Change of Plans: Conducting Research in Xinjiang

By Elise Anderson

In April 2018, the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies awarded me a Small Grant to travel to Ürümchi (Urumqi, Wulumuqi), Xinjiang, China, to conduct a two-week feasibility study on the topic of “Gender and Music in Uyghur Society.” I planned to draw on my extensive connections in the region to conduct preliminary interviews and participant-observation, as well as to collect written and audio/visual resources, all with the goal of eliciting themes related to how gendered social expectations impact music-making and other forms of cultural production for members of the Uyghur minority. I envisioned this trip as marking the start of my first post-Ph.D. project.

A slogan painted on a wall in a Turpan neighborhood, which reads in Uyghur: “Loving the homeland and Xinjiang; unity—making contributions; working hard; helping one another; opening up; progressing.”
This and all other photos by the author, June 2018

My interest and involvement in Uyghur music, and my connections to/in Ürümchi, run long. I first traveled to the city in 2004 and have conducted research there from 2007 onward. Between 2012 and 2016, I spent three and a half years in the city, making Ürümchi a place that I came to see as a second home, one that made me a better scholar and, more importantly, a better and more complete human. The political situation had changed drastically since I left in late June 2016, however, and I wanted to return to see whether my research would be possible.

In Spring 2017, numerous reports of a rapidly expanding system of “political re-education centers,” or concentration camps, began trickling out of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Since then, journalists, academics, advocates, and activists have used government tenders and construction bids, satellite imagery, and even ethnographic research to reveal various facets of an extensive human reengineering project targeted at Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and the members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups in the region.

A view of Noghay (Tatar) Mosque, the largest mosque in Ürümchi, from Konsul Kochisi (Consulate Street, a small street long dotted with exclusively Uyghur businesses). The mosque is technically “open” as usual—but almost no one dares to go in, as the complex is now cordoned off with fences and barbed wire.

Credible estimates suggest that up to 1 million Uyghurs, or roughly 10% of the group’s population, are in camps, while those outside the camps are subjected to constant monitoring by means of a dystopian surveillance state. In a New York Times op-ed, scholar Rian Thum aptly concludes that the XUAR “has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.” In Fall 2018, after long denying the existence of the camps, the Chinese government and its media organs began a propaganda blitz in which they attempted to portray the camp system as “vocational training centers” full of “willing participants.”

Unsurprisingly, I encountered numerous obstacles from the second I entered China on June 14 of this year. The first occurred at passport control in Beijing, where I was pulled aside for a round of questioning related specifically to my connections to/in the XUAR—a line of inquiry that I had never once undergone in the dozens of trips I have made to China since 2004. The second obstacle occurred when I attempted to purchase plane tickets from Beijing to Ürümchi. Four bookings I made online were almost instantly canceled, which I suspect was connected to the questioning I had undergone at customs; my name and passport number had clearly been flagged. Ultimately, I was able to secure a ticket, but not until my departure was already delayed by two days.

A security checkpoint in an Ürümchi hotel. Theoretically, all visitors, but in practice only those who look to be Uyghur or of another minority background, must scan their national identification cards at checkpoints like this, which are stationed at the entrances to nearly every business, park, and other publicly accessible space throughout the region.

The third—and far more troubling—obstacle was what I encountered when I arrived in Ürümchi. I quickly discovered that individuals and institutions with whom I had hoped to collaborate wanted nothing to do with me. I initially planned to contact research participants, all of whom I already know personally, only after arriving in Ürümchi, naïvely believing that it would be safer to contact them if I were already in the country rather than abroad. I received one rejection after another, however: my previous advisor at Xinjiang University, Rahile Dawut, had long been disappeared, and no one would allow me on the campus; my contacts at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, where I studied for five semesters between 2014 and 2016, communicated through a proxy that I should not attempt to set foot on their campus; my attempts to contact the Muqam Ensemble and Women’s Association were met with silence; and the regional library, where I had planned to do text-based research, was shut down (ostensibly for remodeling, which has now gone on for more than three years). Moreover, the bookstores I knew best had been shuttered, much of their previous Uyghur-language stock having been banned and/or burned in a recent “cleansing.” Musical instrument shops, meanwhile, had been relocated to a tourist bazaar, which took me days to find. I discovered in branches of Xinhua, the state-run bookstore, that the scant Uyghur-language resources still available for purchase included no works that would be useful for the research I proposed.

Shuttered bookstore in an underground shopping mall in Ürümchi’s Uyghur quarter

After being quite sad about the unfeasibility of my plans for several days, I readjusted my expectations. I conducted no formal interviews related to my proposed topic, but I did talk and interact constantly with local residents by exploring the city each day. Back in the thick of my dissertation research days, whenever I encountered roadblocks I’d turned to walking, in the hope that a new city view or human encounter might teach me something more about the textures of Uyghur life. I fell back on that tried-and-true method this summer, setting out each morning for long walks. In talking informally with the people I encountered, I learned of a major ongoing gentrification and ethnic resettlement project in the city. I also documented, through photography and several sound recordings, ways in which the city- and soundscapes of Ürümchi have undergone massive transformations.

Across Ürümchi, buildings are being re-faced in an effort to gentrify the city. A second phase of the project is reportedly to resettle people of different ethnic groups throughout the city once renovation is done.

I also learned about current happenings—including some of the political work to which professional ensemble musicians are being assigned by the government, as well as the arrests and detentions of prominent Uyghurs—in on-the-streets exchanges I had with many individuals, some of whom I knew personally and others of whom approached me because they recognized me from the minor entertainment career I had when I lived in Ürümchi. Through following social media, I also learned of and documented new Mandarin-language songs being released by major performing artists who had previously self-consciously produced music only in Uyghur.

Members of an ensemble rehearse. When asked whether they had any upcoming performances, they replied “No” and said that they just had to wait on calls to see when and where they might be dispatched to perform political concerts in townships and villages.

Around a week into my trip, I made the decision to travel outside of Ürümchi to see how new policies and practices are affecting Uyghur life in cities outside the center. I thus made brief visits to Kashgar (Kashi), Yarkend/Yeken (Shache), Qomul (Hami), and Turpan (Tulufan), where—despite an invasive police presence that often interfered with my ability to move around freely—I pursued activities similar to those I had in Ürümchi. Throughout this portion of my travels, I was accompanied by photographer/artist Lisa Ross, recipient of a travel grant through Asian Cultural Council. Our differing areas of expertise—Ross’s in a keen sense for images that convey both the extraordinary and the mundane, and mine in a deep area knowledge—complemented one another as we made our way around the Uyghur Region.*

A view from the Yarkend/Yeken (Shache) Old City. In Yarkend, as in Kashgar, all business owners have been required to install bars over the entrances to their shops, leaving a prison-like impression.

A nearly empty street in Kashgar’s Östengboyi

Over the course of two weeks, I came to the conclusion that not only was my proposed study unfeasible, but also that it would be ethically indefensible for me to continue pursuing ethnographic research in the XUAR for the foreseeable future. Minimizing risk is part of the code of ethics for anyone conducting research with human subjects, and to minimize risk is simply impossible in the current climate in the Uyghur Region, where merely expressing interest in traveling abroad or having contact with anyone outside the region is enough to condemn a Uyghur to disappearance into a camp.

A photo of Xi Jinping displayed prominently inside a shop in a Qomul bazaar

I have since come to accept that my own days in China might be over. At the very least, they are clearly numbered if the current policies continue, and I do not anticipate that things will change in the near future. Increasingly, however, I am convinced that it is urgent for researchers and other interested parties to continue traveling to the region to bear witness to what is happening in whatever ways they can. The research conditions are less than ideal—and indeed dangerous—meaning that anyone must go in with a strong code of ethics and commitment to non-harm. But we can and should continue speaking truth to what is happening in the XUAR, where the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to create a vacuum that it can then, à la the Party in Orwell’s 1984, fill only with itself.

A sign on a sleepy street corner near the site of Yarkend’s Altun (gold) Mosque and former royal complex reads “Xi Jinping and the people of Xinjiang ethnicities are heart-in-heart.”

A Kashgar musical instrument shop pays homage to the Forbidden City, complete with an image of Mao Zedong.

The Party cannot hide this. One of my favorite proverbs in the Uyghur language goes kün’ni étek bilen yapqili bolmas, which translates literally as it is impossible to cover the sun with a coat flap. The truth always comes out, in other words. It is imperative that the AAS, CIAC, and other funding agencies continue providing support for researchers to travel to the XUAR so that outsiders can continue bearing witness to some aspects of what is happening there, in the process revealing just how flimsy the coat flaps of the Chinese party-state truly are.

To join a growing international movement of scholars (here defined as Ph.D. candidates and Ph.D. holders only) condemning the situation in Xinjiang, please consider adding your name to the Statement by Concerned Scholars on China’s Mass Detention of Turkic Minorities.

Elise Anderson is a candidate for dual Ph.D. degrees in Ethnomusicology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she is completing a dissertation on the impact of development discourse and practice on classical Uyghur music. Her research has been supported by grants from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, Fulbright-Hays, and Indiana University, among other sources. Elise, who moonlights as a practicing vocalist, musician, social dancer, and translator, is pursuing a career in academia or government service.

* Editor’s Note: This paragraph has been updated from the original text to correct an inaccurate description of the relationship between Anderson and Ross. 

The situation in Xinjiang will be the topic of a special #AsiaNow panel at the AAS 2019 Annual Conference in Denver; more information will be posted at the conference website in early 2019.