Author Interview: Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity, by Tim Grose (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology)

Editor’s note:  In this, our third installment of the books shortlisted for the CESS annual prizes in social sciences and humanities, Mirshad Ghalip (Indiana University) interviews Tim Grose (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology) about his book Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity, published in 2019 by Hong Kong University Press:

“This is the first book-length study of graduates from the Xinjiang Class, a program that funds senior high school–aged students from Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uyghur, to attend a four-year course in predominately Han-populated cities in eastern and coastal China. Based on longitudinal field research, Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity offers a detailed picture of the multilayered identities of contemporary Uyghur youth and an assessment of the effectiveness of this program in meeting its political goals. The experiences of Xinjiang Class graduates reveal how young, educated Uyghurs strategically and selectively embrace elements of the corporate Chinese Zhonghua minzu identity in order to stretch the boundaries of a non state-defined Uyghur identity. Timothy Grose also argues that the impositions of Chinese Mandarin and secular Chinese Communist Party (CCP) values over ethnic minority languages and religion, and physically displacing young Uyghurs from their neighborhood and cultural environment do not lead to ethnic assimilation, as the CCP apparently expects. Despite pressure from state authorities to urge Xinjiang Class graduates to return after their formal education, the majority of the graduates choose to remain in inner China or to use their Xinjiang Class education as a springboard to seek global citizenship based upon membership in a transnational Islamic community. For those who return to Xinjiang, contrary to the political goal of the program, few intend to serve the CCP, their country, or even their hometown. Instead, their homecomings are marred by disappointment, frustration, and discontent” (from the publisher’s website).


How did you become interested in the Xinjiang Class? Why are these students important in the larger context of understanding the Uyghurs in China?

As is the case with many dissertation projects, which in this case was turned into the book, my research about the Xinjiang Class was a stroke of chance, or maybe luck. My original project sought to examine the development of bilingual education in rural Turpan. However, my host institution at the time, the Minzu University of China, as well as authorities in Xinjiang were making it increasingly difficult for me to stay in this town for extended periods. During a stint in Beijing—I traveled back and forth between the capital and Uyghur areas—I met a talented young woman whose command of Uyghur, Chinese, and English still amaze me to this day. When I remarked about her linguistic skills, she shrugged it off and said: “There are many [Uyghurs] like me. We went to high school in inner China (neidi).” She continued to explain the program, how many students were in her cohort, etc. The rest of the project snowballed from this chance encounter.

When I began my dissertation research, several books were either recently published or in the pipelines about “the Uyghurs.” Of course, these works inspired me as a graduate student and continue to inspire/inform my work today, but I felt as though the scope of these projects were very broad.  All along, I wanted to look more closely at a specific segment of the very diverse population of Uyghurs. Because travel within Xinjiang made it difficult to focus on village life, the Xinjiang Class, I felt, was an appropriate compromise: my work never intended to  speak about or for “the Uyghurs.”

Therefore, I consciously avoid generalizing the experiences of Uyghur Xinjiang Class graduates, and I hesitate to suggest they are somehow representative of young Uyghurs in the twenty-first century. My interlocutors’ understandings of Uyghurness, or Chineseness were informed by specific historical and political currents. If anything, I think the findings of my research demonstrate the unpredictability and “messiness” of identity construction.

The first chapter of the book talks about incubating loyalty or resistance in Chinese boarding schools. Why do the results of the boarding school system vary so much?

Truth be told, I don’t believe these boarding schools are meeting the political objectives set forth by the Chinese Communist Party—educating and molding Uyghur persons devoid of an ethno-national consciousness and religious sensibilities. In other words, and despite some variation on a very individual level, Uyghur graduates of the Xinjiang Class were not internalizing state-defined and mediated ideas of Uyghurness or Chineseness. In fact, I argue that the environments established by these boarding schools—Chinese mono-lingual language policies, strict restrictions on religious practice, limitations on contact with parents, etc.,–activated and strengthened a Uyghur ethno-national identity instead of a minzu (Chinese for ethnic group) identity. Put slightly differently, the boarding schools may have engendered a type of Uyghur ethno-nationalism that the CCP is attempting to contain and eliminate.

Beijing’s Madian Mosque, which was popular among several Xinjiang Class graduates.  (photo credit author)

What makes Uyghur students from the Xinjiang class  practice identity maintenance and interpret Islam in a way that is transnational yet also “mono-minzu”?

What I meant by this line is the tendency for young Uyghurs who began cultivating religious piety to look to sources of Islamic knowledge from international students who professed Islam, Islamic websites, especially from Turkey, even embassies of Muslim-majority countries, and reading books authored by foreign Muslims. Therefore, Uyghurs were looking towards and attempting to make connections (tangible and imagined) with the umma who lived beyond the borders of the Peoples Republic of China. Yet their enthusiasm to learn about Islam from outside Uyghur communities stopped at Hui people. Xinjiang Class graduates, similar to some non-Xinjiang Class Uyghur friends and contacts I have, were skeptical of the sincerity of Hui (another minzu in China) piety.

Why was the CCP so adamant about the return of Xinjiang Class to Xinjiang? What kind of expectation does the CCP have for the Xinjiang Class?

At one time, the CCP believed that Xinjiang Class graduates would serve as a stabilizing element to Uyghur society. They were supposed to be equipped with  the necessary deportment and skills of an upstanding Chinese citizens: patriotism, secularism, mastery of Chinese language, etc. The strategy was to use these individuals to fill low level vacancies in many public sectors, especially education, health care, and agricultural technology. Officials were extremely hopeful that Xinjiang Class graduates would return to rural communities and serve as teachers, which would help the Party carry-out its “bi-lingual” (mostly Chinese language) education program. The Party even offered Xinjiang Class graduates free college tuition if they agreed to serve as teachers for ten years. Perhaps as a surprise to the CCP, however, many Xinjiang Class graduates aspired to different paths, many which led to places other than Xinjiang. Certainly, few wanted to become teachers. Still, in the eyes of Party officials Xinjiang Class graduates had and still have two main responsibility: fill critical needs job while embodying/spreading Party values.

“Education Guidelines of the Party and Country,” Elementary School, Kashgar, 2013.  (photo credit author)

In the context of current reality, what kind of changes do you anticipate would happen to the Xinjiang Class? Would their resistance also be met with a brutal crackdown?

It’s hard to predict. I imagine that authorities will emphasize, even more so than in the recent past, the political ideology courses and ethnic unity activities. After the 2009 Urumchi demonstrations and ensuing violence, CCP officials doubled-down on the political content of the Xinjiang Class curriculum. When Xinjiang Class students return home for summer recess, they are required to attend regular “study sessions” held locally—sometimes jointly with college students who’ve returned home. To my surprise, we haven’t witnessed an increase in annual enrollment. In fact, I believe the number is still capped at just below 10,000 persons/year. However, and strangely, I haven’t found enrollment figures for 2019 and 2020—I just checked in October 2020, the websites had been deactivated.

I can’t imagine Xinjiang Class students—ages 15-18—would resist in a way that threatens the school or cities hosting these schools. Of course, and as do teenagers across the globe, Xinjiang Class students break rules and defy authority figures. Consistent insubordination and severe infractions are dealt with by expulsion.

I do know with certainty, however, that Xinjiang Class graduates have not been immune from the recent state violence. My conclusion speaks of one close contact who was detained in 2017 and his whereabouts and well-being remain unknown. This startling reality says to me that the CCP realizes its own shortcomings in trying to engineer “loyal” and patriotic Chinese citizens out of young Uyghurs.

Statue of Uyghur playing the dap stands above the rubble created by “modernization” projects in Urumchi, 2013. (photo credit author)

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