The Xinjiang Conflict, Western Response, & Lessons for Academics and Policy Makers – Part I

In a private English lesson in a classroom in Urumqi, a young Han Chinese girl and I were discussing American TV. A lull in the conversation led to a pause, and she hesitated. A furtive look came across her face as she checked her surroundings for eavesdroppers. “You know…I hate Uighur people”, she said.<


During my time living and traveling in Xinjiang, I learned just how deep ethnic prejudice and mistrust runs. Han Chinese will not eat in Uighur restaurants for fear of being poisoned. Despite the ubiquitous qingzhen (halal) signs, Uighurs will not eat in Han restaurants for fear of unclean ingredients (maliciously added or otherwise). Ethnic tension, culminating in the devastating 2009 Urumqi riots, has left deep psychological scars on the city’s residents. One woman present for the violence privately confided in me: when she sees someone running in the opposite direction down the street, her immediate reaction is, “Is it happening again? Should I be running, too?” With violence on the rise around the region, I’d be lying if I said the same thought had never crossed my mind.

The Conflict and Its Causes

But there is a worrying trend in the government’s attitude to this violence. The use of words and phrases like ‘terrorist’ and ‘Islamist’ by Chinese officials and state media in response to Xinjiang-related violence has undoubtedly achieved China’s goal of rallying international support. The problem with these labels is they apply attributes to the Han-Uighur conflict that are at best incorrect and at worst actively fueling violence. 

Although Islam is an important aspect of Uighur life, resistance to Chinese rule has largely been articulated in social and cultural terms; that is to say, religion is part of the cultural identity that Uighurs want the freedom to express, not the rationale for the violence some have committed. By labeling the attackers organized jihadists, the PRC is drawing a connection between Uighur frustration and organized transnational jihad that never existed in a meaningful way. 

Indeed, the simple, homemade-style technology used in many of these attacks (knives, ammonium nitrate explosives, use of vehicles as weapons) indicates that transnational jihadist groups are unlikely to be involved in the material planning process.  China is preparing for a conflict with an organized extremist threat, and unless something is done, it appears that a coherent enemy is exactly what China will get.

The idea that China is using rhetoric to take advantage of changing global terror norms is not novel within the academic community. Michael Clarke, a prolific writer on ethnic politics and Xinjiang, observes a “rational calculus” in China’s immediate declaration of support for the War on Terror in the days after September 11th. He emphasizes the PRC’s instrumentalization of law and international norms, particularly norms that have evolved in response to the War on Terror. Specifically, he points to the widespread criminalization of terror offenses within Western domestic civil frameworks as the impetus for China’s expansion of ‘holistic’ civil and criminal weapons targeting religion and culture through discriminatory hiring practices, restrictions on freedom of worship, and linguistic chauvinism (Clarke 2010 “Widening the Net: China’s Anti-Terror Laws and Human Rights in the XUAR”).

Compulsory state-sponsored Han migration has intentionally ‘diluted’ Xinjiang, and the PRC’s often-referenced minority economic development programs come at the cost of linguistic, religious, and cultural autonomy. Uighurs increasingly feel marginalized in a land they view as ancestrally theirs, barred from education and employment opportunities unless they shave their beards and renounce their religion. Han, on the other hand, are resentful of preferential minority policies — reduced university entrance requirements and exclusion from the One Child Policy are two of the most often cited examples. Further non-academic research on the role of ‘holistic’ or ‘comprehensive’ exclusion of Uighurs in economic areas can be found here.

The situation has escalated in recent years from small-scale violence in towns and villages to attacks in major cities across China, bombings during high-level official visits, and murder of Party officials. The spate of high profile violence coincides with an escalation in the official Chinese response, which includes increased sociopolitical repression, discrimination, and police brutality while expanding the level of inflammatory “us verse them” rhetoric that has become so common in the War on Terror. Matthew Moneyhon’s doctoral dissertation “Controlling Xinjiang” (2003) and Michael Clarke’s “China’s Internal Security Dilemma and the ‘Great Western Development’” (2008) are both impressive and comprehensive studies of this response. A very interesting and less academic Foreign Policy study of Han Party cadres at the grassroots level in Xinjiang can be found here.

The Xinjiang conflict – and the West’s response – offers a chance to explore salient issues in contemporary foreign affairs. Of primary concern is paradigmatic drift, or the gap in operational paradigms between the policy-security establishment and the academic community.

I use the term ‘policy-security establishment’ to refer to those whose thought processes rely on traditional patterns of categorization: enemy combatants are ‘insurgents’, friendly governments (to use COIN terminology) are ‘host-nation forces’, and the complex localized web of shifting influence, institutional power and competition, personal relationships, historical identity and cultural narrative that form government and society are ‘democratic institutions’. The tendency of Western governments to fit these internally-developed semantic categories over local conditions is pervasive. Often, it is articulated by people without a solid understanding of local language, culture, history, or the broader sociopolitical landscape in which they will be operating.

It is not just policymakers who have strayed. Many subaltern theorists – in working toward an academic lens that is more receptive and empathetic to the global masses – elevate the discussion of localized epistemological and cognitive difference to a level so abstract that it no longer represents the realities faced by marginalized groups. A more detailed dissection of this academic debate may be found in Matthew Nelson’s response to Partha Chatterjee’s concepts of ‘political society’ and localized informal democracy in India.

Subalternity in its lowest-common-denominator incarnation has practical promise when viewed – alongside trends like the ‘linguistic turn’, pragmatism, social constructivism, and Finnemore’s reading of institutionalist sociology in IR theory – as the logical next-step in the evolution of Western rational-legal epistemology (Finnemore 1996 National Interests in International Societyp. 19; Haas and Haas 2009 in Pragmatism in International Relations). It encompasses the idea that relations with the developing world are not inherently normative, that local knowledge (including social organization, language, perceptions of historical continuity and identity) is not only a valid alternative to the Western system but constitutes an essential variable in state-interest calculations for a given region. Importantly, subaltern studies also questions whether the way we think, the way we organize and categorize the world, is universally appropriate. This latter point forms the crux of my critique of contemporary Western analysis of the Xinjiang conflict. Failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere demonstrate the need for greater attention to thinking about the way we think, and for greater cooperation between policymakers and academics.


Next week, in the second part of this blog piece, I discuss a recent article in Foreign Policy by Stephen Walt that reacts to the escalation of violence in Xinjiang, providing an example of the potential harmfulness that may result from the policy-academia conceptual gap. The lowest-common-denominator concept has potential to adjust this course of neoliberal Western foreign policy- a course that has led Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan into such intractable conflict.

2 thoughts on “The Xinjiang Conflict, Western Response, & Lessons for Academics and Policy Makers – Part I”

  1. So do Uyghurs generally see Hui and Han as the same? I ask because Hui, not just any Han, would be the ones running those qingzhen restaurants…

    1. The issue with the ‘qingzhen’ designation, at least from my observations, is more about misunderstanding than willful violation of Islamic dietary rules. Without stringent regulations, Han Chinese who open restaurants will display the ‘qingzhen’ characters (which, before being appropriated to describe halal practices, meant only ‘clean, pure’) to advertise cleanliness without any real conception that at other restaurants this designation indicates strict adherance to religious law. As for the Uyghur view of Han and Hui, I think it is impossible to generalize. The Hui are not perceived as part of the waves of Han migration to Xinjiang, and indeed have a long and distinct history of fighting Chinese rule in Gansu, Xinjiang, and Qinghai, but in appearance and status they are generally indistinguishable from Han. As such, it is difficult to speculate how these conflicting narratives may be viewed by Uyghurs.

Comments are closed.