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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Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part III

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

Framing: Violence by Definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part II

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

Identities and Boundaries: A Constructivist and Discursive Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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