Book Review: Uyghurs Under Siege


By Henryk Szadziewski
24 September 2010

The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. By Gardner Bovingdon. 286 pp, Columbia University Press, available from Amazon,US$44.44

New books about the Uyghur people from China’s northwest region of Xinjiang are hard to come by. Books that accurately and objectively document the Uyghur political landscape in the face of rapid change are even harder. Gardner Bovingdon’s book is therefore a welcome addition to the literature on a complex, but increasingly important subject.

The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land not only provides a newcomer to the subject with a description of the competing representations of the region’s contentious politics, but it also offers those interested in issues of ethnic marginalization a window into the dynamics of government policy and varying forms of organized and everyday resistance.

The publication of this book is timely. Unrest in the regional capital of Urumqi in July 2009 created a wider consciousness of the Uyghur issue. Uyghurs have chafed under Chinese Communist Party rule ever since the People’s Liberation Army entered the region in 1949 – an action that ended the short-lived East Turkestan Republic centered in Ghulja. Major areas of contention between the Uyghur and the Chinese Communist government have been increasing economic marginalization, lack of political representation, restrictions on religion and cultural practices, as well as accelerated Han Chinese migration into the area.

Conversely, the Chinese government has emphasized the social and material benefits of Chinese Communist Party administration, and the huge injections of financial capital that have been invested in the region since 2000. Xinjiang is central to China’s future, and growing, energy needs as the land it sits on has reserves of oil and gas, and acts as a conduit for natural resources from Central Asia. As a result, Beijing is sensitive about criticism of its policies toward the region, and keeps a tight lid on information.

Bovingdon knows his subject inside out and is an experienced guide to Xinjiang’s political landscape. Fluent in Uyghur and Mandarin, the author applies a critical eye to academic, activist and government sources in both languages that unlock competing accounts of the region’s politics. Bovingdon emphasizes the importance of these accounts, asserting that in an authoritarian context they represent the only available sources with which to analyze politics.

He adds that the political narratives employed by the Chinese government, overseas Uyghurs and Uyghurs in Xinjiang are not misrepresentations, but are, as Bovingdon states, “the very stuff of politics in Xinjiang.” The author goes on to explain that “the main actors are consciously engaged in representing their own actions and those of their opponents as they pursue their political aims.”

After carefully navigating the fractious history of the region, Bovingdon discusses one of these narrative forms through the intriguing theme of everyday resistance under repressive regimes. Using his linguistic access to the region, the author illustrates the number of daily public and private ways the Uyghur people defy the Chinese regime. From jokes to songs to stories, Uyghurs invoke the symbols of opposition to Chinese authorities. These varieties of resistance either circulate in trusted private conversations or in allegorical form at public performances.

The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land explains that such resistance is illustrative of the broad scale of Uyghur discontent, and that the scale of that discontent offers an insight into the spontaneous participation of large numbers of Uyghurs in public demonstrations. This observation has clearly been a preoccupation with Chinese officials who have portrayed Uyghur unrest as the work of a small number of separatists, or terrorists, with the guile to misguide others to join their activities.

While Bovingdon points out that repressive government policies employed to silence Uyghur political contention have exacerbated tensions, the number of protest incidents in Xinjiang has fallen sharply since 1998. This is a trend contrary to the number of incidents recorded in China as a whole, and diverges from Chinese government rhetoric that has exaggerated security concerns in the region. The appendix of the book offers a very helpful, and meticulously researched, chronological history of protests and violent events in Xinjiang since 1949.

Bovingdon also tackles the representational politics of the Uyghur Diaspora. Once again, Bovingdon knows his history in what has been a complicated evolution in political thought. The book describes the disagreements the diaspora organizations have had over advocacy for independence, armed struggle and the current call for genuine autonomy. It also introduces the main characters involved in this evolution, and the global migration of the diaspora movement from Turkey to Central Asia to the industrialized democracies of North America and Europe. However, in a rare shortcoming, the book is somewhat out-of-date with the very latest developments among the Diaspora organizations such as the call for dialogue, and the growing documentation of human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land has far much more to offer. The work is also bold, especially if one considers the challenges it makes to the Chinese government on its record in the region. Uyghur studies is an academic field filled with external pressures to comply with the representations of the contending stakeholders; however, Bovingdon’s work does well to call it as he sees it. It sets out to describe differing perspectives, and to offer a framework to understand those perspectives.

With the subject of Uyghurs opening to policy-makers, scholars, activists and the general reader, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land adds substantially to the comprehension of the wider implications of contentious politics in Xinjiang, especially as China assumes greater influence worldwide, and as Central Asia becomes a key player in global energy supplies and security.