Uyghur commoners against the new enclosures in Xinjiang, China

Chinese paramilitary police officers patrol in Urumqi, Xinjiang province.

The latest popular riots in Xinjiang highlight not only the ongoing contradictions within current Chinese-style neoliberal capitalism but also the historically long-standing opposition among various minorities against an ethnically dominant state power in China.

The July 15, 2009 edition of the Japanese Ashahi Newspaper has an article pointing candidly to the underlying reason behind the recent popular riot by ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang (Ürümqi riots) and the Chinese state’s brutal suppression of it, with now nearly 200 people dead, mostly Han Chinese, and about 1500 people injured. Among the growing underclass of largely Muslim Uyghurs, 70% of men between the age of 20s and 40s are out of work, consistently discriminated as the dominant Han Chinese businesses are economically “enclosing” their region and refusing to employ them, and an increasing number of women are, to the understandable ire of the Muslim faithful, forced into working as bar hostesses and sex workers.

The immediate cause of the Ürümqi riots occurred at the Hong-Kong-based Xuri Toy Factory in Shaoguan City, Guangdong, between June 25 and 26. A recently fired, disgruntled Han Chinese worker Zhu, no doubt also taking offense to his racial pride for Xuri’s recent hire of 800 Ugyurs in May while downsizing him, spread a false allegation that a group of Uyghur had sexually assaulted a nineteen-year-old Han female trainee. The nature of this ethnic tension is roughly analogous to the one found in U.S. labor history, as we substitute Zhu for a white worker and the accused Ugyhur “rapists” for black workers. In fact, the so-called “incident” was nothing more than an inexperienced young woman walking mistakenly into a dormitory of Uyghur workers and running out screaming as the Ugyhur men jokingly “stamped their feet” as if to chase after her. Several hours later as the rumor circulated, entirely unbeknownst to the young woman, Han workers attacked their fellow Uyghur workers, resulting in the death of at least two Uyghur men and the injury of over hundred people.

British social historians George Rudé and E.P. Thompson have warned us from foisting ideologically predigested prejudices upon the term “riot,” to view it mistakenly as mindless mob action without intellectual rhyme or political reason. Rudé saw the rational intelligence of the rioting canaille and plèbe at work in the instrumental role they had played in accelerating the democratic process of the French Revolution while Thompson deciphered in the eighteenth-century English food riots the subsistent logic of traditional moral economy of the commons against the market fundamentalism of emerging capitalist political economy. Twenty-first-century Uyghur rioters in China make us also aware of what is sometimes lost sight of in today’s discussions on China: behind the flurry of recent Chinese economic development that gives the definitive lie to the long-held Western orientalist prejudice – later picked up by the Japanese Meiji, Taisho, and Showa imperialists from the 1895 Sino-Japanese War to the Manchurian Incident and Nanking Massacre of the 1930s – about China’s historical “stagnation” and “Oriental despotism” of the Chinese Communist Party, there are newly proletarianized social subjects who are voicing their dissent to this state-sanctioned neoliberal rampage by taking their traditionally reasoned class wrath to the streets.

Given the racist, Han-dominant strain in current Chinese economic development, this “wrath” is often expressed in ethnic terms, leading even to the killing of racially privileged fellow workers, as it now did in the Ürümqi riots. Hence the Uyghurs’ ongoing class struggle also reminds us of the “national question” that every Chinese state, from the imperial dynasties though the era of Communist modernization, did its utmost in repressing. We in the West are familiar with something of such ethnic and religious conflicts in contemporary China in reference to the Tibetan struggle for independence or, in Dalai Lama’s more recent official policy, for cultural autonomy as part of greater China. Indeed Tibet lies on the border of Xinjiang and its indigenous population are facing the same problem of socioeconomic marginalization in the wake of Han Chinese “new enclosures.” From the perspective of the Chinese state, such “minority” ethnic and religious groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans represent so much pre-modern relics that need to be swept away as the United States “swept away” the multiethnic tribes of indigenous population (or, as in the liberal “soft-core” racism typified in the nineteenth-century American ethnologist Henry Lewis Morgan, assimilated into becoming dutiful, private-property-owning citizens of a state capitalist, Han-dominated “People’s Republic”). Indeed even the geographic name of “Xinjiang” is a Qing invaders’ imposition in Mandarin meaning “New Frontier” (which should have a familiar ring within American expansionist vocabulary) – the Uyghurs’ preferred name for their region is “East Turkestan” as they are a Turkic people whose short-lived East Turkestan Republic was destroyed in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party, with its leaders killed in a plane crash and the region invaded under the command of the CCP leader Wang Zhen, who forty years later would play a major role in repressing the Tiananmen Square Uprising.

The modern democratic sensibility may find something culturally “alien” in traditional Turkic ethnos of the Uyghur people or the theocratic system of Tibetan society, just as some Christian missionaries found indigenous beliefs of their target population to be deplorable heathen superstitions and as some Western observers of the Balkans in the 1990s (e.g., Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens) showed reflexive contempt or blindness to the lives of the Balkan peasants who assumed at times ethnocentric tribal and nationalist affiliations, in diametric contrast to their immediate sympathy for the Westernized cosmopolitan population of Sarajevo. As Chinese state violence continues to squelch furiously the Uyghurs’ nationalist and proletarian discontent, alongside that of its other multilingual, multiracial peoples breaking out intermittently as riots and insurgencies throughout the vast “continent” of China, we may be witnessing a prologue to the future Chinese equivalent of the Balkan crisis, which shall be bloodier, more chaotic, and equally tragic as what befell the former subjects of the fragmented Yugoslavia.

One primary reason China has so far managed to escape the fate of fragmentation into tribalist, sectarian violence that continues to brutally mutilate, for example, post-independence Africa was, despite the unequal treaties engendered by the Opium Wars, its ultimate success in beating off from its walls the late-nineteenth-century Western imperialist “scramble for Africa,” which drew arbitrary nationalist lines, exploited tribal rivalries to divide and conquer, imposed new class relations, and selectively modernized a minority of its population (of course, the longer historical context is the European slave trade) throughout this “mother continent” of homo sapiens sapiens. We can see this vividly for the Uyghurs when we contrast the generally unified East Turkestan with the effect of analogous “Great Game” imperialist competitions between Russian and British empires from early nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth on the Central Asian Turkic peoples. Americans, of course, have an ongoing case study of this in their government’s neo-imperialist war and occupation of Iraq, which had the unintended but predictable consequence of unleashing sectarian violence that can neither be contained nor channeled into the process of corporate accumulation, a notable factor in the latest deepening global economic crisis.

The world-system economic historian Giovanni Arrighi has argued in his latest book Adam Smith in Beijing that, in our period of decline an fall of American hegemonic power, China shows robust signs of taking its place, not only setting out to restore its historic position as a world superpower that it had maintained until the seventeenth century but also potentially developing a new market-based non-capitalist economy in the process. Minqi Li, a former market liberal activist participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising who became a revolutionary socialist in jail, similarly advances the thesis in The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy that the end time of Western capitalist dispensation is close at hand and that the Chinese working class will soon renew its vow to the genuine communist project. In light of such unceasing social discontent as we find in the Ürümqi riots, which are merely an instance in the series of popular riots that have recently rived the myth of the unified Chinese state and will continue to fissure it, I’m afraid I must take a more jaundiced view of the prospect for such a “new Chinese Revolution.” For, as we can observe in the Shaoguan Incident that sparked the riots and the presumption of Han dominance found in such bestselling Chinese books as the 1996 China Can Say No (modeled after the 1989 Japanese conservative nationalist response to U.S. Japan-bashing, Japan That Can Say No by Sony co-founder Morita Akio and Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro), no viable sign of working-class, multi-ethnically egalitarian solidarity that can effectively overcome the “wages of Han-ness” is to be seen on the political horizon.

In Customs in Common, where Edward Thompson’s study of English plebs’ food riots is found and whose Chinese translation came out in 2002, twenty-two years after his visit to China, Thompson had staked his future political hopes in the Chinese and African villages. He also admitted that such hopes were on the order of “whistling into a typhoon.” Today this “typhoon” involves the U.S.-centered Western global capitalism now in systemic crisis as well as the new monsoon emanating from rapidly expanding Chinese capitalism, whose Homo Economicus boasts as much single-minded zeal for profit and mercilessness to the traditional moral economies of the Homo Communis – such as they survive and are reinvented imperfectly by Ugyhurs, Tibetans, Han Chinese peasants and proletarians – as his Western antecedent. A year after the publication of Customs in Common, as the Zapatistas were preparing their indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, Subcomandante Marcos spoke prophetically of a storm that would be wrought from two winds, one from above (neoliberalism) and one from below (anti-capitalist-globalization struggle, including their own): “From the clash of these two winds the storm will be born, its time has arrived. Now the wind from above rules, but the wind from below is coming...” The Ürümqi riots are a fratricidal part of this “wind from below,” but whether the coming storm will finally make the “enemy” of the dead and dying Han and Uyghur workers in China cease to be victorious remains as unforeseeable as it was for Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

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Jul 21 2009 17:23


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Jul 22 2009 01:48
In fact, the so-called “incident” was nothing more than an inexperienced young woman walking mistakenly into a dormitory of Uyghur workers and running out screaming as the Ugyhur men jokingly “stamped their feet” as if to chase after her.

this obviously doesn't justify the consequences, but it's not as innocent as suggested here.

mikail firtinaci
Jul 22 2009 08:24

It is strange how this kind of schematic perspectives could be developed for every single issue, for describing every case by the "left". Colonization, uygur Turks, Kurds, Black's ... It is as if only the country names, dates and ethnicities concerned are changing. And the only invariant aspect is, bad colonizer versus originally good indigenous.

However, for instance muslim religion is not part of a "traditional Turkic ethnos", or in fact Turkish nationalism-racism defended today by the leading figures of Uygur nationalism (which are in alliance with turkish fascists, the Grey Wolves) has never been traditional in, for instance past turkic nomads. In fact the political content of the word turk is defined dynamically in its historical environment. In nomadic environment it was simply a word for "human being", in early ottoman period it was nomad, in late ottoman it was used by ottoman elites to define "people living like pigs in rural" and with republican nationalism or İttihad Terakki, it was a total artifical racist fiction.

Today, I do not believe that there is any "uygur commoner". There are just Han and Uygur workers fell into trap of their burgeoisie leaders and nationalism. The leader of uygur nationalist "movement" is, as far as I know is herself a burgeoisie -not a commoner- who developed her wealth in the "liberalization" period of Chinese state capitalism and one of the richest women in China. But of course she is wearing traditional dresses (!)... Their organisation has close ties with turkish fasists, which has obviously close ties with turkish state. And turkish fascists always (at least) dream of a "greater Turkistan" covering the whole central asia, azerbaijan, turkey ... Of course this is a pure fiction since neither a "people" such as turk with common characteristics exist, nor it is possible in the existing context of world politics.

However, some of more realistic turkish nationalists are talking about explosion of China similar to USSR into various small nationalities. In fact this would be very beneficial to, for instance USA since growing Chinese power in central and south asia is a possible threat to its strategical aims.

Anyway it should very clear that there is neither the struggle of "oppressed from below" (as it was said in 70's) nor a "wind from below of communal ...." (as it is popular now). The uygur "riots" I believe, is an expression of weakness of Chinese proletariat - Han, Uygur, etc. Because their class interests are obviously the same. It would be very negative in this period of rising class struggle in China that muslim and turkic workers will fall apart from their chinese class brothers&sisters by nationalist and fundemantalist provocations becoming pawns in imperialist conflicts.

mikail firtinaci
Jul 22 2009 08:49

By the way;

Uyghur turks are historically the least "communal" tribe in central asia. The very word "uyghur" means "uygar" in modern turkish and it means something like "modern" or more properly "civilized" which meant in the past settled life and living in city. So they are the first to develop trade, alphabet etc. Of course everyone in turkey who went to primary school knows that because of racist education system.

Jul 22 2009 13:54
The uygur "riots" I believe, is an expression of weakness of Chinese proletariat - Han, Uygur, etc. Because their class interests are obviously the same. It would be very negative in this period of rising class struggle in China that muslim and turkic workers will fall apart from their chinese class brothers&sisters by nationalist and fundemantalist provocations becoming pawns in imperialist conflicts.

I agree that this is the most sensible assessment of what happened in urumqi.

Jul 22 2009 14:31

However dont you think the largely disciminatory and racist policies of the chinese communist party(largely han) also have alot to do with the problems in Xianjiang? mikail firtinaci thats some interesting information.

mikail firtinaci
Jul 22 2009 15:52

Hi sickdog24,

However dont you think the largely disciminatory and racist policies of the chinese communist party(largely han) also have alot to do with the problems in Xianjiang?

Actually this is an obvious fact. I hope you did not get the idea from my post that I am trying to neglact or reduce the importance of that.

Jul 22 2009 18:09

No I did not get that idea. What you wrote was very interesting especially the stuff about turkish fascists. Its clear the workers are being played against each other deliberately in Xianjiang.

mikail firtinaci
Jul 22 2009 19:49

The latest article on our site about that issue;

Jul 25 2009 16:24

I agree with another commentator here that you have some interesting things to say but I'm afraid you're misreading the running assumptions of this piece. My first suggestion is that you read Thompson’s Customs in Common (and, if you have already done so, reread it, particularly the passing references he makes about the wider implications of his study on the Cultural Revolution, Ku Klux Klan, etc.). You appear to be under the quite false assumption that I’m characterizing the Ughyurs as “good” commoners and the Chinese state as “bad” oppressors, this sort of, in my view, idiotic straw-man debate went on in the Journal of Peasant Studies in the 1990s. I explicitly note in the end that this is a "fratricidal component of 'wind from below'" -- i.e., workers killing each other, or in your phrase "an expression of the weakness of Chinese proletariat" -- but you seem to think I'm approving of this by couching it in terms of commoners' struggles (I have no idea what you're talking about with phrases you impute on me but I never used, such as "oppressed from below"/"wind from below of communal...", so I won't comment on what I didn't say).

Now, your only supporting evidence that the riots were not by commoners is by making reference to an unnamed woman of the "bourgeoisie" whom you say, "as far as [you] know] is "the leader of the uygur nationalist 'movement'." I'm afraid I'm going to have to tell you what I tell my history students: give specific names, prove your point by citing reliable documentation (or references), explain why for example you put quotes around a 'movement'. Much of your comments here have to do with the close relations between Uyghur nationalists and those whom you call "Turkish fascists" -- whom you appear to make a distinction from "realistic turkish nationalists": okay, although I still don't think none of these things is relevant to what I wrote (given that, among other things, I don't appear to share the same definition of "commoners" as you do -- i.e., to borrow your phrase, my assumptions are not as innocent as you seem to caricature here), I would like you to cite relevant literature by reliable scholars whom I can read and study.

Also, re: your "over-interpretation" of my phrase "traditional Turkic ethnos," again let me recommend another classic in the historiographical literature for you to take a look at because it most likely would render everything you wrote about the "leading figures of Uygur nationalism...has never been traditional in, for instance past turkic nomads, etc." redundant, and that is the collection co-edited by Eric Hobsbawm called Invention of Tradition. And Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. These are assumptions already inherent in my argument. That is to say, of course, virtually all nationalisms are "fiction" in the sense that they "invent" traditions (this would include something as seemingly innocuous as Christmas as well) to buttress their authenticity. In fact, nationalism itself -- including Turkish, Chinese, American, French, British, etc. – is, to put it simplistically, a direct product of capitalist and imperialist modernity. Maybe you know all this. Well, I do too. So I don't understand what your point is, except your desire to say that the Uyghur rioters are not "commoners" but "workers" who act like mindless puppet to the tune of their bourgeois leader and become "pawns in imperialist conflicts." Well, okay, maybe you are familiar with the Uyghur language, you have personally worked and know their struggles intimately, and can produce a feature-length article or book on this subject; please do so and I may even learn something from it. But, as they stand, your points impose on me assumptions and views I don't have, moreover without any specific documentation or concretely verifiable information, so, either way, they may be interesting but not relevant to what I'm talking about in a necessarily abbreviated form (my intention wasn’t to write a treatise on the subject but simply to offer a rapid-fire “op-ed” on the event, with all the given limits of that form).

Finally, what I find most problematic about your comment is its tacit presumptuousness (forgive me, I know of no other word to use). First, you assume that I'm endorsing Uyghur nationalism without knowing anything about my background or my views on the matter. The fact is, I don't need any lesson in the pitfalls of nationalism, fascist, realistic, or otherwise. My father is a Taiwanese of Han Chinese extraction who grew up under Japanese colonialism (itself an expression of Japanese imperial nationalism) and was jailed by its wartime regime, and, although he has always been sympathetic to the cause of Taiwanese independence (in the postwar years, this means opposition to the Kuomintang, who sought to conquer China from the Communists), he never fell into ethnocentric anti-Japanese nationalism, befriending Fuchida Mitsuo, the man who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, and marrying a Japanese woman. His now ailing younger brother, who went to China, was sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution (which in part was mobilized by intense nationalist fervor of the Chinese state) just on account of being a kindergarten director and has been a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party most of his life. My mother’s family comes from Okinawa, the site of a long discrimination, first from the Japanese mainlanders and now under the U.S. military bases (again, both expressions of imperialist nationalism, among other things). Now, having been born in Brazil and grown up in various places around the world – Japan, Taiwan, United States – I have a natural antipathy to nationalism or dogmatic ideological commitments of any kind and I’ll be the last person to be in favor of “communalism” or any particular ism, including ones associated with what you term the “left”. However, this doesn’t mean I entertain illusions about the real world, attacking people here and workers there, because they don’t fit into my “ideal” image of what true internationalist anti-capitalist revolutionaries should act like. On the contrary, I do my best to understand various movements – including those with nationalist, even fascist, elements – on their own terms, to always see the obvious point that we often have to struggle in very imperfect conditions and contradictions abound in every movement, that even those who preach anti-fascism often develop in their body politic fascist strains (or, vice versa, that even in so-called classically fascist movements in Italy and Germany we find expressed there, distorted grotesquely and consistently betrayed as they are, genuine aspirations of “commoners” and “workers”).

Which sums up the most egregious – in my view – presumptuousness on your part because, if you misunderstood me or failed to understand where I’m coming from, that’s one thing, that sort of thing happens all the time among individuals who are communicating to each other through the medium of words (I’m sure you’ve had such experiences yourself, whether in the faceless, flaming congregation of online forums or face-to-face meetings/conversations), but to start meting out ready-made judgments on the “weakness” of the Chinese working class because they don’t act like the way you want them to, because they lack sufficient solidarity or the kind of political consciousness you approve of, this is the “elitism” that has marred orthodox Marxists, many nationalists, even a number of present-day anarchists. If you think you possess such superior political knowledge and moral consciousness, I suggest that you go to China and try helping these workers overcome their “weakness” with your presumably more Olympian vantage point. What you’re saying here is reminiscent of the rightwing “nationalist” discussions we hear in the United States about “Islamo-fascism” of the sectarian insurgents in Iraq, Palestinians in opposition to the Israeli state, etc., or what the Communist Party says about the bourgeoisie (or “capitalist roaders” in the vocabulary of recent Chinese history) or workers who refuse to obey the command of the vanguard bureaucrats (the Japanese Communist Party for example called such student radicals “Trotskyites” during the 1960s).

The fact is, people (including of course ourselves) always have to struggle under limited circumstances, borrowing whatever ideas or practices that come to hand, and, before we start machine-gunning others with our ready supply of ideological labels (nationalist, Communist, anarchist, fascist, Republican, Democrat, Liberal Democratic, Muslim, Christian, whatever) and offering our curative for their respective weaknesses, we should understand what they are actually doing and why. As the labor activist and scholar Marty Glaberman said, if you look at a factory shop floor (he was talking about the United States, in particular the Midwest where he worked), you find black nationalists, members of white-supremacy or militia group, etc., whose political consciousness may be at complete odds with each other; however, during for example a wildcat strike, such intra-working-class divisions dissolve and what’s important is for us to study the concrete process and meaning of such actions. The oral historians Staughton and Alice Lynds have shown us in their work on the Lucasville Five uprising how this happens in the U.S. prison system, as black Muslim prisoners and white Aryan Brotherhood prisoners find ways of working together against the brutality of the inhumanely authoritarian prison system. Does foisting the label “fascist” on these prisoners’ ideological beliefs help us illuminate anything except to prove our moral superiority (or, more to the point, our self-righteous, more-radical-than-thou presumptions)?

Re: the definition of commoners, which appears to be central to your objection, here are a few of my running assumptions. First, this opposition between commoners and bourgeoisie, even historically speaking, is a false one. As you may remember from European history, the “Third Estate” that ignited the French Revolution was comprised of peasants, bourgeoisie, artisans, i.e., the general population who belonged neither to the church hierarchy or the aristocracy. When people take to the streets, in riots or revolution, these scholastically rigid distinctions dissolve (for example, the Chinese soldiers who were putting down the riots are “workers” too, also part of the “fratricidal” equation). Indeed, in reality, there is no such thing as a pure commoner, worker, or bourgeois, as you imply, because a factory worker may rent out one of his/her rooms to a boarder and, in that context, that worker functions as a landlord, that is, as a capitalist. This applies to me too. When I teach my students, as Harry Cleaver used to say, I am a “functionary of capital” because I have to impose grades – “I.O.U. for a wage” – on them and weed out the unproductive students from the productive ones; I may do my best to minimize the repressive aspect of this role, but I’d be deluded to think that the hierarchical relationship or its functionality within liberal capitalist society ever disappears. So let’s take an extreme example: a CEO of a gigantic corporation, who is obviously overpaid and running an essentially a totalitarian institution, he or she is still a “worker” to the extent that he/she has to impose work on him or herself to meet the imperative of raising market share and increase profit for shareholders. But does this mean that the CEOs of the world will likely to join a worldwide working-class struggle? Of course not, but let’s not forget our history: all so-called twentieth-century revolutions undertaken in the name of the working class ended up establishing state capitalist tyrannies, most of which after the early 1990s ceased to even exist. So when you talk about “class brothers & sisters,” I may agree with your sentiment but I must assume you’re either misunderstanding what I wrote – this is why I gave the analogy of the Balkan crisis (“we may be witnessing a prologue to the future Chinese equivalent of the Balkan crisis, which shall be bloodier, more chaotic, and equally tragic as what befell the former subjects of the fragmented Yugoslavia”) and distinguished my view as a “jaundiced” one as compared to Arrighi and Li’s, meaning “I don’t think any such working-class or commoners’ struggle is going to happen any time soon, if ever” – or perhaps you disagree with my undefined and unexplained notions of what constitute “commoners” or “working class” (in which case, it might have been more useful to ask me what I meant by them before criticizing me for positions I don’t even hold).

Now, it may be that your comments are not based on any misunderstanding, that your disagreement is based on a full awareness of my positions and assumptions. If so, given that you are sitting in judgment on me, I’d like ask you, Mikail, what these “positions and assumptions” are so that I may properly repent or, at least, evaluate if your judgment is an accurate one.

Manuel Yang

Jul 25 2009 16:40

I'm afraid I don't understand your meaning of "it's not as innocent as suggested here". If you mean that gender relations in the Xuri Factory is under-elaborated, that the Uyghur workers were a recent imposition by the provincial government, or other factors are involved, my answer would be "of course" but this is not the point of this quite "insignificant" piece that is more of an "op-ed" than a feature-length article. Or if you're insinuating that there was an actual rape -- which "obviously doesn't justify the consequences" either -- then you have to state and prove this, not simply make a vague comment that doesn't show what the substance of your objection is.

Jul 26 2009 02:00
the so-called “incident” was nothing more than an inexperienced young woman walking mistakenly into a dormitory of Uyghur workers and running out screaming as the Ugyhur men jokingly “stamped their feet” as if to chase after her.

"nothing more than"? it sounds like a terrifying experience. perhaps that's why she was running and screaming.
that's what i meant.

Jul 26 2009 12:02

I see. Thanks for the clarification. Maybe I should've put in the fact that it was the woman who later said that she must've misunderstood and they were just making fun of her.

Jul 26 2009 18:01

ah. that makes it alright then.