The book The Uyghurs: Strangers in their Own Land was published in 2010, so it predates by six years the intense escalation in repression by the Chinese State against the Uyghurs and other national minorities in Xinjiang.
In Xinjiang, a region in the northwest of China which is known to most Uyghur people as East Turkestan, recent years have brought indoctrination-internment camps and intensified intrusive surveillance on a mass scale.
But the ongoing, unresolved and undiminished conflict between the Uyghur people and the Chinese state over many decades goes back further. The author, Gardner Bovingdon, a US academic, argues that the conflict is one of competing nationalisms – Han-Chinese (the majority and dominant ethnic-national people in China) vs Uyghur – rather than, as has been suggested elsewhere, one of competing ideologies (e.g. Islamism vs authoritarian Chinese “Communism”).
Both Uyghurs and Han-Chinese claim that the territory (East Turkestan or Xinjiang) is historically their country. As with many other places around the world, the competing claims each carry their own mythologised or semi-mythologised histories. There are claims of – and some evidence of – ancient Uyghur kingdoms and Chinese rule there hundreds of years ago.
Bovingdon outlines the competing historical narratives and mentions the short-lived independent Xinjiang/East Turkestan states of 1864-77, 1933-34 and 1944-49 (the latter two were only in a small part of the territory). He is sceptical about some of the historical claims on both sides.
Nevertheless, two solidly distinct national identities have emerged from history, one oppressing the other.
Mao’s China rejected self-determination for minority nations in favour of a system of “minzu regional autonomy”. “Minzu “is the Chinese word for the various ethnic and national groups which are considered to form an ethnically diverse but unified Chinese nation.
This “autonomy”, in Xinjiang (and elsewhere in China), does not mean a democratic, self-governing territory federated with other territories within a larger state. Rather, it describes a fragmented government administration at regional (Xinjiang), sub-regional, and local level, with nominal “autonomy” (in effect patronage and hand-picked representatives) for various different ethnic-national groups (minzu). Over decades the system failed to reflect the demographic reality of Xinjiang as a Uyghur-majority region.
The Uyghurs are no longer a majority, thanks to a decades-long campaign by the Chinese state to encourage Han-Chinese migration to Xinjiang. However, Uyghurs are still the largest single ethnic group comprising more than 40% of the population.
On top of all the “autonomy” is a highly centralised Chinese state policing, intimidating and carefully selecting local and regional state representatives, including those from Uyghur and other minority ethnic groups.
This “autonomy” was ostensibly aimed at promoting “minzu solidarity” – by offering a little (undemocratic, hand-picked) representation to each ethnic group. Most of the top governing roles are occupied by Han-Chinese. The fundamental absence of democracy, of free elections, of the freedom to speak and campaign politically, and of any system of regions voluntarily giving their consent to a central authority, means that there cannot be genuine autonomy in Xinjiang.
The Chinese state has tried for decades to suppress expressions of national self-assertion, culture and other distinctive Uyghur traits such as, for many, the Muslim religion. There has been an ongoing campaign of censorship and harassment aimed at silencing and suppressing any separatist (“splittist”) feeling, to prevent this escalating to the level of political organisation around demands for independence.
Bovingdon notes that this has not been successful and that most Uyghurs hold proudly to their belief in their own nationhood and the just cause of national independence. Although public political activity is heavily repressed, Uyghurs have been able to communicate and collectivise their ongoing national aspirations through small acts of defiance such as the telling of implicitly political jokes in the Uyghur language and the inclusion of allegorical political lyrics in Uyghur songs.
Since 2010, China has taken the repression to another level and is attempting full-scale, enforced indoctrination as well as an intrusive level of surveillance aimed at wiping out even small-scale expressions of Uyghur national and cultural pride and distinction.
The everyday resistance has not won concessions or more lenient treatment from China, but, as Bovingdon says, “the various forms of resistance have... strengthen[ed] and ke[pt] in circulation the idea that Uyghurs are fundamentally distinct from Hans…”
The following now seems like an all-too-bold statement:
“It is safe to predict that party-state will not eliminate everyday resistance even if it succeeds in blanketing the airwaves of Xinjiang with its own messages, blocking unwanted messages from outside with jammers, arresting writers, burning books, silencing singers and confiscating tapes. Uyghurs have engaged in everyday resistance, even when they had no opportunity or did not dare take part in open and organised resistance… Under conditions of extreme repression, it may be the only index of the depth and breadth of Uyghur discontent.”
The Chinese state has clearly identified small-scale assertions of national and cultural identity as a problem and is currently engaged in its most brutally determined push to eliminate them in a series of actions which Uyghur activists and academics around the world have termed “cultural genocide”.
There has also been organised collective action and violent resistance. Bovingdon identifies the following distinct periods:
• From 1979 to 1989 there was an easing of state control and there were large peaceful protests over both political and economic issues.
• From 1989 to 2001 (Tiananmen Square onwards) the regime became more repressive and large demonstrations were banned. There were more small-scale riots and violent attacks.
• From 2001 onwards, there was even more repression and a significant decline in the number of protest actions.
For the most part, the Chinese authorities either ignored the protestors’ demands or punished them by deliberately making matters worse.
“When protestors called for greater religious freedom, Ürümci stepped up the repression of religious belief among students and officials, zero tolerance for private religious instruction... When demonstrators called for increased representation by Uyghur, Qazaq, and other non-Han officials, officials and their advisers pushed for more Han cadres to preserve stability…
“When students asked for greater respect for Uyghur culture, the government chose to phase out bilingual education…”
China makes claims that it has improved the lives of Uyghurs and other non-Han minorities in Xinjiang, yet it has deliberately pursued policies to do exactly the opposite, in order to dis-incentivise any collective action or protest at all.
“Viewed against a backdrop of increasing protest and violence in China proper and evidence of a pervasive wealth gap between Hans and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the falling protest numbers indicate the success of the party-state’s actions to root out organizations and deter would-be protestors into quiescence – in short, not to resolve Uyghurs’ grievances but to deprive them of the resources and opportunities to articulate them publicly.”
Bovingdon surveys Uyghur organisations in the diaspora over the decades. They have played an important role in cohering a sense of nationhood for the Uyghurs in exile, but remain weak in relation to China, never gaining a place “at the table”.
China’s only way of relating to the Uyghur organisations has been to denounce and malign them as terrorist organisations.
The plight of the Uyghurs and other oppressed peoples can’t be resolved outside of international struggles asserting global standards for human rights and national self-determination.
In the epilogue, Bovingdon describes the inter-ethnic violence escalating from a rumoured incident in 2009 among workers at the Xuri toy factory of several Uyghur men raping two Han women, although the rumour was later repudiated by one of the women said to have been involved. On 25 June there was a violent attack by Han workers against Uyghur workers — it was a factory with tied accommodation, workers living in dormitories.
“Armed with crude weapons such as iron bars and long knives, the Han workers attacked the occupants indiscriminately. Two Uyghurs were killed and several hundred were injured, according to official reports, whereas Uyghur expatriates claimed the casualties were much higher.”
On 5 July, there was an Uyghur protest in Ürümci, numbering hundreds, against the government’s handling of what happened. The protest was peaceful for three hours, according to all (including official Chinese) accounts. The state then heavily repressed the demonstration, with both riot police and armed paramilitary police (People’s Armed Police — PAP). There were clashes and violent attacks throughout the city.
It seems that there were significantly more casualties among Hans than Uyghurs. Initial figures given were 156 dead, 123 Han Chinese and 33 Uyghurs. The official reports then stopped counting the ethnic breakdown of casualties. Official final figures were 197 killed and 1721 injured.
There were continued violent reprisals, including killings, over the next few days, with more PAP drafted in from 6 July.
“On July 7, bands of Han Chinese roaming the streets with homemade weapons carried out revenge killings. No casualty figures were made available.”
The details are contested, but the events show such high levels of discontent among Uyghurs at their experience of Chinese rule they were willing to risk reprisals. And that the reprisals came swiftly and brutally. China still refuses to recognise any legitimate grievance against national oppression.
The Chinese state imposed intense control of communications, including shutting down mobile phone and internet services, in order to monopolise and manage information about the July 2009 protest and violence, and to prevent any other version of events being presented.