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.

 

North Across China: Night Buses, a Bowl of Noodles, and a Rotund Sichuanese Migrant

I said a temporary goodbye to Beijing and boarded a night bus for Erlian, the Chinese Mongolian border town renowned for prostitution and gigantoraptor fossils.

As the bus pulled away I was surprised by the English inquiry that greeted my unsteady approach to berth 37. There was a helpful tone to this young girl’s voice and I quickly discovered it was not the common Chinese student wanting to practice pidgin English. She was part of a small group of Chinese American missionaries on their way to the border to extend their visas that they may continue to proselytize and preach. Amicable though they were, we lived in two very different Beijings. Their company on that first leg of the journey was enjoyable, from the Jazz age ‘ohs’ and ‘yeahs’ at meal prayers that they took turns saying to the odd conversation denouncing evolution at a Mongolian dumpling restaurant a few kilometers from the 2005 discovery site of 70 million year old fossils. We parted in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, autonomous in China is a silly word.

Outside the train station in Hohhot a phalanx of Uyghurs sold snacks, those dried rice, sweet nuts and fruit squares of exceptional mass they weigh out in front of your nose to your surprise at the cost when the presumably small slice you have selected amasses more gravity on the scales than your appetite was hoping. It’s a known scam but one avoidable if you know how to place your order. I didn’t feel like buying but I had time to kill before my train so I started to chat with one of the vendors.

‘Are you Uyghur,’ I asked in Chinese. ‘Shi.’ I am, he said. ‘Yakshimisiz.’ In his language, I said hello. At first he had been quite insistent that I purchase some of his dried and overpriced confectionary but my show of linguistic solidarity changed the course of the conversation. He was curious about this foreigner who knew a few words of the Uyghur language. ‘Where are you from?’ He asked me in Chinese. I told him I was American and he perked up even more. He was excited to her this, excited because he looks up to the United States, he explained, because America is a friend to the Uyghurs. He then brought up the name that the Chinese Government detests, the source of Islamic terrorism and separatism by the propaganda of the Han. ‘Do you know our Ribya?’ He asked in reference to Rebya Kadeer. I replied that I did, presumably he understood this to mean that I had heard of her, that I knew something about the suffering of the Uyghur people. I did not mention that I had met Rebya in Brussels only a few months earlier. It was the feeling of comfort that someone knows about your pain, that someone cares enough to step outside of their own parochial concerns and troubles to take the time to learn about another’s. This is how the world changes. With a somewhat victories sheen on his face he glanced around at his compatriots to see if they had heard. Tonight he will no doubt talk about the American who knows about Rebya Kadeer.

Shortly later I was on train 1717 to Lanzhou, Gansu Province’s capital in the Gobi. The ride was a normal 18 hour ordeal. I arrived in Lanzhou at mid morning the following day with no plan or place to go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about staying in this city famous for the noodles to which it has lent its name so I clung to the train station, toying for a few minutes with my options. Eventually I walked back to inquire about the trip to Turpan, the oasis on the edge of the mighty Taklamakan desert, the site of ancient minarets and mummies, and a step closer to my destination.

All the seats and hard sleepers on the train were sold out. There were soft sleeper tickets available for all the money I had just withdrawn from the ATM or 100 Kuai, about 15 dollars, for a standing only ticket. To hell with it. I bought the standing only ticket, a right to enter the train and nothing else, no space to claim, no right to comfort. The train would leave in several hours and I resolved myself to the next five hours of Lanzhou exploration before the madness of migrant workers with their instant noodles, folding chairs and cigarettes; the train ride from Lanzhou to Turpan takes just over 24 hours, much of that along the ancient Silk Road and the inhospitable Gobi desert.

I had heard about German beer gardens at the top of Baitashan but when I arrived on the bluff below the White Pagoda I discovered that the beer gardens were still closed for winter. It was early April, but with the beating sun, magnified by the thick insulation of pollution and a humidity that rose from the Yellow River that bisects the city, my heavy traveling pack, the hike, it sure felt like summer. I passed several migrant workers, stopping in the shade for a brief chat with one or two. Eventually I ordered a bottle of Snow beer, one of the world’s best selling brands with 61 million hectoliters of annual sales, an example of the sheer size of the Chinese market that an unknown beer to the rest of the world is made one of the best selling by virtue of domestic consumption. With my beer I settled under a tarpaulin to read James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. After a few hours of charging my phone and getting lost in the past of the Tarim Basin I made my way down the hill and toward the train, with a necessary stop to eat Lanzhou lamian, hand pulled noodles.

I put my bag on the ground up in front by the brass railing. I figured this was a good idea and the best way to wait. It would be another two hours before the starting bell rang and the hordes began their frenetic dash for space on the train. I sat there on the floor amid the migrants and their bindles, with my over-packed backpack and a small red plastic bag containing naan; the only foreigner in the massive waiting hall, I attracted a lot of attention.

There was some confusion and commotion; the train was late. The scheduled time had approached and the scattered clumps of bodies that had been waiting, some supine on large parcels others squatting sipping steaming broth and tea or harshly chain smoking with yellowed finger tips and blackened missing teeth, congregated en masse and crowded their way to press against the rails, row upon row of smelly bodies, mostly dusty men, the occasional woman in a brightly colored veil, all waited, all pressed forward and I was smack dab in the front where I had positioned myself hours earlier. Behind me, in many distinct and gruff accents from the men that travel the entirety of China, complaints and impatience, some made jokes about rushing the conductors but the gate finally opened. The women in multicolored and sometimes sequined hijab and the children with expectant faces were the first to be let through the gate, from among the amorphous throngs of dirty suits and great bulging bags the frail and young were freed from the corral that still held the rest of us. Finally, the time, all the little gates opened, the space trembled for a moment as in a vacuum, and everyone was off dashing. I made a fevered dash with the rest for train car 15. I made it past some 10 cars before my lungs, under the weight of my heavy pack and the humidity refused to process oxygen and I had to slow my pace. Still, even walking the last few cars I found a little space of my own on the train, a little space next to a portly worker from Sichuan. We would become friends in the confined space. We crammed ourselves into a little nook, with a sink that had no water and a window that did not open, across from the toilet; I edged against the corner of the sink. It would get very full very quickly.

The Sichuanese migrant was a veritable encyclopedia. We drifted from American foreign policy and Chinese domestic labor regulations and monetary regulations. We spent a long time going over the unique foods of different regions. He had traveled all over China. When he wanted to really make a point he would slam his right hand down into the palm of his left hand. I noticed he was missing the tip of his right index finger every time he made an exclamation mark with these gesticulations. He would eventually pass out leaning against the corner of the wall for an hour or two. I found myself hoping for nothing but a surreal unconsciousness tinged with delirious dreams that distort space. Propped up, wedged in, obliquely resting, sleeping on their feet. I hung my head and in the canvas behind my eyelids I stared into the faces of my fellow passengers, tearing into their histories we exchanged knowing glances as we each got lost in one another’s tired visage, expecting an answer or sympathetic wink, and all this with my eyes closed, on the verge of something close to a dream.

I dreamed that the train car was full of Hajji, Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the benches had been swept up on each other, crowded against the window to make room for the isles to expand into a vast room with a single great red Afghan rug below the individual prayer rugs rolled out, unfolding and unfolding, hundreds of hajji praying to Mecca. In the soundscape of my dream the muezzin had become a gestalt, the adhan an amalgamation of Chinese workers from Gansu, Hebei, Sichuan, and Qinghai, their faces melded together into one great gaping maw to utter the adhan in a cacophonous prattle of Mandarin and local dialects.

After a while of some ersatz sleep I was startled back from the land of sand by the loss of blood in my whole right side. My leg was freezing and my hand had no feeling. This pins and needles, a mala sensation like that of spicy hot pot, would linger for a few hours. To pass the time I tried to speak with some of my cellmates. One man from Gansu, on his way to Aqsu, started to complain to me that his boss wanted to send him to Pakistan. But it’s so dangerous there. The money doesn’t matter he was saying. He didn’t want to go. These faces were all bronzed by years of outdoor labor. What I earlier mistook as angry or suspicious glances were nothing but the looks of confusion and curiosity. They wanted to speak to me but some of them head such thick local accents or dialects that I could barely understand them, they could barely understand each other. Admittedly, my Chinese could use a lot of improvement.

There was a whole crew from Hebei going to Korla. One man, simple, glowing, toothless in a Mao suite, we barely exchanged words but forged a friendship over peanuts. We shared a cigarette and tossed shells onto the floor. He had a child’s grin and the eyes of a Buddha. He couldn’t open his iced red tea bottle or close the toilet door so I stepped in to help with these easy tasks. I shared access to his folding stool for a few minutes and we took turns leaning against the same chunk of wall. At one point, in my sleep deprivation, I really mistook him for family or my traveling companion, a full 10 seconds of pure confusion before I realized we barely knew each other. When I finally got off in Turpan I made a point of shaking his hand and saying goodbye. We was continuing another ten hours to Korla.

Youths played cards and slammed down their last cards with triumphant yelps. Some, those who had purchased hard seat tickets in advance reclined on their torn green pads while others loomed above, leaning, swaying with the train. One woman had slid herself under the seats, presumably to avoid the conductor as she likely had no ticket. My Sichuan bigman pontificated for all who would listen. He had that tone you couldn’t help but trust, his confidence more than made up for any lack of experience or grasp of the text. He didn’t like to work in Sichuan in the summer, too much rain. He preferred the torrid temperatures of Hami, in Xinjiang. He had made the trip a few times already. He was traveling with his tiegemer, iron blood brother, but he did all the talking. I never saw him eat anything on the train. How did he get so fat? Around 6am the conductor brought hot water in a trolly. There was a mad rush, people pushed and some nearly scalded; those clutching their instant noodles tight would eat, others would miss their chance. There was only so much water in this tiny metal water buffalo that was wheeled out a few times throughout the journey.

After some time, around 7am, I saw an empty spot on top of a pile of coal in thick white plastic sacks. I curled up, not quite an IKEA product, and forgot about my empty stomach. I snatched an hour of sleep, folded into myself like another chiseled bag on top of the coal. There were four columns stacked up chest high, but in the center of the four columns of sacks the empty space acted like a chimney for the freezing desert night air that rushed in from the Gobi outside and blasted up. I could only sleep for a short time before I was freezing; the coal shards themselves, sheathed in coarse plastic bags, were surprisingly comfortable.

The exhaustion wore on and the train continued. How do these people do this? My Sichuan friends eventually departed at their stops. Those who got off at Shanshan would free up a seat. I had a place to sit for the last hour before we arrived in Turpan. The seat was sticky but heavenly. Chinese pop music suddenly came blasting from the speakers. I started to think about power and the influence of discourse.

These people were all tired, deprived, struggling to make a living. They were transporting themselves where they thought there was work. They bore no malice. The struggle between subaltern and bourgeois is poorly understood. This was the case of Sartre’s introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, both are dehumanized, both are exploited. In this situation it is both the Han migrant and the Uyghur local, or the Kazakh or Yizu, who are exploited, somewhat dehumanized. Their animosity is misdirected, their prejudices and misunderstandings unnecessary. But I am no Vanguard among these people.

I hoped that with close proximity to one another such stereotypes would be shed. One migrant grumbled something at a veiled Uyghur as she passed him in the train, “These stupid minorities can’t speak Mandarin. They don’t listen or understand.” To which a quick witted and strong willed Kazakh women shouted back, “Ah, and you don’t understand their language. Don’t be so cocky.” Another point, I overheard some Han guy remark in disbelief that a minority eats the same foods. I hoped that some sort of exchange would happen when those from the interior are shipped off to the hinterlands, or when they share a confined space for extended hours, but I am sure they will sequester into native place camps once they arrive to work. There will be little discussion or learning among them. Maybe Han from Chengdu or Chongqing will argue with Han from Hohhot about who has better Hot Pot but I doubt that Kazakh, Uyghur, Han, or Hui will manage to break out of the carefully placed roles they have been taught to accept.

Thinking about this I drifted off in my green seat, finally able to sit properly after more than 20 hours; from staring at the passing landscape my mind returned to a concept I was toying with on the night bus from Beijing to Erlian a few days earlier. Power exists in interactions. It cannot exist in a solipsistic sense. It requires an opposite by which to demarcate its borders. While dialogical power is certainly a constructive force and one that owes its origin to the interactions of grossly unequal hierarchical structures it also resides in the everyday reproduction of collective identities. It is true that repertoires of resistance follow an evolutionary path, in that they generally slowly evolve from previous episodes, otherwise they would lack resonance and no one would know how to follow them. Equally this should be the case with grievances. Understanding and processing grievances follows something of an evolutionary or memetic pattern. Therefore, this evolution of grievances is very much a part of the linguistic world, the world of theory, that has a hard time breaking into the world of action. Of course it is more than symbolic violence that drives revolutionaries forward but it is beginning with symbolic violence that violence becomes structural, from mocking a minority woman on a tight train car to institutionalized prejudices. It is this immaterial, systemic violence encoded in the collective consciousness and understood in shared discourses that reifies the grievances that lead to action. What dictates the path of this action is the degree of political and symbolic opportunity space afforded by the regime and society, the influence of space. As I drifted about in these thoughts, the train finally rolled into Turpan. The Turpan depression is the second or third lowest point on Earth.

We pulled into the station and I got off. The train station was lost in time, an Old West feel; this part of Turpan was a frontier town on the edge of the desert. I asked at several lodgings and nowhere would take a foreigner. After several chaodaisuo, the Chinese equivalent of a hostel for migrants and students traveling on the super cheap where a night might cost around 4 dollars, and bingguan, hotels, that rejected me I was getting concerned. I needed some food so I went in for a steaming bowl of lamian and struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a friendly Uyghur man.  I ordered my noodles, moments later we were fast friends. I explained the problem. I could tell, even though they spoke Uyghur, that he was arguing with his wife about offering me to stay with them. No luck, the fine if they were caught harboring foreigners was too high. They suggested heading into the city center. The train station is 50 kilometers from the city.

I meandered, lackadaisically from place to place, in a daze, the lack of sleep over the few previous nights, the distance, the train food, the baggage of swirling thoughts of politics and ethnicity, my brain was having a hard time comprehending the simple situation. I stumbled back into the train station and asked about tickets to Korla one more time. I could buy another standing ticket, forgo sleep one more night, fight for a space at this late distance. Unlike in Lanzhou, where I came in relatively early in the life of the passengers, here I would be a new comer, relegated to the bottom rung, the lowest in a vile hierarchy. Others would have already forged bonds. I would have a hard time but I decided to push on, to forgo comfort and make momentum my deity.

I bought my standing ticket to Korla. It would be another slow train, about 10 hours or so. I bought some naan and water. The secret of good naan I am told is the salt and Xinjiang has the best salt in China. I made my way again through the metal detector, the prying eyes and incredulous looks of the security guard and the other queuing patrons. In the waiting hall I went to the toilet. Inside the floor was standing urine, acrid, the air was viscous with smoke, teary eyes, there was no place to stand or pee, the urinals were clogged and overflowing. The smoke and ammonia were asphyxiating. Soggy mounds of paper crumpled and made mounds on the floor and turned black from the fallen cigarette ash.

I went back into the waiting hall. Every eye was on me. Every face bore into me with interest and distrust. Why was I there. It didn’t sit well in my stomach. Bags overflowed their benches and oozed off of one another. The heaving mass of flesh and textile inspected me with one amalgamation of interest, dark circles under the collective eyes that protruded toward this wayward foreigner. In places where even the Chinese are considered foreigners, it is natural to be curious and concerned when you see yourself as a subject in an occupied place. They would all be competing with me for a place to stand or sleep on the train. The owners of these bags are experienced at fighting for space armed with a standing ticket, I told myself. They have a language they share. I couldn’t shake their glances. I felt the awesome weight of it all, the situation, the prospect ahead; anxiety swelled up. ‘To hell with it,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing this. I’ll let the 30 kuai ticket go to waste. I’m going to Turpan City.’

I stepped back into the darkness. I thought about options. I could also spend the night sitting in the wangba, the internet cafe, wait until around 6am when the bus station would be open. Standing in front of the noodle restaurant with the friendly Uyghur owner, a cab pulled up, 20 kuai, about 3 dollars, to Turpan. ‘Curse the hotel employee that told me that at this hour it would be 100 kuai,’ I muttered. I could easily manage a 20 kuai cab ride out of the dust, out of the darkness. The car filled with two others and we sped along in the pitch of the desert emptiness. The driver was another wonderful soul who, after dropping off the other riders, took me around to three different places. In many parts of China, especially the contentious border regions, most hotels are not allowed to accept foreign guests. My driver stopped at two that refused before we ended up at Turpan Bingguan, where I would pay 50 kuai for a room in the basement with two beds, a shower, and a TV.

I followed the woman from the desk down the stout staircase into my room, smiled and thanked her, closed the door as she left and collapsed onto the bed, wishing I had someone to share the moment with. After a most glorious shower, I was out in the Turpan night market eating the best roast mutton I have ever tasted. Seasoned with the sudden alleviation of days of traveling discomfort, buses and trains with nowhere to sit. Through small periods of deprivation that which is not often a luxury is gilt and sure enough that night I walked around the streets of Turpan for a little while with hhe broadest grin on my face and tasted the sweetest apple before returning and sleeping on a bed.

The next day I took the bus to Korla. All I had to work with were the instructions, “Go to X Restaurant. Tell them you are a friend of mine and ask for Billo. They will take care of you. They will give you something to eat.” That’s how I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Uyghur noodle restaurant in Korla for four nights. The rest of the Korla story and what happened next will have to wait.

Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power

This is the third entry in a series on semiotic analysis, Uyghurs, and public space in China. For earlier entries please see, Deconstructing ‘Minzu’, and Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence. Or visit my index at the top of the page for all previous articles dealing with Symbolic Power, the politics of representation, China, Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the like. As with other posts on this topic, although the specific point of entry to this conversation deals with the Uyghurs the tactics and artifacts of symbolic violence by the state are the same for other subaltern groups, not only in China but as a transferable model to others such sites. For this reason, an understanding and analysis of a particular phenomena has broader application.

Traveling around Xinjiang one often observes a stark demarcation between Han and minority space and inscription. In Yarkand, for example, Southeast of Kashgar this demarcation is starkly drawn along two streets, with Han exclusively living and working along Xincheng Lu [New City Road] and Uyghurs living along Laocheng Lu [Old City Road]. This is an important observation for two reasons. It relates to the opportunity for Uyghurs to reach out to Han and challenge their signification. Secondly, in predominantly Han neighborhoods there is not the same prevalence of the kind of public inscriptions as in Uyghur neighborhoods.

For example, on every Uyghur house in all the towns and villages in Xinjiang, there is one or a combination of three plaques near the door. These read Wenming Jiating [Civilized Household], Pingan Jiating [Safe Household], and Wuxing [Five Star]. However, I never observed such inscriptions on Han houses. The apparent meaning, a designation of worth conferred by the authority of the state, the state synonymous with a Han majority, coupled with other observations maintains the signification. The following analysis of public inscriptions is based on posters found in what could be considered general public space. While there are kinds of inscriptions that occur only in Uyghur areas, there is another that occurs in public areas with both Han and Uyghur traffic.

General public space in Xinjiang is marked by the ubiquity of banners, slogans and posters, discussed elsewhere. I found, and scholars such as Gardner Bovingdon and Dru Gladney have noted similar restrictions, that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally apprehensive to speak about such things but after several conversations on the street a pattern emerged. The majority of Uyghurs I encountered who were willing to discuss them treated them as propaganda. If we apply the same semiotic analysis as in previous posts we will discover another artifact of symbolic power’s domination over Uyghur social space. I observed the following posters in Korla, you can view them in an earlier post.

Jun Ai Min, Min Yong Jun, Junmin Tuanjie Yi Jiaqing [The military loves the people, the people embraces the military, the military and the people united are one family]. In the upper right hand corner, saluting in stoic patriotism, are three Han officers, one from each branch of the military. They are facing toward the red field of the Chinese flag, with its golden stars creased in the wind. In front of the flag are four white doves. At the center of the image, behind the text, are rows of soldiers in camouflage. The bottom of the image shows pictures of the Great Wall and the iconic front of the Forbidden City, Mao’s portrait hangs visibly over the entrance. Compressed at the very bottom left of the image is an old Uyghur man with a white beard and black skull cap. He is handing a red basket of gifts to a phalanx of soldiers.

Jun Min Qing, Jing Min Qing, Chuchu Ningju AiGuo Qing [Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment]. Sweeping from the lower left corner upward to the top right is a large field of red, the Chinese flag, victoriously splattering the background. At the center of the image are two large white doves. In the top left corner three Uyghurs are facing a Chinese police officer, with two more officers behind him. The Uyghurs’ faces tell of some unknown sorrow or concern as they shake the hand of the Han officer who is smiling confidently. Across the bottom of the poster, two uniformed Han officers are standing, smiling at an old Uyghur man with a small wispy beard and a Hotanese wool hat. The Uyghur man appears sunken and weak while the Han officer is plump and reaching out farther to meet the old man’s slightly withdrawn hands.

Aside from obvious superficial differences, the signification of these two posters is the same. The first observation of note is that the Uyghurs depicted in both images are clearly receiving the support of the Han. The juxtaposition of the elderly, even frail, Uyghur man next to the younger Han officers reinstates the signification we saw above in the museum. The signified is an undeveloped people progressing under the support of the Party. The Uyghur, signifier, here is depicted as weak and in need of assistance. In relationship to the signified concept of provider, given form by the image of the Han officers, the significations are understood in relation to one another. The Uyghur is poor, the Han is strong.

The common image of the doves between the two images plays on the relationship of doves with peace. It encourages a peaceful reliance on the support of the Han. The text itself propels the visual meaning. It speaks of peaceful coexistence under the care of the military, police, and party. The space taken up by the flag in both images and the depiction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, both powerful nationalistic symbols, further stresses the magnificence of the Party. We see a vibrant symbolic artifact that reinstates the marginalization of Uyghurs, under the Party. The comments below highlight a number of interpretations of these images made after examining photographs taken of the images. It is important to note that the discussion of these images took place outside of China, within the Uyghur diaspora community.

The first and third responses are from Uyghurs who have been living outside of China for four and five years, respectively, and are no longer Chinese citizens. The second response was made by a Uyghur student who has been studying abroad for several years and plans to return to China after completing studies.

Han people are government people but Uyghur people are not government people…. Han people are police but Uyghur people are not police. Han people help Uyghur people. The Government says the Han helps the Uyghur people and also says Chinese government helps Uyghur people. And also, in Chinese news you must say minorities are very happy. Happy! Happy! Happy!

But not every Uyghur knows the real meaning of what the Chinese are doing. This provocation, if many Uyghurs are not so knowledgeable and don’t pay attention to the real meaning, when they see they know it is not reality. One day you are arresting Uyghurs and then you print image to lie. Children maybe don’t realize this.

All the people, for example the young people see this and they will be upset. But little children will see this and they may think something different, so it can change Uyghur’s minds after a long time.

These comments illustrate an immediate perception of domination, one that can be  understood by an application of our analysis. They demonstrate a sentiment that while these posters may be interpreted as false by a number of Uyghurs, they are still capable of affecting others.  Younger residents may be influenced by the messages on the posters. However, according to the three comments, they perceive these posters as empty propaganda that serves to instill a dominant narrative that does not conform to their perceptions of reality, but rather hopes to maintain domination. We begin to understand the power on the walls.

The comments in this section point to a shared perception that the prevalent minority signification of an undeveloped subaltern is as a source of domination. Many appear to equate this representation with either the lack or denial of education. As a few respondents above noted, this signification is perceived as a lie, perpetuated by the regime. But, Camus noted, “you can rebel equally well against a lie as against oppression (Camus, 2008: 13).” Does the rebelling actor target the teller of the lie or the lie itself, i.e. a particular signification or the regime from which it is promulgated? How is the decision to resist either the representation or the regime influenced by perceptions of opportunity? Here is where Judith Butler, and others, offer the valuable concept of resignification, a kind of semiotic resistance. I will touch on this in future posts.

Camus, Albert (1953/2008). The Fastidious Assassins. London: Penguin Books.

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.

Scenes from Urumqi, five days before 5 July 2009

Three years on from riots and mass arrests in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Chinese authorities continue to silence those speaking out on abuses during and in the wake of the unrest…

New testimony reveals that dozens, if not hundreds, of the Uighur ethnic minority, many of whom were arrested in the wake of the riots, are still disappeared, and that the government continues to intimidate people – including families seeking information on their disappeared relatives – who reveal human rights abuses during and after the protests.

Says Amnesty International in a Press Statement released on 4 July 2012.

This July fifth marks the three year anniversary of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of the Northwestern province of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. A name, explained in an earlier post, infused with perceptions of constructed history, repression, power, and resistance. This week, around the world, members of the Uyghur diaspora community will mark the day with demonstrations, from Istanbul to Washington DC. They are commemorating a day, planned as peaceful that turned violent, a reminder of rampant inequality and a history of perceived and material abuse. As media reports trickle out, documenting, as with above, the remaining culture of fear and persecution, or analyzing the causes of violence, ethnic or economic, presenting testimonials, calling for us never to forget, I thought I would provide some photos from a trip I took to the region right before the riots broke out.

In late June and early July of 2009 I traveled to Xinjiang. I could perceive a kind of tension in the air, disclosure of deep frustration at the inequality experienced as part of every day live, but there was no omen of what was soon to occur. By official Chinese figures 197 people died, over a thousand were injured. But, Amnesty and other organizations, through exhaustive research and documentation, believe these numbers to be considerably low. Particularly when you start to take into account the high numbers of those rounded up in the aftermath, the disappeared, abused, tortured, and silenced, the numbers of dead appear to be much higher.

The following images present a snapshot of life in Urumqi in the days leading up to this violence. Depicted below is a kind of superficial peace perhaps, superficial in that it would be severely rocked loose, and peace once so jarringly disturbed does not easily resettle. When I returned to Urumqi in 2011 I was shocked at the remaining level of armed police presence, automatic assault weapons and riot gear for the Chinese districts to promote a constructed fear and representation, to maintain the process of ‘othering.’ But there is no military presence documented in the images below. This is a simple presentation of encounters on the streets of an Urumqi perhaps irrevocably altered. I hope the images are able to speak for themselves to convey something of a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART ONE IN A PLANNED SERIES ON UYGHURS AND XINJIANG

Kashgar Old City, 2011

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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