drawing its primary influences from the work of Dru Gladney. This post will turn a critical eye to the museumization of ethnicity, here borrowing the concept from Benedict Anderson, and how museums function in the realm of representational repression.

Museumized Signification

The Minzu Wenhua Gong [Cultural Palace of Nationalities] in Beijing is a reasonable place to begin. It houses the officially sanctioned representations of the nation’s 56 different ethnic groups. Here is where the national mythology is solidified in images and exhibits. At the time of my last visit, in 2011, on the ground floor there was a collection of photographs depicting each of China’s 56 official nationalities. Of the 55 minorities, 39 were represented by a young female or predominantly female group. All of the 55 minorities were in a rural setting wearing traditional clothing and mostly engaged in musical or culinary activities. This has been explained as the ‘eroticization’ and ‘exoticization’ of the minority (Gladney: 1994, 2004), conceptually related to Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Pictures speak louder than words, so floats about the trite expression. However, it bears relevance despite the cliche. In the museum the point is all the stronger. Here we observe a single image, frozen in time and signification, the single near apotheosis of a people, passed the censors and inscribed for all to see, memorize, judge, and implement. Depending on the emotional content, the symbolic force behind the image, whether condescending and violent, or lauding and aggrandizing, symbolic violence may translate into structural and material violence. How people come to know and appreciate their neighbors, or fear and dislike them, can be indoctrinated through a series of constant exposure to crafted images, imbued with a certain signification. Below are four images taken from the Minzu Wenhua Gong (民族文华宫) in 2011.

The image in the 1) top left is the official representation for the Uyghur, 2) top right observe the Han, 3) bottom left is the Kazakh image, and 4) the bottom right is the image for Uzbeks. It is not difficult to spot the difference between these four images. And one might inquire of the other 52 ethnic groups of China and how they are represented. It is, as mentioned above, virtually the same for all China’s minority groups, relegated to the bucolic and feminine, the traditional foil to the modern, urban, technologically advanced Han. So, what is the signification of these representations?

Taking just the top two images as our points of analysis we may begin with a cursory semiotic analysis. The signifier is the chromatic form, the bare image of Uyghurs dancing and singing. If the intent of these images is to produce depictions of the nature of China’s nationalities, which one would assume from such a museum, one might wonder why the specific forms were selected. The signified is, presumably in the mind of the regime, the official conceptualization of the depicted group. When we look at the image again, we see how the representation is given meaning in the correlation between the two. The signification of Uyghur as only singer and dancer, living in rural environments without modern science, is signified in relation to the Han whose signification appears to be a strong, masculine, modern force. Minorities are exotic and colorful, to be seen as objects of curiosity or sources of entertainment, while the Han are stoic and the force behind advancement and knowledge.

While Gladney has detailed this representation from an exterior vantage, one is left asking, how has it affected Uyghur life? Some have argued that over-saturation of a particular image or idea will result in numbness or the loss of affect. Considering these significations have been at the center of official Chinese ethnic policies and representations since the 1950s, it should have very little affect on the disparate ethnic groups after prolonged circulation, so claim certain scholars. However, after examining photographs I had taken of these images with several Uyghurs abroad, where it is often easier to discuss such matters, they reported a clear awareness of an ongoing violent representation with potentially material ramifications of marginalization and exploitation. How do the individuals, who share a group identity with the individuals represented in these images, respond to the images? One Uyghur student had this to say:

I don’t agree with these things. We say we also have professor. We also have academic people. Why government, why news don’t give those people pictures. Why only give our singer… why? Maybe Chinese government think in Xinjiang, make Uyghur people think, oh the government helped us. We don’t have academic people or any military. We only have dancer or singer or another thing.

This comment reveals frustration and concern at what appears to be the marginalization of Uyghurs inscribed in official representations. If we continue the analysis we might wonder what exactly this Uyghur informant is critical of. Is he expressing grievance at the bare image, or something deeper?

In China, Uyghurs are good at dance, good at singing. If I am talking to Chinese, the first question is can you sing, can you dance? What’s the fucking idea? Some people is singer not everyone can sing and dance. Also, they discriminate against Uyghurs in Inner China. Yang Rou Chuan, it means kebab, you see many Uyghurs in inner China selling kebab but in Chinese mind every Uyghur selling kebab. The Chinese government does not show our good people, good culture to Han Chinese.

A general pattern of dissatisfaction with these representations emerged when we engage the nature of the signification. Furthermore, comments point toward an understanding of how the signification may be transferred into more material forms of domination. That is, the representation has been enforced by educational prejudices, widely reported elsewhere, thereby serving to partially reify the signification. That critical responses were produced by two images is quite alarming considering the rather ubiquitous nature of such representations. In Xinjiang, I wondered if the representations would be the same. If the representation in Beijing is thus situated, how is it museumized in Xinjiang?

The introductory inscription at the Xinjiang Weiyuer Zizhiqu Bowuguan [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum] in Urumqi appears to maintain a related signification. It describes Xinjiang as a multi-national homeland since ancient times. It states that:

Covering an area of 1.66 million square kilometers, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a treasure land in the Northwestern bordering region in our motherland with vast land and richly endowed resources. The extended Silk Road linked the Eastern and Western civilizations. Being situated deep in the hinterland, it conceals the deep secret of the converged ancient civilizations of the world. Xinjiang has been the multi-national homeland from ancient times. Forty-seven nationalities live here today, among them 13 brother nationalities, such as: Uygur, Han, Uzbek, Daur, Manchu, Tartar, Russian, etc. have lived in Xinjiang for generations. For a long time they have been cooperated as one family to build and safeguard the borderland. Under the glory of the nationality policy of the Party, precious traditional cultures of various nationalities have received effective protection, inheritance and development. In the historical process of the development of Western regions various nationalities are more united to construct together a harmonious society. We hold this exhibition of Display of Xinjiang Nationality Custom to represent the gorgeous conditions and customs of the 12 ethnic minorities of Xinjiang and to show the splendor of the beautiful rarity of treasure house of Chinese national culture.

This inscription relates the official historical narrative, discussed in an earlier post. It should probably be interpreted as the declaration of the Party’s power. It claims sole responsibility for the protection, inheritance, and development of culture. If we continue with our understanding of the signification offered above and apply this to the notion of ‘one family’ then we must ask where Uyghurs are situated in this family, presumably dominated by the Han. In such ways, the policy of recognizing the Uyghur as a minority under Chinese rule is perpetuated.

The displays in these two museums reminded me of Native American history museums in the United States that depict the cultural victims of America’s colonial legacy. I felt that there was a fascination with the past that left no place for questions of conquest. The museum was full of the kind of cultural artifacts one usually finds in such places. The displays presented musical instruments and pottery, textiles and artwork behind glass, and dioramas of colorful minorities engaged in traditional practices, but also a number of photographs of Uyghurs in contemporary clothes participating in cultural activities.

The implication proffered by the representations in both Beijing and Urumqi, I argue, is that contemporary minorities are incapable of transcending their ancestor’s situation and are therefore treated accordingly by the regime or general Han society, in line with Anderson’s analysis. At least, we can extrapolate from the comments above that many Uyghurs perceive a correlation between these representations and domination. Very few Uyghurs visit either museum but they are often aware of symbolic power’s other manifestations in social space.

Museums facilitate an understanding of how symbolic power operates in static locations, but you can avoid visiting a museum if you perceive its message as part of a dominant discourse. However, in line with Foucauldian notions of power, namely: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power (1990: 95).” You can never fully escape power; it seeps through the walls so to speak. This is where propaganda posters, unity posters, painted slogans, banners, and the ilk come into the discussion of infiltrating public space.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

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

Deconstructing ‘Minzu’

In a number of posts to follow I will identify three places where symbolic power operates, that is, how the Chinese State has exerted its monopoly of symbolic power to instill a signification of Uyghurs as an undeveloped singing, dancing subaltern subject. Indeed, this colonialist objectification: the predominant representation of Uyghurs, and other minzu (ethnic groups), as rural and quaint in contrast to the developed majority Han, is an ethnic representation, generally a canvas stretched over all of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups and is a crucial discourse within the reproduction of China’s national mythology (Gladney 1994, 2004). While the group under discussion and the specific symbols of representation are directly related to Uyghurs, the underlying principles are germane to an understanding of Tibetan, Mongolian, or other subalterns. Admittedly, most of what follows has been discussed elsewhere, and in more detail, by a number of China scholars, particularly Dru Gladney, but it deserves reexamination, particular concerning its application to the exigent conditions within the so-called Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions because the logic of symbolic power and the methods by which it is wielded by the Chinese state are generally replicated from place to place.

In the first post I will begin with a brief analysis of Chinese cultural capital in the form of controlling the taxonomy of ethnic and national designations and inscribing a national origin myth, based on the superiority of Han domination and Party control. The second post in this series will examine the role of museums in reproducing these significations and draw more heavily on Benedict Anderson and his discussion of an imagined community. The final post in this series will be comprised of a more thorough analysis of the unity posters briefly mentioned in an earlier post, as these public inscriptions and visual elements are clear manifestations of symbolic power in the everyday social space and require a more serious engagement. For a brief social, historical discussion of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Please revisit The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

Nationality Designation

In the struggle inherent in the politics of representation, where agents are employed in imposing a vision of the social world, they wield the symbolic and cultural capital acquired in previous struggles, in particular the power they possess over instituted taxonomies (Bourdieu, 1991: 239). The Communist victory over the Guomingdang in October of 1949 ushered in ‘New China’ and guaranteed the monopoly of the Communist Party of China (CCP) over naming their victory and defining the ethnic composition of the new nation.

In the early 1950s the regime invited representatives of its disparate ethnic and national groups to Beijing. Gladney explains, although more than 400 separate groups applied to be recognized as distinct ethnic and national groups, there were only forty-one nationalities listed on the first census of 1953. The 1964 census included fifty-three nationalities, and the 1982 and 1990 censuses finally settled on the current fifty-six nationalities (2004: 9). In a Kafkaesque exertion of the power to define, according to the 1990 census there were still 749,341 ethnically ‘unidentified’ individuals awaiting recognition by the regime (2004: 9). This is arguably not only an example of power constructing its subjects but even leaving them ‘officially’ unconstructed.

This exertion of power over the taxonomy of existing as part of a category, group identity, and the corresponding externalities, both positive and negative, is a powerful example of biopower and sovereignty, most associated with Michel Foucault but extensively dealt with by Giorgo Agamben. For Agamben, understanding the sovereign is understanding the individual or entity with the power to decide the exceptions. In 3/4 of a million people living undefined, outside of legally defined and accepted categories of existence, we are greeted by the Chinese state with a significant case of deciding the state of exception.

The state not only set to the task of defining the nation in terms of ethnic demographics it also began to define the core characteristics of individual ethnic groups. Early propaganda films for example served this purpose as did the erection of many memorials to the ‘peaceful liberation’ of minority lands. An excellent example is Cui Wei, Chen Huaiai, and Liu Baode‘s 1964 film Tianshan de Hong Hua [The Red Flowers of Tianshan]. It is a typical propaganda piece depicting the unity and benefit of ethnic minorities working with the party for mutual development.

In the People’s Square of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi there is a large obelisk which reads Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Jinjun Xinjiang Jinian [A memorial of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army marching into Xinjiang]. Such inscriptions were a vital component in the early representation of minorities within official discourse. The signified is that the people living in the region were in need of liberation. It instills the discourse of the party as peaceful liberator and benefactor. The signifier is the text, memorializing this liberation. One signification, arguably, is that those minorities rely on the Party for their livelihood. But the politics of representation go deeper. In addition, and much as other nations have done in their own nation building ventures, the state museumizes national representations (Anderson, 1983) to further enshrine the official discourse. The following post in this series will deal with this final point in greater detail.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

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