The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land
Columbia University Press
A coastal viewpoint of China – no matter how well-intended or informed – inevitably casts the country implicitly as a single political and racial entity. Better commentary attempts to recognize the vast political and economic disagreements within the Party and state apparatus, but ethnic issues are typically ignored – or covered one-dimensionally in both Chinese and Western media.
In The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, Gardner Bovingdon, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies, provides a welcome antidote to this eastern bias by turning his attention to one of China’s more politically charged minority groups.
It is a fascinating book, delving into the historical identity of the Uyghurs and their position within the modern Chinese state. Through careful research and interviews with both Han and Uyghur sources in and outside of China, Bovingdon presents a painstakingly constructed argument with a typically understated conclusion: "It is difficult to be optimistic about a resolution of the long-brewing contention between Uyghurs and the Chinese state."
Bovingdon’s understatement supports his argument and reveals him to be as disinterested an observer as one could hope for. His first chapter, on the historiography of Xinjiang and the Uyghur people, illustrates the need for such cool-headed impartiality: Chinese and Uyghur histories are not just different, they are mutually exclusive.
Chinese scholars argue Uyghurs had always and will always be a part of China, while Uyghur histories hold that the Uyghur people have existed for thousands of years in a land that was not historically part of China. There is good reason to dismiss some claims on both sides – even the word "Uyghur" as it is used today is arguably a Soviet construct – and Bovingdon does so.
In subsequent chapters detailing the political structure of the optimistically named Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, everyday acts of resistance, collective action and Uyghur transnational organizations, Bovingdon brings the same measured approach to considering the actions of Uyghurs and the Han-dominated Party organs – and, increasingly, the Han residents of Xinjiang. Chinese and Uyghur explanations of these actions are all predictably incompatible.
But this is not simply a book about finding the truth hidden underneath posturing from both sides. Such posturing is neither a distraction from the political struggle in the region, nor is it a distortion, Bovingdon argues. Rather, "these various modes of representational politics are crucial components of the contention."
It is a contention that has led to an intensified sense of identity among the Uyghurs, one strengthened and even created by a Beijing fearful, variously, of Western imperialism, Soviet-style disintegration and terrorism. It has contributed to social and economic stratification along ethnic lines and created such paranoia about Islam among regional authorities that Uyghur students and Party members are explicitly denied the right of freedom of belief guaranteed to them in the Chinese constitution. This last requirement has even led to cases of open resistance, as Uyghur Party cadres have publicly renounced their memberships in favor of their faith.
The result is a uniquely dysfunctional relationship in which the threshold of Beijing’s tolerance to resistance is set at such absurdly low levels that large robberies and attacks on livestock are classified as acts of terrorism.
As "mass events" erupt across China in ever-larger numbers, Xinjiang has actually seen a sharp decline in protests since 1998; yet this decline has been accompanied by a ratcheting up of official rhetoric condemning terrorist and "splittist" activities in the region.
It was against this backdrop that the Urumqi riots of 2009 took place; Bovingdon addresses the protests and violence in an epilogue, noting that they "indicated, and surely exacerbated, mutual misunderstanding and hostility between Uyghurs and Hans in Xinjiang." While the scale of the protests and violence were newsworthy, nothing about its causes was at all remarkable.
If the book’s structure and language tend toward the academic at times – it grew out of Bovingdon’s dissertation – his argument is no less clear, convincing or sad.