China once celebrated its diversity. How has it come to embrace ethnic nationalism?

During my first year living in Ürümchi, the capital of Xinjiang, I met Aynür (not her real name). It was 2007, and she described life in China as difficult but improving for Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking predominantly Muslim people. Aynür spoke both Uighur and Mandarin, and was proud of being “in-between cultures”. She described herself as a bridge between the Han majority, who make up about 90% of China’s population and the Uighurs, Xinjiang’s ethnic majority.

Aynür invited me to her home and we watched China’s national day celebrations – parades of tanks, warheads, and motorcades – on TV . Aynür could not understand my lack of amusement; the spectacle made her proud of China’s rapid development and hopeful that Xinjiang’s problems could be resolved. Over the years, as new policies affected her work, her home and her family life, her outlook changed. The hints had been there when we first met: she worried aloud about future generations’ ability to speak the Uighur language and their right to practise their religion. When Aynür asked to see pictures of my “homeland”, she was stunned by the sight of Scottish flags adorning Edinburgh castle. She was amazed that “minority people” within larger nations could express their own identity. “If we were allowed to do this, most of our problems would be gone.”

Aynür’s life tells the story of how a country that once celebrated its cultural diversity and anticolonialism came to embrace ethnic nationalism. China’s party-state openly criticises Europe’s history of colonialism and genocide, so why is it imitating its darkest moments with violent assimilation policies of Xinjiang’s Uighurs?

Successive imperial dynasties labelled peoples of the “western regions” as “barbarians”, naming the region Xinjiang (“new frontier”) in 1884. Mao Zedong claimed communism would eradicate “Han chauvinism” but also that China must “modernise” ethnic minorities to win his “geopolitical chess game” with the west and Russia. The party-state’s “fusion” policy, including “re-education” camps, intensifies long-term trends of viewing Xinjiang’s peoples as obstacles to China’s greatness. Today, these narratives are taught to Xinjiang’s political cadres and university students in compulsory “ethnic unity education” textbooks, describing an ancient Han “settler culture” guiding “backward” minorities to development. Uighur friends would explain to me how Han people think they are all “backward barbarians” who “ride camels to work”.

Before “fusion”, anti-separatism laws already targeted thinking that challenged the official identity narratives. These laws were used to imprison Nurmehemmet Yasin in 2005 for writing children’s stories about unhappy pigeons (a political analogy) and economics professor Ilham Tohti in 2014 for suggesting ethnic discrimination hinders economic development. The party-state’s desire for rapid economic growth makes Xinjiang’s natural resources attractive, but histories of framing Xinjiang as a “frontier”, and Uighurs as “backward”, explain why any discontent can be framed as a security threat.

Xi Jinping has celebrated majority Han culture as the timeless “soul of the nation”, gradually shifting ethnic policy from formal inclusion of 56 ethnic groups to cultural nationalism. Influential political economist Hu Angang called fusion a means of making China a strong and prosperous state again, while anthropologist Ma Rong considers “teaching barbarians” a revival of imperial tradition. These arguments emerged following mass violence in 2009, sparked by the murder of Uighur labourers by Han colleagues in a Guangdong factory accused of using coerced labour.

Uighurs, Han, and security services were all victims and perpetrators in the inter-ethnic violence that chaotically spread across the city. The party-state simply described it as a turning point in the “life or death struggle” for China’s “great revival” against separatism, extremism and terrorism.

Like most Uighur friends, Aynür hated talking politics but it always entered conversation. Aynür’s daily experiences of discrimination and ethnic targeting gradually shattered her confidence that “complicated” ethnic relations would improve. She sent her only child to “bilingual education” school to advance his job prospects and embrace integration, but became disillusioned as he gradually lost his mother tongue in an education system that was monolingual in practice.

Aynür had stayed with family to avoid the violence in 2009 but subsequently lost her job, she told me, because the police refused to sign compulsory forms confirming her whereabouts. She watched Han colleagues’ forms signed without any questions, describing herself as “guilty until proven innocent”. On her bus journey home, Aynür watched Han passengers freely board while Uighurs were aggressively searched by untrained Han “volunteers”. “[It is] as if I am a terrorist,” she said, “as if we are all terrorists. It is impossible for us Uighurs.”

“Han culture,” she explained, “understands the world in terms of opposites – hard/soft, high/low, yin/yang. There is no in between and no neutral.”

Uighur friends have described Xinjiang as an “open-air prison” for years. They were horrified, not surprised, by new policies consistent with lifelong experiences of ethnic targeting, being routinised in hi-tech surveillance under the Golden Shield project. Official dehumanisation of minority groups has a prolonged history in Xinjiang, and proponents of decolonisation and Black Lives Matter must engage with lives outside western democracies. Having friends who go abroad – a category that I fit within – is a sign of “extremism”, a criterion for determining who is targeted for detention. Now I may never know what happened to Aynür, but she taught me how to stay human in dehumanising times.

David Tobin is Hallsworth research fellow in the political economy of China at the University of Manchester and author of Securing China’s Northwest Frontier: Identity and Insecurity in Xinjiang.

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