Outsiders' accounts of Xinjiang

Last updated: January 26, 2021

The following is a compendium of various scholars', journalists', and artists' accounts of Xinjiang, primarily based on visits within the last half decade. This includes sources that deny or downplay the idea of mass repression in the regions.

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Byler, Darren

Dr. Byler is an outspoken scholar on Uyghur culture. Byler spent seven years at the University of Washington earning his Ph.D., which was granted in 2018. He has deep experience in Xinjiang and speaks both Uyghur and Mandarin, having lived there for extended periods of time. He is very familiar with the region, and researched it even before his Ph.D.; his Master's thesis from Columbia similarly focused on Xinjiang. Some of his selected works:

◾ "Spirit Breaking: Capitalism and Terror in Northwest China", Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, July 2019. This exensively-sourced and well written paper summarizes some of the major themes of Byler's 300-page dissertation (available here). Byler situates the recent history of Xinjiang (which he refers to as Chinese Central Asia) in the context of counterterrorist rhetoric adopted in China via the Bush administration in the Global War on Terror following 9/11 as well as wider discussions of colonialism, noting the prominence of resource extraction in Xinjiang and the parallels to North American indigenous boarding schools designed to "cure" native peoples of their "savagery". The piece, like Byler's dissertation, grounds the theoretical applications with anecdotes from his friends and contacts made in the region, noting the collective trauma imposed upon Uyghurs, for whom "detention and harassment [are] a process of 'breaking their spirit'".

◾ "I researched Uighur society in China for 8 years and watched how technology opened new opportunities – then became a trap", The Conversation, September 2019. This more colloquial piece gives further background on Byler's work and his two years living in Xinjiang doing his Ph.D. research. The focus in particular is on state surveillance and the widespread adaptation of technology for the purposes of control and monitoring, another theme in his dissertation.

◾ "'Uyghurs are so bad': Chinese dinner table politics in Xinjiang", Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, July 2020. Beginning with an account of the dynamic between a Han family assigned to monitor a Uyghur family and the racist overtones inherent to this dynamic, Byler explores the racial divide in Xinjiang and the pervasive Islamophobia engendered by government campaigns against Turkic Muslims.

Grey, Jerry

Jerry Grey is a retired London cop and British-born Australian who later moved to China and married a Chinese woman. He has biked in Xinjiang twice in the last decade, in 2014 and 2019, though as pointed out by others, the 2014 trip never ventured into the south of XInjiang, where most Uyghurs lived and where repression is accordigly the harshet. He maintains that descriptions of repression, genocide, and/or marginalization in the region are unfounded, based on his experiences there—or he did after he began writing for Chinese state media.

◾ "Why do we keep reading false reports about Xinjiang?" CGTN, November 2020. This piece, published by a state media outlet, recounts Grey's various trips to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs he met there, who he maintains were all perfectly fine. He states, without elaboration, that alleged "'Concentration camps' turned out to be schools or shopping centers" and emphasizes the threat of terrorism in the region. Jerry defends security checkpoints and the like, though he leaves out details from previous descriptions of his trips. Grey's account leaves out several details that he had previously written about in personal logs; see the highlighted text below:

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◾ The remainder of Grey's "work" is on a Medium account or in various podcasts, which seem to reiterate the same basic points outlined above. He also is highly critical of Adrian Zenz, as shown in this piece.

Mijit, Mukkadas and Lisa Ross

Mukkadas Mijit and Lisa Ross are members of the Asman Collective, a small group of artists dedicated to the preservation of Uyghur cultural heritage. Mijit, herself a Uyghur, is an anthropologist and filmmaker from Ürümqi who specializes in traditional dance and music who now lives in France. Ross is a professional photographer who first visited Xinjiang on a whim in 2002, eventually returning seven more times to continue her photography there, last visiting in 2018.

◼️ "Mukaddas Mijit: On the Music of Xinjiang & Saving Uyghur Culture from Genocide", interview with Matthew Dagher-Margosian on podcast The Arts of Travel, November 2020. In this interview, Mijit speaks at length about her work as a form of activism; Uyghurs in China cannot fully express themselves through traditional art because of political prohibitions, explicit or implicit. She states self-censorship of Uyghurs' art and speech has always been a feature of Xinjiang under the PRC, particularly for those who lived through the Cultural Revolution, becoming particularly severe "around 2015-2016". At the time, information and communications were cut off for the disapora, and Uyghurs abroad became particularly fearful, she says. Uyghurs among the diaspora face a dilemma: "They want to expose what's happening, but at the same time they are so fear[ful] for their family... and in unbelievable pain. They cannot really say anything about what is going on, because they fear for their families, and they are conscious about this kind of very vicious fear that the Chinese government instilled [for] many years."

◼️ "Traveling Through the Uyghur Homeland with Artist Lisa Ross", interview with Hrag Vartanian on podcast Art Movements, March 2019. Ross' repeated visits to Xinjiang over the course of two decades gave her a unique insight into the changes occurring there. There are a handful of minor historical and political inaccuracies that Ross has about Chinese policy but overall her impressions are consistent with that of Mijit and others. Through her work, Ross became friends with now-imprisoned folklorist and anthropologist Dr. Rahile Dawut of Xinjiang University, who "always told me to be very careful... I didn't realize that in a short time that all these places would possibly disappear, which seems to be happening, and that the people that I was close to would be under such incredible threat." Lisa said that beginning in 2008—the year of the Olympics, and the year authorities began to tear down the Old City of Kashgar—as she travelled with Uyghurs, she noticed they started getting stopped by police more frequently. She returned in 2011 with Alexandre Pappas (a French scholar), mainly staying in Turpan, which struck her as increasingly "Han-ified" and touristy. At that point, though, she says she didn't feel it incredibly securitized. But by 2018, that had changed. She describes police (many of them Uyghurs) checking Uyghurs' phones in Kashgar and full body scans for them at checkpoints, and holy sites were shut down in Yarkand, among other examples. The effort of the Chinese state, Ross feels, is ultimately tantamount to an effort to "destroy a people".

Rajagopalan, Megha

Rajagopalan is a journalist with Buzzfeed News. While working as Buzzfeed's Beijing bureau chief, Rajagopalan published several groundbreaking stories on mass incarceration and reeducation in the region. She was forced to leave China in 2018 after the government refused to renew her visa without explanation (having done similarly in retaliation for French reporter Ursula Gauthier after she criticized the Chinese government's attempts to link the 2015 Paris Attacks to Uyghurs in Xinjiang).

◾ "This Is What A 21st-Century Police State Really Looks Like", Buzzfeed, October 2017. Rajagopalan went to Kashgar in 2017. "Over the past two months, I interviewed more than two dozen Uighurs, including recent exiles and those who are still in Xinjiang, about what it’s like to live there. The majority declined to be named because they were afraid that police would detain or arrest their families if their names appeared in the press." Additionally, Rajagapolan references research by Adrian Zenz as well as Chinese officials and laws. Includes short quotes from Uyghur Human Rights Project.

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◾ In a podcast interview with the National Review in 2019, Rajagopalan talks about how she backpacked in Xinjiang as a student, noting the stark difference years later as she returned working for Buzzfeed. Speaking of her experiences in Kashgar: "Kashgar is very multicultural, and there are lots of colorful things: night markets, vendors selling pomegranate juice, street life, music … When I visited in 2017, all of that was gone. Storefronts had bars on them. When you walk through the historic part of the city, people are literally not speaking. You can feel how tense they are."

Shih, Gerry

Gerry Shih is a journalist for the Washington Post. Previously, he worked for the Associated Press in China, where he oversaw significant reporting done by the agency there (for the following accounts, AP notes its researched involved in-person visits to the region; I attribute these to Shih, though I do not know if he himself or others went).

◾ "In western China, thought police instill fear", AP News, December 2017. Reporting based off of "rare interviews with Uighurs who recently left China, a review of government procurement contracts and unreported documents, and a trip through southern Xinjiang". AP interviewed "more than a dozen Uighurs", most of whom on the condition of anonymity.

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◾ "China’s mass indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution", AP News, May 2018. Based primarily on interviews of five individuals: four prisoners and one former instructor. The testimony as a whole describes a repressive environment that denigrates major aspects of Uyghur culture, causing great distress to detainees, who are not given due process. Violence/torture as a form of punishment was not uncommon, though not completely indiscriminate: "Violence was not regularly dispensed, but every internee AP spoke to saw at least one incident of rough treatment or beatings."

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Smith-Finley, Joanne

Joanne Smith-Finley is an academic who earned her PhD studying Xinjiang in the 1990s. She has returned to the region several times, most recently for three weeks 2018.

◼️ "'Now We Don’t Talk Anymore': Inside the 'Cleansing' of Xinjiang", ChinaFile, December 2018. In this article, Smith-Finley recounts may of the concerning phenomena that have arisen in Xinjiang, indicating a widespread crackdown on Uyghur culture and Islam. She believed that none of what she witness "suggested the 'normalization' of 'extremist' Islam; rather, it evidenced wholesale coercive secularization and a deliberate campaign of state terror" directed at Uyghurs.

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Tynen, Sarah

Dr. Sarah Tynen is an American researcher at the University of Colorado—Boulder. She has lived in China for a total of five years, two of which were in Xinjiang, where she conducted research there for her 2019 Ph.D. thesis, which included interviews with 66 Han Chinese and 98 Uyghurs. She speaks both Uyghur and Mandarin. Tynen succinctly lays our the philosophy behind her work on her website—she asks: "What happens when a group of people don’t fit in to the vision of the people in power? The people in power make room for the people who do fit into their program by incarcerating those who do not. Stereotypes about dangerous places matter because such ideas cause isolation, erasure, and incarceration. I believe a more just and inclusive world is possible if we connect with so-called dangerous people and places rather than avoid them, and listen rather than silence. The story is not so different in our own country."

◾ "I was in China doing research when I saw my Uighur friends disappear," The Conversation, March 2020. In this article, Tynen details some of the more disturbing trends and events she witnessed while living in Xinjiang, while also linking to other scholars' published academic research that situates what she was seeing on the ground. She was there for most of 2017, the year when the current campaign of mass internment is commonly considered to have begun.

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