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Why Uyghurs? Religious Revival, Ethnic Violence and State Response in Xinjiang

Lecture by Yan Sun, City University of New York

Monday, November 7, 2022
5:00 PM - 6:00 PM

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Since mid-2017, reports of massive “re-education” camps in Xinjiang have drawn global attention to China’s “war on Muslim Uyghurs.” Why has this group been targeted? Latest studies point to “imaginary terrorism,” “securitization of Uyghur identity” and “settler colonialism” as the underlying causes. My own study finds a different state-centric dynamic: the party-state’s policy of alternatively promoting and restraining religious revival has played a crucial role in contributing to the current state of Uyghurs’ plight. In the early post-Mao era, the state sponsored religious revival in Xinjiang (and Tibet) as a mechanism of political integration, to repair damaged relations with key minority communities. This ethnic accommodation, however, encouraged ethnic identity expression and sectarian developments to evolve progressively in directions unintended and undesired by the state. The demise of socialist safety nets and weakened state capacity in the countryside further aggravated the problem. Religious growth then has had to be curbed in increasingly constraining ways, leading to frustrated identity, ethnic mobilization, political resistance, ethnic violence, and ultimately the state’s draconian curtailment in the form of “re-education” camps and intense security measures. My discussion will trace the cycles of these developments and end with a brief contrast of the Uyghur and Tibetan cases. 

Yan Sun is a Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, Queens College and the Graduate Center. She is the author of From Empire to Nation State: Ethnic Politics in China (Cambridge 2020), Corruption and Market in Contemporary China (Cornell 2004) and The Chinese Reassessment of Socialism (Princeton 1995). She has also published articles on these topics, including comparative studies of China and Russia, and China and India. A native of Sichuan, her interest in China’s ethnic politics stems from childhood memories of banished relatives in Uyghur and Tibetan regions.