The Xinjiang Perspective
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Xinjiang Perspective


Some foreign observers tend to regard Chinese state propaganda as cobwebs, intricately woven webs of deception that one must brush away to reveal the underlying truth. Yet, an examination of the delicate threads that comprise the web may shed light upon even the darkest corners of Zhongnanhai. Propaganda can provide insight into the greatest ambitions and worst fears of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such insights are particularly valuable for those seeking to understand the current situation in Xinjiang (East Turkestan). Here, the state engages in a heavy propaganda campaign to win the support of the local population, chiefly Uyghurs and other Central Asian ethnic groups. The most critical and reoccurring themes focus upon fostering ethnic unity; social harmony and stability; patriotism; economic development; territorial integrity; and close relations between the military and the people. Propaganda is an inextricable part of CCP patriotic education campaigns. Propaganda is omnipresent in public spaces, found everywhere from municipal buildings to schools, roadways, buses, and town squares.

Although the outside world is keenly aware of the integral role that propaganda plays in protecting and promoting Chinese interests in Xinjiang, foreigners rarely have the opportunity to ascertain how the relationship between state and society is negotiated at the grassroots level. How do locals in different regions tend to view their personal relationship with the state? How do they express their own ethnic and religious identity? To what extent does the educational background, profession, or social status of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups affect their opinions on governance and the Chinese Communist Party? How do locals receive, interpret, and respond to state propaganda? What is the current state of relations between Chinese, ethnic minorities, and the state security apparatus?

In a series of short articles, I will share personal observations, experiences, and conversations from around Xinjiang that elucidate these abstract themes in a more concrete way. At the same time, due to the sensitive political nature of the subject under discussion, I must pay due diligence in protecting my sources. Seeking answers to these questions is a critical task for not only myself, but also for other scholars in the field. I nevertheless hope that these articles will provide the reader with fresh information and insights into modern-day Xinjiang.

Graham Adams specializes in the study of ethnic minority policy in the People’s Republic of China. His name has been changed to protect his identity.

Rex Zeppelin
March 23, 2013 at 19:21

Actually, although the term 新疆 (Xinjiang) is a creating of the Qing dynasty and only dates back to the mid-1700's (which ironically is as old as the United States), Han presence in Xinjiang dates back 2000 years. There are ruined cities in the sand from the time of Christ (Jiaohe) near Turpan in Central Xinjiang that speak to this heritage (before Uyghurs were even in Xinjiang!), and Han presence in the region has been continuous (but small) since then, mostly merchants and traders who plied their Silks and other goods to traders in Transoxiana.

I'm not trying to validate the PRC historical narrative that Xinjiang is the ancient territory of China, but it should be noted that the Uyghur ethnicity actually originated in Mongolia, before losing in a series of tribal conflicts with other Mongol tribes and escaping to their current home in the Tarim Basin of southern Xinjiang. The history has been massaged on both sides to bolster claims to legitimacy. History is a very political tool and in sensitive areas like XJ especially so.

My understanding now is that over the course of Xinjiang's 3000 year history it's been a political ping-pong ball, and it has submitted to multiple occupations including the Mongols, Chinese, Tibetans,  Turkic forces from the Kazakstan/Uzbekistan area, and even extensive economic and political influence from the Russian Empire/Soviet Union to the north . The fact is, the region is just too fecund and strategically important to be left to its own devices by covetous and ambitious surrounding powers. Combined with the fact that Southern Xinjiang is home to one of the most formidable and harsh deserts in the world–with all inhabitation in Oasis towns that ring the desert like a necklace–make mounting a centralized defence against invaders a nightmare.

The Xinjiang ethnic identity was also for a long time a pretty fluid thing, owing to the shifting occupying powers and Silk Road trade. Many ordinary Uyghurs even just 200 years ago would probably identify more closely with their town than with the concept of Xinjiang/East Turkestan. I think that the advent of the PRC and the Sino-Soviet Split probably contributed to the consolidation of the Uyghur ethnic identity by erecting hostile borders around Xinjiang where before trade and people had flowed freely. The Turkic population in Xinjiang was cut-off, now living in a 'cul-de-sac' of the Chinese state, a far cry from its ancient geopolitical importance as the 'Crossroads of Asia.' Add to this the mind-bogglingly ill-conceived and brutal policy of the Mao/Gang of Four years, which was a crucible that forged the modern Uyghur cultural identity as an oppressed, Islamic people without a nation. So we are again witnessing the results of forcible state attempts at ethnic assimilation creating an extremist response, and the PRC is largely reaping what it sowed in the periodal crackdowns of the past 60 years.

Dalai Dayak
November 8, 2012 at 19:08

Because there is no other person as evil as the Dalai Lama who instigates self immolation.

Dalai Dayak
November 8, 2012 at 19:05

What are the status of the Indian low caste, the Australian aborigines, the Japanese ainus and the American red Indians?

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