#AsiaNow Speaks with Tom Cliff

Tom Cliff is an Australian Research Council DECRA Research Fellow at the Australian National University and author of Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang, published by the University of Chicago Press and winner of the 2018 AAS E. Gene Smith Book Prize (Inner Asia).

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Oil and Water is about the experience of being Han in Xinjiang. It is about the experience of being a second-generation colonial settler in the 20th and 21st centuries—in a world that is supposedly post-colonial. It is about being born, living your whole life, and feeling at home in a place that is not “home” to your forebears or “home” to the political and cultural institutions that shape your life. The book, therefore, is also about those political and cultural institutions, and the way that they are shaped by the people who make them up and their location on the quintessential frontier of modern China.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I formed this project from a number of different elements.

First, I have long been fascinated by subjective truth. Is my truth your truth? In other words, what is it like to see the world through somebody else’s eyes? Of course, that is not possible in a literal sense, but I think that pursuing these questions gives one useful insights.

Second, I love Xinjiang. The place, the politics, and the people of Xinjiang are all wonderfully stark. One of my first impressions was a wall of rock, capped with snow, rising sheer for thousands of meters out of the desert haze. The image recalled my childhood reading of King Solomon’s Mines. On that same 1995 trip, minor run-ins with the internal security forces made me so paranoid that when a plump young woman in uniform walked into the post office shortly after me, I spent 15 minutes acting nonchalant before strolling out without conducting any business. The visual and socio-political intensity of Xinjiang made me want to understand the people who lived in that place.

Third, I realized that there was a gaping hole in the scholarly literature about contemporary Xinjiang: Han—as individuals, rather than just subjects populating institutions that represented and replicated the viewpoint of the Central Government—were missing.

So, my question became: “What is it like to be a Han person living in contemporary Xinjiang?”

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Access has always been a major barrier to carrying out research in Xinjiang. I knew that I would have to have an institutional identity if I was to carry out long-term fieldwork and build up the trust of people around me. In Xinjiang, teaching English or being a student at a school or university is the simplest way to get a long-term visa, a place to live, and an institutional identity all at once. At first I was aiming for a bingtuan school or university in Shihezi, but as soon as I saw an advertisement for an English teacher in the “Petroleum Number One Middle School” in Korla, I knew I had found my research base. The bonus was that the oil company is centrally-governed and thus somewhat autonomous of the city and prefectural governments, so the city and prefectural authorities considered me the oil company’s problem. For their part, the oil company was both far less paranoid about foreign spies, and was trying to recruit and retain foreign teaching staff. We reached an implicit understanding that I would let them know if I planned to go outside Korla, and they otherwise gave me completely free rein inside the city.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I found myself in the interesting, and privileged, position of being a mirror of my friends’ and interlocutors’ fears and desires. Everybody knew that I was a scholar who was writing a book about Han in Xinjiang. Because of that, rather than despite that, people would seek me out to tell me all sorts of stuff, and you will find some of that in the book—suitably anonymized, of course.

One outrageous biography that did not make it into the book was that of an extrovert proto-evangelist whose English name was John. He was constantly seeking to be a good Christian, and eventually went to Wenzhou to study to become a pastor, but he was also constantly chasing girls, and he ended up marrying a girl that he got pregnant whilst on a long road trip returning from a Christian study camp. He later confided sadly to me that he didn’t love the girl, but had to do what was right: “God chose her for me.” John insisted that he still loved a girl that he had met whilst working in Shanghai, but whose mother opposed their marriage because John did not have Shanghai residency. Apart from the very interesting question of a 35-year-old who still hasn’t grown up, John’s biography represented well the ambivalent relationship that Xinjiang Han have with the Chinese heartland (neidi), and the pattern of going to make one’s name in neidi, not fitting in (or not being allowed to fit in), and returning to Xinjiang.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Without equal, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. If you read that book, you will understand the mindset of Empire, and also the contradictory feelings and identities of settlers who have spent their entire lives on the imperial frontier. Coetzee’s book remains the best explanation for the horrific brutality that the PRC state security forces are right now inflicting on the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.

Salman Rushdie’s insistence (or at least his unlikeable protagonist’s insistence) on the individual’s dialectical relationship with his or her surroundings and life course makes Midnight’s Children theoretically important. (See also C.W. Mills’s 1959 classic The Sociological Imagination.)

Among scholarly works proper, Nicholas Dirks’s Colonialism and Culture (“culture was what colonialism was all about”) and Stoler and McGranahan’s Imperial Formations helped me to see what I was looking at, and immersed in, in Xinjiang. The work of the “New Qing History” scholars underwrote my conceptualization of the core-periphery relationship. Gardner Bovingdon’s paper “Autonomy in Xinjiang” and Nicolas Becquelin’s paper “Xinjiang in the Nineties” gave me early and crucial insights that remain important today.

Last but not least, John Berger and Jean Mohr’s Another Way of Telling has been my handbook for combining images and text since I first read it in the early 1990s.

What are you working on now?

I am researching how non-state welfare funds set up by factory-owning village elites in rural China change or impact livelihoods and power relationships at the local level, and thereby play a role in the Chinese state’s broader project of “social governance.” Globally, welfare policies and practices interact with or develop alongside institutions of social control. Chinese “social governance” seeks to cultivate non-state provision of welfare services, but keep these activities within a government-approved framework. The framework is still a work in progress. As such, non-state welfare and public goods provision is a site of both collaboration and contention between local state agents and local economic elites. More broadly, the project is concerned with informal political processes and institutional development in post-Socialist economies. 

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