Xinjiang in Historical Perspective: Contextualizing Han-Uygur Relations

Contextualizing Han-Uygur Relations

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Thursday, December 10, 2020
5:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Live via Zoom

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In recent years, coverage of the Xinjiang region in China has become increasingly prevalent in the international press. From the impact of the Belt & Road Initiative on the region to the establishment of "re-education" camps, reverberations from China's Xinjiang policies are increasingly felt in US-China Relations and even the controversy surrounding Disney's Mulan. Bringing together leading historians of Qing China and journalists, this panel will attempt to delve beyond the headlines to provide a more nuanced and historicized account of the past, present, and future of Han-Uygur relations in the Xinjiang region. 

History of the Crisis in the Uyghur Autonomous Region: Trends in Development and Assimilation

Since taking over Xinjiang from the KMT and East Turkestan Republic in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to ameliorate the colonial character of its rule in the Uyghur region through both economic and ethnic policies.  While always promoting Han settler colonialism (towards which most investment went, especially through the Bingtuan / XPCC), the PRC initially accompanied this with a top-down pluralist approach to cultural diversity, similar to but differing in significant ways from that of the Soviet Union and which at its high-point in the 1980s alleviated ethnic tensions.  Since 1990, however, the CCP has been retreating steadily from its prior centralized pluralism and ratcheting up cultural and political repression of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Central Asia peoples native to the Xinjiang region, culminating in the current regime of internment, forced labor, destruction of non-Han culture, attacks on non-Han language, and suppression of Uyghur births.  This talk tracks how over 70 years the interwoven policies of development and assimilation in PRC Xinjiang have led to the gulag, brought international opprobrium down on China, and threatened Xinjiang's economy.  

James A. Millward is Professor of History at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, teaching Chinese, Central Asian and World history. He is also an affiliated professor in the Máster Oficial en Estudios de Asia Oriental at the University of Granada, Spain. His specialties include Qing empire; the silk road; Eurasian chordophones and music in history; and especially Xinjiang. He follows and comments on contemporary issues regarding the Uyghurs and PRC ethnicity policy. Millward has served on the boards of the Association for Asian Studies (China and Inner Asia Council) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society, and was president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society in 2010. His publications include The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (2013), Eurasian Crossroads: a history of Xinjiang (2007), New Qing Imperial History: the Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde (2004), and Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity and Empire in Qing Central Asia (1998). He most recent album, recorded with the band By & By, is Songs for this Old Heart. His articles and op-eds on contemporary China appear in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Review of Books and other media.

“Our Chinese Ways: A Deep History of Assimilation in the Uyghur Homeland”

Over a century ago, a group of activists from Hunan, China, gained control of the Uyghur homeland and undertook a project to transform the Turkic-speaking Muslims of this region into Chinese-speaking Confucians. However, instead of "making the Muslims Chinese," they mainly succeeded in alienating them from Beijing. This talk takes a look at the social consequences of that assimilatory project, and what it can tell us about the relationship between China-based states, the Uyghur people, and the effort to define what it means to "be Chinese."

Eric Schluessel is Assistant Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University. He is the author of Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia (Columbia, 2020) and other works on the social and cultural history of the Uyghur homeland and China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He received a PhD in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University.

“Engineers of the Soul: The Past, Present and Future of the Xinjiang Surveillance State”

China's Communist Party began transforming Xinjiang into the world's first true digital surveillance state in 2016, but the roots of the effort reach back more than six decades to the McCarthy-era United States, when a brilliant missile scientist fled home to China after being hounded by the FBI. The scientist, Qian Xuesen, went on to build China's missile and space programs. He also developed a system of social engineering that the Party has woven into its strategy of control, particularly in Xinjiang. This talk will examine Qian's story, how his ideas animate the Party's campaign to track and transform Xinjiang's Uyghur population, and the different directions that campaign might take in the coming years.

Josh Chin is an award-winning journalist who has spent a total of 15 years covering China for The Wall Street Journal and other publications. He is currently the Journal's deputy China bureau chief, responsible for guiding the newspaper's coverage of Chinese politics and general news. He is writing a book with his colleague Liza Lin on the Chinese government's pioneering embrace of digital surveillance, due out in 2021.

Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies, Asia Pacific Center