- The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land by Gardner Bovingdon
Gardner Bovingdon has written an invaluable, eminently readable, and meticulously researched book exploring the perceived sentiments and rightful place of the Uyghurs both in the contemporary People’s Republic of China (PRC) and among global nationalist and Islamist movements in the twenty-first century. At the core of The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land lie local and global perceptions and representations of the Uyghurs, the Chinese state, and its majority Han population, and their mutual contention. Throughout, Bovingdon contextualizes this contention while interrogating the very context that situates the Uyghur movement in Xinjiang Province, which he deems essentially local and nationalist, in an international context linked—especially post-9/11—with perceptions of a global Islamist threat. Published a year after the many acts of private resistance analyzed in the book were overshadowed by 2009’s violent disturbances in Ürümci, which he effectively addresses in an epilogue, and a year before a wave of self-immolation protests across the eastern Tibetan plateau began in 2011, this research offers unique insight into the plight and manipulation of ethnic struggles for autonomy in the PRC and beyond. This would be an excellent addition not only to China-related courses, but also to those concerned with ethno-national minorities or comparative Islam across several fields, from anthropology to history to politics. [End Page 1024] Scholars who research Islam or ethno-national minorities and the evolution in the policies of multinational states to envelop such groups within their “nations” will find the work quite valuable.
When the region broadly encircling the Taklamakan Desert, transected by the overland Silk Road and variously referred to as Chinese Turkestan or East Turkestan, was brought within the dominion of the Qing Empire during the eighteenth century, its predominately Turkic-speaking inhabitants became first subjects of the Qing emperor and later members of the “great family of the Chinese nation” (p. 3). Adherents of Islam, the Uyghurs today are one of fifty-six officially recognized nationalities (minzu) in the PRC, and the most numerous of thirteen nationalities inhabiting Xinjiang Province in the country’s northwest, bordering on such predominantly Muslim states as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Just who the Uyghurs are and why they as a group have resisted incorporation into the emergent “family” of the Chinese nation-state, how and why ethno-nationalist groups contest a state’s nation-building efforts, are the central foci of this work. Why since the 1950s has the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric that a harmonious and united nation emerged from the heterogeneity of the Qing Empire failed to erase ethno-nationalist difference and discord?
To explore these questions, Bovingdon employs representational politics, which provides fruitful theorization of the often competing narratives reflected in the competition for identity and power between the Chinese state and local Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Representational politics, he argues, is used by all sides—Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Uyghur diaspora, and the Chinese state—to construct, reinforce, and counteract identities. Who represents the Uyghurs has become especially contentious in recent decades with leaders of the global Uyghur diaspora not always able to advance global policies that respond to the particular local challenges faced by their brethren in Xinjiang. At the same time, high positions in both the provincial government and party apparatus are most often held by Han officials from outside Xinjiang, officials similarly divorced from local knowledge who nonetheless have the power to define the narratives of local Uyghurs present and past, and to label people and groups as either loyal and harmonious citizens or as terrorists. Such narratives define the perception and implementation of policies in the province while simultaneously infusing the two groups’ mutually contentious representations of events to an external audience. This multilayered study considers the resonance of these narratives in the global community, seeking to directly challenge persistent assertions by the PRC that local Uyghur grievances are inextricably intertwined with—if not solely instigated by—global Islamic [End Page 1025] terrorists intent on undermining the harmony of...