Written by Guldana Salimjan
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 marginalisation of my identity, background, and field of study. It is nothing new for me to hear Han people make patronising 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 jeopardise 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 normalisation of the fixed frontiers and minoritisation of the nationalities that have led to the rejection of their peoplehood and land ownership in Xinjiang today.
As a director of the Xinjiang Documentation Project hosted at the University of British Columbia, I have more specific expectations and suggestions for concerned China Studies scholars. Our project aims to collect, assess, preserve, and make available documentary information on the state policies and experiences of the extrajudicial detention of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang. As the Chinese state-led erasure of evidence and creation of misinformation campaigns have shown us, reliable documentation is crucial for future generations to counter the state’s attempt to forget and rewrite history. Since 2019, my co-director Timothy Cheek and I have been curating a web archive comprised of key documents, lived experience, critical scholarship, glossary, timeline, and teaching resources related to the crisis in Xinjiang. One of our main goals is to provide researchers and educators with reliable materials to keep disseminating knowledge about the unfolding situation. Over the years, we have trained a team of graduate and undergraduate student researchers to identify, translate, and annotate three domains: key Chinese language sources detailing the counterterrorism campaigns, Chinese academic discourses justifying the state policies, and the Communist Party cadres’ surveillance and assimilation work in their own words.
There are practical ways China Studies scholarship and pedagogy can actively engage in decolonising Xinjiang. Inviting guest speakers to your class, organising a documentary screening, or reaching out to Chinese student associations on the campus to promote discussion – these are all great initiatives. I would also like to invite China Studies scholars to contribute teaching materials to our project’s Syllabi and Teaching plans section. Professors Magnus Fiskesjo, Sam Liao, Eric Schluessel, and You Xi have designed teaching plans that encourage students to reflect on contested archives and perspectives, genocide in comparative contexts, and the power of technology in state oppression. Likewise, we would like to solicit lesson plans on topics such as: minzu policies and nation-building, gender and Islam, settler colonialism and securitisation, and environment policies using Xinjiang as an example. Your expertise in providing educators with teaching tools would be greatly appreciated.
My second suggestion responds to the second misconception about language barriers. In fact, Chinese-English translation is much needed and people with knowledge of Chinese can provide an important service to non-Chinese readers by translating primary sources, particularly documents made by the Chinese government for its officials on the ground. A large number of raw materials on counterterrorism policies, construction procurement, recruitment ads for jail guards, boarding school teachers, or Uyghur laborers, court verdicts from the sham trials, cadre reports and travelogues are yet to be translated from Chinese to English. For students and the public who do not already know Chinese language, English language translations of these primary sources would be extremely helpful to understand the situation on the ground. If you don’t know where to start, our project hosts more than 300 Communist Party Cadre Blogs reporting on their work monitoring and detaining Uyghur and Kazakhs, as well as three volumes of cadre handbooks in guiding this work. These are valuable materials that show the scale and methods of the Party’s ‘Thought Work’ in Xinjiang, many of these sources are rich with detail not found elsewhere. Jake Eberts, a researcher based in Washington, DC, has already started a small collection of translations based on this collection.
Translations of lived experiences and personal stories build solidarity and empathy. In the past year, Xinjiang has become an ideological battleground for left-and right-wing politics over the ‘China threat’. A growing trend of denialism regarding the Xinjiang internment camps and genocide propagates the belief that evidence for the atrocities in Xinjiang is fabricated by the CIA and intended to manufacture consent for an anti-China foreign policy. Under these circumstances, it has become increasingly crucial for the voices of the victim survivors to be heard, rather than erased, especially after they have struggled against all odds to publicly share their stories. After victim survivor Anar Sabit’s story came out in The New Yorker, I translated her poems (Chinese to English) about the camp system and published them as part of my art project Camp Album. Geremie Barmé (not a Xinjiang specialist) also translated one of her poems ‘Night Watch’.
In March 2021, over 4,000 participants in a live audio social media app called Clubhouse discussed ‘Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?’ in Mandarin Chinese language. Many Han Chinese were moved to tears listening to Uyghur and Kazakh people’s painful narrations of losing touch with family members, many came to reflect on their previous ignorance and prejudice about Xinjiang and the people there. Some admitted that these personal stories had made a bigger impact on them and their ideas about Xinjiang than the English media reports that they had read and had been skeptical about. The initiative ‘Chinese for Uyghurs’ provides a platform for Chinese voices supporting Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minority people in Xinjiang. Many Han Chinese reflected on the concepts of Han privilege and ‘Hansplaining,’ and the importance of self-education and mainstreaming the Xinjiang stories. Recently, we were honoured to post a translation by Chinese for Uyghurs of a Han woman’s travelogue about a Kashgar community: In the Past Three Years, What Have I Seen in Kashgar’s Gaotai Neighbourhood? This piece stands out from many other cadre reports in providing a candid look at the everyday experiences and anxieties of Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.
As I briefly laid out above, there are many practical ways the field of China Studies can contribute to producing, disseminating, and documenting information about the crisis in Xinjiang. With rights violations and crises of cultural survival in virtually all PRC borderlands, China Studies scholars cannot continue to turn a blind eye to their ethical responsibility as researchers and educators with authoritative voices in their own communities about China.
To be clear, this call does not require embracing Mike Pompeo, to parrot talking points of this-or-that think tank, or using the ‘G-word’ in every conversation about China. It is a call for you to teach about Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet when you teach about China and East Asia. Many already do and that partly explains why there is more and more interest and awareness of these issues in China Studies circles. If you can, translate or annotate texts related to these issues. If you are unsure about what texts would be useful, you can visit this page on our project, or reach out to our project or to a scholar of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, or Tibet. Support students from affected communities and be sensitive to their needs. Students from Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang face many of the difficulties that all students from China face, plus many more, sometimes very dangerous, difficulties. Universities and the relevant departments need to be aware of those difficulties, and to some extent it will fall on the shoulders of China Studies specialists to provide clarity and context to universities dealing with these issues.
I wrote this because there seems to be a lack of awareness in China Studies circles about what scholars of China can do—or if they can or should do anything at all—about the Xinjiang situation. Of course, my suggestions will neither bring human rights abuses in Xinjiang to an end nor will they prevent ‘a new Cold War’ but taking these steps—at the very minimum—will help counter disinformation and promote greater understanding of what is happening in Xinjiang today.
Guldana Salimjan is the Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair at the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department at Simon Fraser University. She is the co-director of the Xinjiang Documentation Project at the University of British Columbia, and the founder of the media art project Camp Album. She also writes under the pen name as Yi Xiaocuo. Her research has been published in the journal Central Asia Survey, Asian Ethnicity, Human Ecology, and Chinoiresie – Made in China. She has contributed a book chapter in Creating Culture in (Post) Socialist Central Asia, and the volume Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi. Image credit: Daily Reflection of a Xinjiang Person, shared with permission from artist.