The Asian Canadian
Published in

The Asian Canadian

The State of Xinjiang

I wrote this paper last April. I was never going to publish it because I was worried about the consequences to it. However, as the summer has moved into the fall and the protests in Hong Kong have not died down and as the PRC escalates the violence and as more civil liberties are taken away, I can no longer be silent. This is not a paper about Hong Kong and it’s history with with colonialism, imperialism, and China. This is a paper about Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. However, I feel the need to put this paper out not only because the themes of the paper relate to what is happening in Hong Kong: resistance, censorship, and who’s history gets told but it runs through the entirety of China and the nations that resist it’s idea of “One China.” The PRC’s “One China” policy is their revisionist view of their land claims. The truth is that China’s entire history is one of turmoil and civil war across it’s many regions and multitudes of ethnic identities, religions, and communities. No amount of White Papers, Han Chinese propaganda, big business interests and revisionist history will change their great big lie they’ve been selling for the past 70 years.

History is like the Taklamakan Desert. Everything is past; it’s all covered with sand. The historian simply pulls out of the sand the thing he needs.[1]

My mom is not a political person. I cannot remember the last time she voted or even talked politics at the dinner table. To my surprise when I told her I was doing a project about Muslims in China and the Uyghurs and their oppression, she told me how sad the internment camps made her. A week later she sent me an article from the Hong Kong site Apple Daily where it called President Xi, “Xitler” and comparing the internment camps in China today to the concentration camps during World War II.[2] The man started this comparison by wearing a t-shirt and was promptly detained.[3] While I had to read the article through Google translate and have to reword some of it, the objective of the article was clear: to show parallels of Nazi Germany and its treatment of Jews to what the People’s Republic of China is doing to Uyghurs today. For example, the Nazis believed that justice was an instrument to reinforce state policy, this resembles the sentiment that Xi Jinping said in August about how China must wield justice as a weapon and must not bow to judicial independence.[4]

The first time I had learned about the internment camps in China was late last year and even then, I did not give it that much thought. After all, I am in an entirely different continent, an entire ocean away, what could I do? I am interested in systemic oppression in the place I call home because I live here, it is my lived experience. Except, China is my ancestral home and to be honest I know next to nothing about it. I remember learning about it in Grade Six but even then, it was framed as something mysterious and romanticized, as if it was a land, I would never be able to touch, so it would be best to treat it at a distance. The main reason for me taking this class was to learn about China and do it through the lens of ethnicity. I chose to focus on Muslims in China because I was interested to see how they came to be put into internment camps because this does not happen overnight. Oppression happens because it is reinforced, legislation is passed, and social contracts are pushed and agreed upon by communities and people. These systems, laws, and legislation do not come from some higher power, there is nothing divine nor universal about them and do not live on any moral high ground. I know they are created by people and like with any human made thing, it is as fallible as the people who made the laws as well as the people who reinforce and carry out said law. I am interested about how do people fight this and hold onto a major part of their identity? I do not know what it is like to prosecuted and be thrown into a concentration camp to be brainwashed into thinking my religious beliefs is a mental illness but I do know what it is like to fragment my identity or a part of my being in order to fit in and not draw attention to the parts of myself that are seen as socially undesirable. I am curious in the silence that is born out of this. The silence that comes from the residual of fear. I am interested in the questions that burn after the broken silence is broken: What does resistance look like in the face of censorship? The complicated relationship between oppressor and oppressed and how it is not black and white but levels that make up a tower of grey. What is it like to navigate the difference between identity and ethnicity when laws and legislation make them one in the same? How silence is used as a weapon and who does this silence benefit? How does the oppression of Muslims in China further a nationalistic agenda while also creating a myth of what it means to be truly Chinese to its people and the rest of the world? I believe these questions are important because people are not just one thing, we are not rigid nor linear in our growth or life span, there are consequences to these identifications and definitions of ethnicity. To fragment one’s self to fit in or to be accepted or recognized is an act of violence. To be seen is liberating, to not have to justify your existence is empowering. Definitions, rules, and regulations made surrounding identity are completely arbitrary. There is a reason for it. You do not go from over 2000 recognized ethnicities to 56 overnight nor is it a random act. It is purposeful. The purposefulness is necessary to highlight because there is not a universal or divine definition of what it means to be Chinese, people make that up themselves and reinforce the ideas and images they want.

To understand the oppression of Uyghurs one must look back and have some form of understanding of who the Uyghurs were historically, what was the relationship between the people and the land, and what was the relationship between Xinjiang and the Qing Dynasty and afterward?[5] Uyghur nationalists claim they have occupied Xinjiang province for six thousand years.[6] However, there is little evidence exists whether it is written or archeological to support this claim.[7] Other Uyghur nationalists claim that they are descended from the Xiongnu, a confederation who fought with the Han Dynasty for control over Xinjiang.[8] This is important to note because the Xiongu in Chinese-language histories are framed as the mortal enemies of the Han.[9] If Uyghurs have the problem of their origins and filling the gaps of it to prove their difference and ultimately their separation from China, then Chinese historians had the inverse problem of proving that Uyghur history was intertwined and an essential component to the history of China and its nation state.[10] The first strategy they implemented in doing so was applying the frame of class as the means of reading history.[11] This meant that they pushed the notion that all forms of oppression regardless of language and culture were uniform and had no difference except for class.[12] The second strategy used was the way they framed history itself and what history was considered helpful to the Chinese State and what history was against it, these were referred to as “main current” and “countercurrent.”[13] The “unification” of people and land under a dynasty and the harmony that laborers had under their rule is considered main current.[14] Countercurrents would be anything that went against the idea of harmony such as rebellions, battles and disputes between and among the people.[15] The framing of main current and countercurrent while an insidious way to get people to conform to the ruling power, is a smart way to control the narrative of a country’s history. If the main narrative of your country is harmony under one ruler and that is believed to be the status quo any form of resistance would be discouraged and vilified. As well the fact if the belief is that the nation of China has always been one of harmony among its different regions under one banner then of course the Uyghurs and the rest of Xinjiang would never have been separate from a Chinese nation.

Several Uyghur nationalist historians believe that Uyghurs are indigenous to Xinjiang.[16] Chinese historians have denied and disputed this claim.[17] All of the official histories of Uyghurs and Xinjiang published since 1949 declare that Xinjiang was multi-cultural since prehistoric times.[18] They add to this claim with in depth stories about the Uyghur Empire in Mongolia and their displacement and claim that Uyghurs did not arrive in Xinjiang until the ninth century.[19] Recent Chinese histories have gone as far to say that the Han were the original inhabitants of Xinjiang.[20] By making these claims they not only act to delegitimize Uyghurs’ claim to being independent of China but also act in a way to justify China’s claim to Xinjiang.[21] Of course the glaring issue with this idea is that if the Han had been in Xinjiang for two millennia then their argument would be that those Han held the same values of what it means to be Han today and that present day Han represented the same values and beliefs of China today as back then.[22] While the current idea of Han Chinese dates back only to the late nineteenth century.[23]

The Qing’s occupation of Xinjiang was by product of the Emperor’s attempt to exterminate an enemy, the Zunghars.[24] The campaign against the Zunghars had nothing to do with uniting or reuniting Xinjiang with the state of China, the idea of imperial conquest was only added afterwards by Qing historians.[25] The Qing treated Xinjiang as a colony and viewed the Muslim population as their own people, with their own religion, language, and culture separate from the Chinese.[26] The ruling elite of the Qing were skeptical about keeping Xinjiang as a colony before finally deciding to make it a province.[27] These factors show that the idea of unification of China under one banner is a new idea imposed onto old history. The rebellions and turmoil that defined Xinjiang during the Qing occupation reveals the fine line between survival and resistance and the choices people are forced to make during times of upheaval.

The rebellion of 1864 in Xinjiang was framed as a holy war because it was the collective resistance of Muslims fighting back against non-Muslim rule.[28] A holy war may not have been their clear-cut motivation for the rebellion, but it was the best way to mobilize and unite Muslims regardless of class.[29] This holy war united highly educated scholars along with people who were seen on the lower end of the class structure who routinely violated Islamic law such as gamblers, drunks, and opium users.[30] It is also important to note that some Muslims stayed loyal to the Qing emperor.[31] The problem with the notion of a holy war is that all of the non-Muslim population in Xinjiang were seen as the enemy and needed to be purged.[32] The holy war was the cause of many cruelties inflicted upon the towns that were under Qing controlled.[33] While the holy war was a useful catalyst to get Muslims to fight against the Qing it failed to create a true unified force.[34] What good is the idea of a holy war after the infidels are slain?[35] Once the common enemy was gone, fighting and turmoil rose in the Muslim communities and the idea of a holy war had lost its purpose.[36] After all, what good is a holy war if there is not an enemy to fight?

Muslim groups are not monolithic throughout China nor the world for that matter. The same can be said about resistance, it is never as straight forward as one side versus the other. Muslim resistance and rebellion was not some monolithic all-encompassing movement.[37] Not every community believed that rebellion and war against the Chinese was the right path.[38] The Muslim Chinese that aided the Qing against rebellion were rewarded.[39] By doing this the Qing took natural divisions between communities and caused them to rupture.[40] These divisions and inter-community fighting made it less possible for a united Muslim force to band together against the Qing.[41] Of course these divisions between communities existed before the Qing invaded. These divisions and disagreements were born out the way Islam was taught.[42] The divide between the teachings, Old Teachings versus the New Teachings.[43] In this conflict many factors shape the decisions of the Muslim communities in Xinjiang such as: fear, greed, and mistrust and uneasiness of proximity or distance to not on the Qing but also to the different Muslim communities in Xinjiang.[44] We cannot truly predict how an individual will act when they are under distress. And perhaps the problem itself is too large, too unruly, to the point it feels like the outcome is out of your hands. What I mean by this is that maybe fighting back an army whose people come from a place you might never see seems insurmountable, so you turn to problems that you can solve that are right in front of you. Problems like when my next meal is, will my family still have a home after this war, the small things that will always matter no matter how big the battles get. Fighting for your land, your identity, and your people requires a great amount of work and sacrifice. While those are great motivators, how sustainable is it when you experience violence from your neighbours and community or see the resistance you are a part of being co-opted by the elite and ruling class and twisted to take power away from you and used for their gain?[45] What happens when your living conditions become unbearable and fighting back only makes it worse?[46] What kind of pain, fatigue, and trauma grows from this? Is this the point where resistance crosses the line over to survival and self-preservation? What happens when you realize that the conflict will not end in triumph rather on a new status quo, one where Muslim Chinese and non-Muslim Chinese are now neighbours and must make sense of it all.[47] At this point could just simply surviving and preserving who you are not the greatest form of resistance someone could have? I do not have an answer to this but what choice does a person have after the fighting has stopped, the battle is lost, and life goes on, what else can one do but continue.

To be a marginalized person in any space on some level means to be misunderstood. I think that being Muslim Chinese comes with the understanding that this is their religion, their body, and their country and it is their job to make sense of all these things. Take the contemporary case of Baimurat, a Kazakh Muslim, whose business failed and looking for a way to support his wife and two children, took a job with the auxiliary police in Xinjiang.[48] He spent months at roadside checkpoints looking for people, more often than not Muslim ethnic minorities who might be on the government’s black list.[49] Discomfort came with the job but he needed the money.[50] His crisis of conscience came to a head after he was asked to help bring in six hundred handcuffed people to a new facility.[51] In order to keep up with the new facilities, security expanded in Xinjiang and relies heavily on the recruitment of the same ethnic minorities the government targets.[52] This practice is similar to what happened during the rebellions in the nineteenth century where communities and families are divided, while others benefited from the oppression of others. Baimurat decided to speak out because he regrets working for the police in Qitai county.[53] Xinjiang’s police force has grown more than five times in size in the last decade and the government recruits ethnic minorities to stem dissatisfaction by providing jobs to them.[54] Han migration into Xinjiang over the years has placed even more stress on the Uyghurs by changing the demographics of the population, Uyghurs are now forty-six percent of the region’s twenty-two million people, Han are forty percent, and Kazakhs are seven.[55] The Chinese government had hoped that the influx of development and economic growth in the region would ease tensions but Uyghurs and Kazakhs believe they do not reap the benefits of these developments, face discrimination when looking for jobs, and are restricted in practicing their religions, speaking their languages, and living their culture.[56] While Chinese officials praise the work of ethnic minority police, those who join the police are viewed with suspicion from both their communities and their superiors in the police.[57] This is the dilemma of needing to survive and provide for those you care for but at the cost of your identity, this is no accident, and in a way is its own form of cultural genocide. You work for the police, you lose trust within your own community, you follow state rules and regulations, which means you only speak the language that is approved, and you are paid to detain your own people. It is not hard to see the end goal here, lose yourself working for state until the only thing you can depend on is the state.

The government’s exercise of control goes beyond human interaction, as technology evolves so do the means of oppression and surveillance. China has reportedly been sending out flocks of drones disguised as birds to surveil its citizens.[58] This operation known as “Dove” have been flown over five provinces, most notably Xinjiang, extensively.[59] Beyond the increased surveillance of Dove, Xinjiang has also seen authorities collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, voice samples, and blood types from the populous.[60] This type of control exerted over a region that was fought over centuries ago to crush a powerful enemy of the Qing Dynasty seems to be repeating itself. The holy war this time is not Muslims fighting against the Chinese but rather the Chinese government eradicating Islam. Which leads to a bigger question, if the Chinese can fully displace the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs from Xinjiang, what happens then? We already know that the holy war could only hold different communities together for so long in the nineteenth century, will history repeat itself in that instance as well?

The overarching theme of this class is that identity is a multitude of narratives. China is currently sifting through its many narratives and choosing the ones which serve its agenda and discarding the ones that do not. Caught in the whirlwind of this are an entire ethnicity of people in Xinjiang, whose own complicated history and relationship with China contradicts the vision the Chinese government wants to advance into the future with. History and the stories that we tell to shape it are not absolute truths but are multitudes of stories existing at the same time. China can believe that a strong nation includes all the previous lands that China used to rule over and at the exact same time those countries can view themselves as separate from China. To tell this history that flies in the face of the history that China is pushing is an act of resistance. It might not be as loud as an all-out holy war and rebellion, but it is resistance all in the same. People fight with what they have, sometimes it’s their voice, other times it is with their fists, and sometimes it’s just surviving and taking up space where someone wants to replace them. I do not know what is going to happen, I do not know if more people will care, or enough people will care that change for the better will come. What I do know is that history, much like identity, is fluid and does not exist in a vacuum, despite those who want to pretend it does, we are not sealed off chapters, we are an accumulation, we do not grow from running away from this truth, we grow by diving into it. To exist in a space that is your home but where you are not welcome and where you could be punished for being and practicing your traditions and displaying your identity is an act of resistance. I do not know when this will change or if it ever will, Xinjiang has been a place of cultural clashing and turmoil for centuries, but change will not happen just because of the passage of time. China vanquished their great enemy in Xinjiang centuries ago, but the fighting continues, and the fighting will only cease when the idea of what it means to be Chinese changes or Xinjiang becomes fully Han. It is a question of relinquishing one’s identity or redefining and evolving the definition of what it means to be Chinese. I know which side I am on; the fight continues.

[1] Gardner Bovingdon, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[2] 古德明, “他們何罪之有? — 古德明,” Apple Daily 蘋果日報, , accessed March 27, 2019, https://hk.lifestyle.appledaily.com/lifestyle/columnist/古德明/daily/article/20190325/20640530.

[3] Apple Daily, accessed March 27, 2019.

[4] Apple Daily, accessed March 27, 2019.

[5] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[6] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[7] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[8] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[9] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[10] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[11] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[12] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[13] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[14] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[15] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[16] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[17] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[18] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[19] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[20] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[21] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[22] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[23] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[24] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[25] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[26] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[27] Bovingdon (2010), accessed through PDF on March 27, 2019.

[28] Ho-dong Kim, Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia; 1864–1877 (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2010). 71.

[29] Kim, (2010). 71.

[30] Kim, (2010). 71.

[31] Kim, (2010). 71.

[32] Kim, (2010). 71.

[33] Kim, (2010). 71.

[34] Kim, (2010). 71.

[35] Kim, (2010). 71.

[36] Kim, (2010). 71.

[37] Jonathan Neaman Lipman, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2003). 132.

[38] Lipman, (2003). 134.

[39] Lipman, (2003). 134.

[40] Lipman, (2003). 134.

[41] Lipman, (2003). 134.

[42] Lipman, (2003). 136.

[43] Lipman, (2003). 136.

[44] Lipman, (2003). 136.

[45] Lipman, (2003). 166.

[46]Kim, (2010). 36.

[47] Lipman, (2003). 167.

[48] Austin Ramzy, “He Needed a Job. China Gave Him One: Locking Up His Fellow Muslims.,” The New York Times, March 02, 2019, , accessed March 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/world/asia/china-muslim-detention-uighur-kazakh.html.

[49] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[50] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[51] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[52] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[53] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[54] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[55] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[56] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[57] Ramzy, (2019), accessed March 27, 2019.

[58] Sigal Samuel, “China Is Going to Outrageous Lengths to Surveil Its Own Citizens,” The Atlantic, August 17, 2018, , accessed March 27, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/china-surveillance-technology-muslims/567443/.

[59] Samuel, (2018), accessed March 27, 2019.

[60] Samuel, (2018), accessed March 27, 2019.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store