Friday, 8 November 2013

Xinjiang Dreams: Worrying About Ethnicity

The ethnically targeted violence of July 2009 in Ürümchi overshadowed the lead-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Uyghurs and Han were both victims and perpetrators and official figures claimed 197 people were killed (See herehere, and here). The violence suggested that ethnic relations remain an important issue in people’s daily lives in Xinjiang and for the capacity of the party-state to provide “stability”. July 2009 brought to the fore concerns that China’s ethnic minority polices need rethinking in part because they are constructed without significant input from ethnic minorities themselves. The events of July 2009 lead the then Guangdong Party Committee Secretary and now 3rd ranked Vice Premier, Wang Yang, to suggest that China needs to re-adjust its ethnic minority policies or there will be further “difficulties”. These comments sparked a debate in Beijing’s elite universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua, and the Chinese Academy of Social sciences (for instance, here and here). Chinese scholars of ethnicity put forward their competing perspectives on the future of ethnic minority policies and the relationship between ethnicity and nation in China. James Leibold has shown that radical policy change in the short-term is highly unlikely but calls for reform have now become the mainstream among officials and public intellectuals.
The events at Tiananmen on October 28th 2013 will again stimulate discussion of China’s ethnic minority policies in the lead up to the 3rd Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee. In many senses the 2012 debate centered on whether to emphasise the plurality or the unity in Fei Xiaotong’s famous conceptualisation of the “plurality and unity” of the Chinese nation. The debate was ostensibly between proponents of the “first generation” of ethnic minority policies who wish to maintain China as a multi-ethnic state of 56 different minzu groups and the “second generation” who seek to transform China into a mono-ethnic race-state (guozu). We simply do not know what happened on October 28th at Tiananmen, but these events have been officially explained in the same way as July 2009. With no verifiable evidence provided, Chinese media outlets are instructed to frame the issue through “the Three Evils” of “separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism”. Dong Manyuan of the China Institute of International Studies is one of the few Chinese scholars to have spoken out thus far and he immediately blamed “the Three Evils”. His comment that policy is “correct” suggests that more introspection and open debate are necessary if we are seriously attempting to understand the future of ethnicity in contemporary China.
The “first generation” of the inter-generational debate have argued that a shared national identity will naturally emerge with economic development. Scholars such as Wang Xi’en and Hao Shiyuan of the “first generation” explicitly rely on the scientific inevitability of Marxist dialectics to chart the future of ethnicity in China. Wang (2012) and Hao (2012) both argue that Chinese Marxism and economic development will naturally produce a unified nation over time. For these thinkers, ethnic (meaning Minzu) differentiation and the regional autonomy system for ethnic minorities are central to China’s tradition as a socialist nation. However, these policies are framed as temporary measures to deal with remaining historical leftovers of discrimination from feudalism. These thinkers argue that development will naturally resolve the “ethnic question” (minzu wenti). According to their reading of Marxist dialectics, ethnicity will wither away so that all ethnic cultures will naturally evolve into national Chinese culture before merging into a global class consciousness. This stream of thought resolves the tension between ethnicity and nationhood through the Party-state’s Leninist discourse on cultural evolution: culture can be normatively measured because stages of cultural development are superstructural to economic development.
Political economist Hu Angang and social anthropologist Ma Rong of the “second generation” suggest that a shared national identity can be produced through conscious human design. This self-dubbed “second generation” argue that the party-state must actively promote “fusion” (jiaorong). The “second generation” support “fusion” into a mono-cultural race-state (guozu) through monolingual education policies and the abandonment of formal minzu differentiation, including the regional autonomy system. Ma Rong (here and here) argues that it is culture and not ethnicity which define social distinction in China. Ma claims that the distinction between “civilisation” and “barbarians” in ancient China is the basis on which the nation ought to be ordered and that the “ethnic” category (minzu) was merely a temporary policy measure copied from the Soviet Union. For Ma Rong, the barbarian/civilisation distinction is not between different civilisations but between “highly developed and less developed ‘civilizations’ with similar roots but at different stages of advancement”.  This draws from theories of cultural evolution like the “1st generation” but it normatively frames Han Chinese culture as the apex of civilisation. Modernisation and Han culture are thought of as the same thing, thus, “barbarians” can become developed by learning Chinese culture (jiaohua).
Political economist Hu Angang, argues that since the 2010 Xinjiang Work Forum, ethnic minority policies have moved from managing a multi-ethnic society and the use of minzu categories to one of fusion (jiaorong) and actively producing a race-state (guozu). Hu Angang tells us that to bring the “dream” of building a rich and strong China (fumin qiangguo) to fruition requires the development of “ethnic regions”. Hu’s central concern is how to make China strong at the international level. He suggests that all “great powers” (da guo), namely the USA, have used a “melting pot” model and all collapsed empires (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) used a “salad bowl” model. Hence, China must now focus ethnic minority policies, education, and language policies on producing shared identification into a race-state to achieve the China dream. Hu follows the party’s announcements from the 2010 Xinjiang work forum to propose “great leap development” (kuayueshi fazhan). “Great leap development” will supposedly enable Xinjiang to leapfrog over the stages of development set out in Marxist theory. Human agency will allow Xinjiang to leap across stages of development in the way proposed by Mao Zedong during the great leap forward period. The official slogan “contact, communication, fusion” (jiaowangjiaoliujiaorong) tends to suggest this will be a long-term historical process along the lines of the arguments of “1st generation”. However, Hu Angang uses this to suggest that this is not only part of the “direction of history” progressing towards the “great renewal” of the Chinese nation but that the direction of history towards guozu can be accelerated by state policy. Hu Angang’s dream is for China to surpass the US to become a “new type of superpower” but his dream first requires minorities to abandon self-identification through ethnicity.
Xinjiang’s position in China is articulated through internal boundaries which mark the region as economically and culturally inferior to the East of China. Both generations agree that ‘fusion’ is needed to make China wealthier and more powerful. The “first generation” thinks this should left to the anonymous inevitability of Marxist dialectics where the “second generation” believe they can socially engineer a shared Chinese identity. The difference between the two approaches is a difference not over whether materialist accounts explain identity or if fusion is a desired end state. The debate is over how to achieve that end state, either through the ‘natural’ means of socialist development (‘cultural evolution’) or through human design and planned state policy. The two “generations” do offer different policy recommendations (eg bilingual vs monolingual education). Yet, the reason the debate stimulates so much commentary is that they offer different visions of the Chinese nation: multi-ethnic VS mono-ethnic. Hao Shiyuan of the “1st generation” has even gone so far as to challenge Hu Angang by suggesting that it was not ethnic minority identities that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union but the nationalist chauvinism of the majority (da minzu zhuyi). This amounts to accusing Hu Angang of being a Han chauvinist and indicates a real schism amongst Chinese scholars over the present and future of China. The debate reveals tensions in contemporary China between competing ideas of nationhood: China as an inclusive multi-ethnic state where different ethnic groups live in harmony and China as a Han nation with a singular model of national belonging.
The day after the Tiananmen incident, one Uyghur student on twitter asked “why is everything we do terrorism?”. He reminded his Han nationalist debating partners that a Han Chinese man set off a bomb in Beijing Capital International Airport with no calls of “terrorism”. Discontent among Han is framed as a less severe threat and is rightly seen within its social and individual context. However, Uyghur discontent can be de-legitimised and presented as a national security threat by activating the discourse of “the Three Evils”. The authors of China’s ethnic minority policies in the inter-generational debate frame a common Chinese national identity as a prerequisite to China’s international strength. Ethnic minority identities are frequently framed by the CCP and Chinese intellectuals as a source of backwardness and insecurity for the Chinese nation. This is the “patriotic worrying” Gloria Davies referred to in Worrying About China: the critical reflexivity of intellectuals is constrained by the need to contextualise academic discussion of the subject not in terms of how to deconstruct and understand a problem but how authors can help to construct China as a perfect civilisation. This sets enormous limitations on how to discuss practical problems and solutions when they have to be framed in terms that are unreflexive and focus on perfecting something which may need rethinking. One obvious way to broaden the debate on ethnic minority policies in Xinjiang and to enable it to respond more effectively to the implications of policy on the ground would be to include hitherto unheard Uyghur perspectives on the subject. However, there is so much worrying about ethnicity in China that Uyghur scholars who attempt to contribute to these debates can be be treated as a national security threat.

This article was originally published for the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

China's Insecurity Problem: What's Islam Got to Do With It?

Following the 1995 Oklahoma bombing Edward Said was invited for interview by the US media. As an expert on the Middle East, the media assumed he would have insight into how this “terrorist” incident bore the hallmark of “Muslim extremists”. The perpetrator later turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, a former Gulf War veteran who sought to avenge the actions of the US federal government at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The assumption was this was an attack so barbarous it could only be attributed to “Muslims” and not to the complex range of social and individual factors which lead people to kill themselves to draw attention to their unheard or less heard political claims.

The incident at Tiananmen Square on the 28th October 2013 saw a Jeep driven into a pedestrian area before 3 passengers set the car alight killing themselves and 2 innocent tourists as well as injuring 38 pedestrians. The incident appears to be a relatively crude attack with no complex co-ordination or sophisticated weaponry (they carried knives, machetes, and petrol). The World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur scholar under house arrest Ilham Tohti have called for calm until we have real information to work with and so that this incident is not used to increase repression in Xinjiang. The central government has thus far released very little information except to say this was a “carefully planned, organised, and premeditated attack” which included carrying flags with “extreme religious content.  What this actually means is unclear at best. The fact that the passengers were a man, his wife, and mother suggests there is a lot more to this story and international terrorism does not appear to fit the facts. International media has a remarkably hard job on its hands making sense of it all because the security apparatus was so quick to conceal the entire incident with large police screens. This means it may be impossible to verify any narrative the party-state decides to tell. Experts on Xinjiang have long considered these official accounts to be problematic at best and deliberately misleading at worst. International journalists, such as AFP, have had their photographs seized, domestic media have been given instructions to follow the official line in framing the issue as “terrorism”,  and posts on the subject have disappearing from Weibo, China’s largest social media network, as quickly as they are posted.

A police notice issued to hotels instructed them to watch out for "suspicious people" and Xinjiang registration plates. It named two suspects with Uyghur names from the Piqan (shanshan) and Guma (pishan) counties. The statement was printed online with some media outlets simply adding in the presumption that they are Muslims. Zachary Keck of the Diplomat went further with the irresponsible article ‘Al-Qaeda in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region?’ which offered no consideration of perspectives from Xinjiang. The USA Daily ran with the headline “Muslim family led Tiananmen suicide attack. No one knows the religion of the perpetrators or if it bears any relevance to their actions. Nevertheless, it appears racial profiling has already begun in Xinjiang with warnings to residents of Shanshan county to be on guard for anyone “suspicious with a big beard or burka. Identifying the men simply as Muslims obscures a huge ream of complex social factors and controversial policies in Xinjiang which have ethnicised social tensions and sparked small-scale incidents of violence in the region. In recent years, such policies have included discrimination in employment, the eradication of Uyghur language as a medium of instruction, the persecution of writers as“separatists”, the confiscation of Uyghurs’ passports, the demolition of old Kashgar, as well as growing restrictions on fasting for Ramadan and wearing Islamic clothing.

If it is true that a group of Uyghurs were responsible for the car attack then we will need to consider how the party-state’s approach to security works in the region. The LA Times suggests this attack at the heart of Chinese power “has raised doubts about the effectiveness of its security apparatus”. Experts on Xinjiang have raised doubts about this for a long time. However, the weakness lies not with the number of troops posted in Xinjiang or Tiananmen or with the number of armoured vehicles patrolling Uyghur neighbourhoods. The weakness lies with thinking that long-term security comes down the barrel of a gun. The party chief for Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, unveiled a plan last year to have armed police every 100 metres in urban Xinjiang. This does not suggest that the party-state is in control but that it is very insecure and has to use violence to maintain the position of Uyghurs as an ethnic minority in China. These methods which are supposed to improve security (ie restrictions on religion, monolingual language policies, and arresting authors of fiction) make Uyghurs feel their identities and their individual well-being are threatened. If we want to take security seriously, then a more pertinent question is how to make Uyghurs feel more secure and to give them channels to express their insecurity so that they do not feel the need to turn to violence. The policies above and the incidents they sparked suggest that the more the Chinese government focuses on “security”, meaning surveillance of Uyghurs, the more insecure Uyghurs feel, and the higher likelihood of further violence. The best way to address this security issue would be to listen to those who feel most insecure in Xinjiang and deal with their concerns. These voices can offer perspectives on the issue beyond relying on lazy essentialisations of Islam to frame an as yet entirely unexplained act of violence. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Identity and Empathy in the Logics of "Terror"

When Islamophobia explodes across England because an individual who happens to be a Muslim commits an act of violence, it suggests our Kingdom is not as United as our politicians like to think. In the wake of the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, we would do well to take a step back and turn a critical lens on our media before we feel the need to lock ourselves in our homes for fear of the terrorists in our midst.

“In the life of a nation, we’re called up to define who we are and what we believe”1.

George Bush uttered these famous words in defence of the US decision to send military forces to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf crisis. Bush, like most politicians, was linking identity to national security by saying identity is something we must define, enclose within national boundaries, and send troops abroad to kill and die in the name of its assumed unity. In these types of state-centric narratives of identity, we do not and must not identify with the suffering of those outside our national borders. There is the nation and there is outside the nation. “The boundaries of a state’s identity are secured by the representation of danger”2.  It is through danger which we define who we are because danger is intrinsically Other and outside ourselves. It is a representation of what we do not want to be and what we do not want to happen to us.

“Danger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat”3. Acts of violence are represented in different ways which tell us a lot about how we define ourselves. When the English Defence League assaulted police in Woolwich last night, this was represented by the mainstream media as a “protest” and the damaging of mosques were “attacks”. These are dangers but of a lesser and local order. There is no link to national security in the way the incidents are reported and discussed. On the other hand, a British soldier being murdered by a Muslim has been immediately labelled “terrorism”, a supposed threat to the very existence of our nation.

So who is under threat? For David Cameron, this was “an attack on Britain – and on the British way of life and that “people in every community will utterly condemn this attack”. Why is this incident an attack on the “British” way of life? Why are racially motivated murders not elevated to this level of threat? Why are the lives lost to violence in working class council estates all across the UK not seen as a “threat” to our nation? These are stories of threats to people’s lives which occasionally make the news but are never seen as matters of national security. These lives are not deemed as valuable as those of British soldiers because they are not seen to embody the nation and so they are represented as local problems of an altogether less threatening nature. This is simply not the type of nation many British people want to live in and it only reinforces existing divisions over class and race to simply pretend they do not exist.

The way the Woolwich violence is represented frames our identity in a way which obscures competing perspectives on the violence and on who we are. It demands we see this attack as a threat to ourselves in a way which racial assaults and violence against young working class men are not. It demands we empathise with the victim and that we must not empathise in any way with the perpetrator. Otherwise, we are excluded from this conceptualisation of “community” which is “sickened” and intellectually paralysed with feelings of condemnation. So we are told we must feel a certain way about this because we are British. When David Cameron says “this attack sickened us all” he may be right but it sickens people in very different ways and for very different reasons. Can we not be sickened by the attack, the nationalist response, and the militaristic UK foreign policy all at the same time? Yesterday, one BBC interviewer even asked “what is that is so annoying about having British troops on their soil?”. To frame British troops invading other countries as an annoyance yet one murder in Britain as a threat to our nation exemplifies an utter dearth of empathy in Britain’s historical and current role in initiating and fomenting violent conflict, simply because it has hurt one of our own.

Condemning comes very easily but trying to understand why this happens takes effort, even empathising with people who you may find disagreeable. Some media coverage has worked to deny British people the right to make up their own minds. The video of one of the attacker’s speech was edited to deny our right to empathise by cutting out the parts where he attempts to empathise. Here is a slightly extended version where he says:

“Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. Do you think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start bussing our guns? Are your politicians going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy like you”.

You may hate the messenger but it is working class persons who are sent to wage the wars which this man himself highlighted as his reasoning behind the attack. Perhaps not going to wars in the name of national identity might make the people we choose to kill in its name feel more secure. If they felt more secure, they may be less likely to want to wage what they see as very similar wars to what happens when British troops leave our shores in the name of “freedom”.

1. Bush, George (1990) “In Defense of Saudi Arabia” in Sifry, M and Cerf, C (eds) The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions.
2. Campbell, David (1998) Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity.
3. Campbell, David (1998).