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The following article originally appeared on the Contemporary China Blog of the University of Westminster on July 21, 2021 and is excerpted here with permission. Please go to their website to see the full version of the article.
IN 2019, at a dinner conversation with several established China scholars, I mentioned that it is dangerous for me to return to China and do further research because of the dire situation in Xinjiang. A professor from China was puzzled, ‘Why is that? I go back to my field site every year!’ I sighed but quickly explained to her, ‘Because right now the government has campaigns targeting Turkic Muslim people, and I am from one of these communities.’ She still expressed disbelief and continued, ‘But you are not Uyghur—they are outrageous.’ I was utterly shocked this time and my mind went blank. A friend and colleague overheard us and intervened, which prompted the professor to defend her remarks: ‘normal Chinese people’ think that Uyghurs ‘are outrageous,’ she added. She offered the excuse that because she conducted fieldwork in eastern China and predominantly Han areas, her knowledge of Xinjiang was based on the ideas of people there. This, she thought, justified her bigoted pronouncements that Uyghurs ‘are outrageous’ and not ‘normal Chinese people.’ In the end, she deferred by saying that she was actually not very informed about Xinjiang and was simply quoting her interlocutors’ opinions.
This exchange was yet another example of my countless experiences of encountering microaggressions and the marginalization of my identity, background, and field of study. It is nothing new for me to hear Han people make patronizing comments about ‘ethnic minorities’, or turning defensive when being forced to face their Han privilege, or willfully ignoring what is happening to Uyghurs and Kazakhs and other non-Han groups in Xinjiang. It is also nothing new for me to take on the emotional labor of explaining the history and politics of Xinjiang repeatedly and how it has forced me into exile. Yet, this encounter was even more distressing and disappointing because it was initiated by a tenured China Studies professor from a top-tier university in North America who was not only uncritical and unaware of state actions in Xinjiang but also publicly making stereotypically racist remarks toward Uyghurs. Her excuse that she cannot comment on Xinjiang (except for dismissive discriminatory remarks) because she conducts research in the ‘normal’ part of China, reveals several misconceptions about Xinjiang, and these apply equally to other non-Han regions such as Inner Mongolia and Tibet. In this short post, I want to discuss and challenge some of these misconceptions with a particular focus on the following three: 1) That Xinjiang is not a China Studies topic because it is inhabited by non-Han people and is a ‘borderland’ or ‘frontier’; 2) That China Studies scholars have no authority to comment or responsibility to take action because they do not possess Uyghur or Kazakh language skills; 3) That speaking up for Xinjiang is always a high-stake cause that can jeopardize one’s access to China. I show how these misconceptions feed into a cycle of neglect and complicity in the continuation of the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang, and how China Studies scholars can do better.
In his recent article ‘Minority Nationalities as Frankenstein’s Monsters?,’ Uradyn Bulag makes clear: the fact that there are minorities and that ‘problems’ exist in borderland areas shows that the minzu issue is fundamentally at the centre of China’s existence as a nation. Christopher Atwood lists eleven ways in which the situation in Xinjiang is not so distant from the mainstream or distinct China Studies topics. For example, the grid-like surveillance systems have historical traces in ancient Chinese statecraft (baojia 保甲 system), or tuntian 屯田, an imperial frontier expansion practice since Han dynasty is reincarnated as Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (bingtuan 兵团). In a broad sense, Atwood debunks the first misconception I listed above and encourages China Studies scholars to reflect on how their scholarly works can counter the normalization of the fixed frontiers and minoritization of the nationalities that have led to the rejection of their peoplehood and land ownership in Xinjiang today.
See the rest of the article at the Contemporary China Blog of the University of Westminster.