Violence and Nonviolence in the Uyghur Struggle

First published at opendemocracy.net on 10 October 2014 as Resistance, repression, and the cycle of violence in the Uyghur Struggle.

On Tuesday, September 26, 2014 a Chinese court convicted Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economics professor, to a life sentence on charges of separatism in a disgracefully political trial. Amnesty International’s China researcher William Nee wrote, “This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished…”

Ilham Tohti’s conviction should be seen as a symbol sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to other Uyghurs and a reprisal against Mr. Tohti specifically for his outspoken activism for Uyghur rights. He has been adamant that central government policies have been abusive toward Uyghurs and have fueled conflict. However, he has been steady in his commitment to nonviolent action as the necessary path for Uyghur rights in China, always advocating autonomy never independence, despite contrary claims by the government.

Admittedly, over the past few years, there has been a tragic increase in violent episodes attributed to Uyghur discontent in China. Uyghurs are the ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority who claim ancient homeland in what is today the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang, a Chinese word that literally translates as ‘new territory.’

Restive and repressive

Chinese and Uyghur historical narratives have been a source of contention. Uyghurs have suffered from state repression on the basis of cultural, linguistic, and religious rights and been disadvantaged by a number of prejudicial economic policies that favor the majority Han. While Uyghur grievances have sparked unrest in the past, the recent increase of violence is startling.

While the Chinese government has been quick to blame this spate of violence on Islamic radicalization and incitement by foreign forces, which has been used to justify greater securitization, most international human rights organizations point to a systematic assault on Uyghur rights and increasing militarization by the state as causes of escalating instability in Xinjiang.

Commonly reported on are the large-scale outbursts of violence such as the Kunming train station massacre in March 2014 or the Urumqi vegetable market bombing in May the same year, but more common are the countless episodes of everyday resistance and unrest directed at perceived targets of state repression. Many public manifestations begin as small groups of Uyghurs peacefully protest grievances of religious or cultural abuse or in solidarity with a detained friend or relative. This was the case following the questionable death of 17-year old Abdulbasit Ablimit when 17 Uyghur protesters were sentenced to between six months and seven years in prison.

Nonviolent demonstrators are attacked or arrested by security forces, which sometimes leads to radical flanks storming police or government buildings armed with knives and axes, many of whom are then gunned down by security forces and labeled as separatists and terrorists for their outburst. This tends to engender greater resistance to police violence. A similar situation triggered severe unrest in Yarkand in June 2014 that by one account resulted in the death of some 2,000 Uyghurs, although this has not been confirmed.

In such clashes police and government officials as well as civilians have admittedly been killed and no doubt some violent outbursts have been driven by religious fundamentalism, but the uniformity of central government depictions of the cause of violence and the categorical repression of Uyghur dissent challenge the validity of such narratives and fail to address the core instability.

The increase in violent resistance, the ongoing and perhaps escalating crackdown on Uyghur rights advocates, and zero-tolerance for all Uyghur dissent pose two pressing questions.

Firstly, why haven’t we seen more nonviolent resistance by Uyghurs? While Uyghur experts Gardner Bovingdon, James Millward and others have documented nonviolent resistance, it is less frequent than one might expect considering the litany of abuses and grievances generally acknowledged by international organizations.

The silencing of high profile Uyghur rights defenders who advocate for nonviolent resistance has arguably ceded some strategic and intellectual territory to more radicalized forces. The Chinese state seldom discriminates between peaceful and violent dissent among Uyghurs, treating virtually all expressions of grievance as connected to separatist ideology fomented by ‘foreign forces’ and calling for strike-hard campaigns against violent and nonviolent dissent alike.

Secondly, what is the root cause of the rise in violent manifestations in Xinjiang, and how does regime intolerance toward nonviolent resistance impact this? The late social scientist Charles Tilly wrote in Regimes and Repertoires that a government that narrows the openness for tolerated nonviolent civil resistance, such as demonstrations, petitioning or open letters, significantly increases both the likelihood of violent resistance and encourages further violent repression from the state — a cycle of violence.

Acts of dissent, acts of terror

Bovingdon explains in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that in the face of severe repression Uyghurs have for a long time engaged in both nonviolent collective action and everyday resistance, often taking the form of strengthening Uyghur distinctions from Han China and its political order.

Nonviolent civil resistance is more successful in achieving political change than violent insurgencies, explain Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, in large part due to mass participation. Nonviolent movements have fewer barriers to participation, while violent movements have more. As such, state repression aims to increase the costs of participation; repression either constrains resistance or radicalizes tactics toward violence, as movement actors feel they have no opportunity for nonviolent dissent and nothing to lose.

Chinese government rhetoric continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances. Ironically, as 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 nonviolent channels for Uyghurs to express grievances, CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest. The unrest is then labeled as the influence of foreign forces because the government refuses to acknowledge the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances.

Virtually all Uyghur participation in nonviolent resistance may be labeled as inciting separatism and treated with severe repression, even in the case of those who merely participate in scholarship.

Resistance campaigns begin with cognitive liberation, which is fostered by dissident scholars and inspirational counter-culture figures. They too have been silenced and disappeared, unquestionably affecting the tactics of resistance.

Silencing the Uyghur who speaks

In 1989, Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published a 6,000 year Uyghur history. His scholarship positioned an empowering narrative that contradicted the official Chinese history designed to bolster Beijing’s claims to ancient dominance and to legitimize the Communist trope of emancipating enslaved minorities. The book was blacklisted and Almas was placed under house arrest until his death in 2001. In March 2002, authorities burned countless copies of his book along with thousands of others during raids on bookstalls in Xinjiang.

Two years later, in 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested, found guilty of inciting separatism, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2013, a year before he was scheduled for release, authorities announced that he had died in prison in 2011. His crime had been writing a short story called ‘Wild Pigeon,’ an allegory for Uyghur captivity and abuse in Han-dominated China, an act of symbolic resistance. The magazine editor that published the story received three years in prison.

Abduweli Ayup studied in Turkey and completed his MA in linguistics through a Ford Foundation fellowship at the University of Kansas in 2011. Afterward he returned to Xinjiang and campaigned for Uyghur cultural and linguistic rights. He had a vision to establish Uyghur language kindergartens as a way to resist growing perceptions of assimilationist language policies. He documented his interactions with belligerent officials ‘to let people know how China was treating the status of the Uyghur language,’ said Mamatjan Juma of Radio Free Asia. In August 2013, Ayup was detained and later arrested on spurious charges of ‘illegal fund-raising,’ for selling honey and T-shirts to raise money for his language centers.

Ilham Tohti, with whom we began, was first charged with separatism in July 2014, after months of incommunicado detention. Despite being first detained on January 15, 2014, and constant pleas from his lawyers, he wasn’t allowed legal visitation until June and soon after that meeting one of his lawyers, Wang Yu, was forced out of the case after her law firm was intimidated by the government.

When I first met Mr. Tohti in 2011 he was clear in his discussion of Uyghur rights abuses and unwavering in his commitment to nonviolent resistance as the only strategy for promoting and protecting Uyghur rights. Speaking shortly after the announcement of the charges in July, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times that charging Mr. Tohti with separatism “signifies that China is burning all bridges with moderate voices.” Similarly, William Nee of Amnesty International noted, “with violence on the rise in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it’s difficult to grasp why the authorities would target a prominent Uyghur intellectual known for his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue between ethnic groups.”

Ending the cycle of violence

The Chinese government could do two things to address Uyghur grievances and decrease violent resistance. It could put an immediate end to its categorical repression of all performances of Uyghur resistance, i.e. no longer treating violent and nonviolent dissent alike, and it could immediately release individuals such as Tohti and Ayup who are clear prisoners of conscience.

Detaining and disappearing inspirational figures that advocate nonviolent resistance and moderate rights defense sends a signal to all would-be resisters that no amount of dissent will be tolerated. The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.

The escalating repression of all acts of Uyghur claim-making might portend a deeper feeling of insecurity toward the power or validity of Uyghur grievances by policymakers in Beijing. Gene Sharp has observed that “repression is an acknowledgment by the opponents of the seriousness of the challenge posed by the resistance.” In that sense, one might interpret the brutality of state repression as a response to the Uyghur struggle: the state is actively engaged in decreasing participation in nonviolent resistance and delegitimizing Uyghur grievances by highlighting escalating violence.

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

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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.