Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War”
  • Tue, 10/31/2017 - 16:11

By Darren Byler, with images by Nicola Zolin
October 30, 2017

This is the first of a two-part series by Darren Byler, who with Nicola Zolin powerfully documents how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China's "People's War on Terror."

In May 2014 the Chinese state declared a “People’s War on Terror.” This war was directed at what was perceived to be the Islamic “extremism” of young Uyghur men and women. Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority group that is indigenous to Chinese Central Asia, or what in colonial terms is referred to as “the New Dominion” (Xinjiang). This vast area of the nation, whose borders stretch from Tibet to Afghanistan to Mongolia, is the source of nearly 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It is also a central node on China’s New Silk Road initiative, which seeks to expand China’s influence throughout Western Asia. Increasingly the eleven million Uyghurs who call the southern part of this region their homeland are seen as an obstacle in China’s vision of the future.

The new “People’s War” was a response to forms of Uyghur resistance to the Chinese state. Some of these acts of resistance were violent attacks on police and Han settlers, but the vast majority were simply protests over land-seizures, discrimination, arrests without due-process and police shootings. Before the “war” began, one of the primary ways that young Uyghurs resisted the increasing control of the state was by moving. Hundreds of thousands left their rural villages where policing is very intense and job opportunities are rare. They came to the capital city of the region, Ürümchi, in search of urban freedom and the promise of a better life.

When the new “war” was introduced the freedom that the city seemed to promise began to disappear. Below are a series of images by the photojournalist Nicola Zolin when he visited me during my long-term fieldwork on migrant life in the city from 2014 to 2015. These images demonstrate that the “war” was manifested in multiple ways. It produced a sharp rise in securitization and, in turn, it began to mark the bodies of Uyghur migrants. It accelerated the erasure of Uyghur communities across the city and increased the precariousness of the Uyghur economic stability. At the same time, it allowed Han economic investment in the city to continue, further solidifying the region as a center of the Chinese political economy.


Short-circuit video cameras in the Uyghur districts of the city

Even before the “war” was implemented, hundreds of thousands of short-circuit cameras were installed throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. Dozens of police officers manned control centers where they began to observe the movements of young, rural-origin Uyghurs. They became a major source of information for the state as it began to implement the policies of the “war.”


An armored police vehicle at the main train station of Ürümchi.

The military police were also deployed in key transportation sites, assuring the Han settler population that business would be allowed to continue as normal and increasing levels of fear among the Uyghur population of the city.


Signs posted throughout Uyghur sections of the city.

In September 2015 posters appeared throughout the Uyghur section of the city legislating the type of clothing and personal appearance that was permitted by the state. All signs of reformist religious practices were outlawed. The posters also described the sorts of rewards that were given to Uyghurs who assisted the police in arresting religious “extremists.”


The rubble of Uyghur migrant housing surrounds a neighborhood mosque.

The new “war” also accelerated urban cleansing projects that targeted Uyghur informal settlements throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. As a result of these projects and a new racialized passbook system (bianminka), hundreds of thousands of Uyghur migrants without legal support were forced to leave the city and return to their rural villages. When they returned to the countryside many of them were arrested under the suspicion that they had practiced forms of “extremist” Islam in the city.


An older Uyghur man and young children.

As a result of these processes, fewer and fewer young Uyghurs from the countryside remained on the streets. In their place, grandparents and children populated the streets. Only Uyghurs who had legal support were able to continue to live without fear of expulsion and arrest in the city.


Uyghur men gather to pray on a Friday in 2014.

Over time, popular religious practice of pious forms of Islam were outlawed and replaced with calls to patriotism, celebrations of the Chinese flag and adulation of the current Chinese president Xi Jinping. As of the summer of 2017, the central Uyghur mosque pictured above began to feature a prominent Chinese flag.


Uyghur young men cross the street in front of limousine that is used in marriage celebrations and other social events.

As a result of the “People’s War on Terror,” many young Uyghurs with rural backgrounds came to experience urban life as a kind of life on the run. They were forced to constantly dodge police checkpoints where their IDs and passbooks were examined and their phones searched for all types of religious messages. At the same time, the capitalist development of the province continued unchecked. Although, many Han inhabitants of the city also complained about the presence of the police, many Han citizens continued to find high-paying, stable jobs with the support of the Chinese state. Han citizens were inconvenienced by the rise in policing, but Uyghur migrants bore the brunt of new restrictions and institutionalized discrimination


Uyghur and Han shoppers at the local Carrefour supermarket.

Uyghur migrants were increasingly forced to participate in the Chinese commercial economy as opportunities for Uyghurs to buy and sell locally-produced halal products were increasingly restricted by the state. The dramatic inflation of basic staples that has resulted from the arrival of Han settlers that are supported by direct investment from the state and the revenue generated by oil and natural gas production, meant that many underemployed Uyghurs began to struggle to put bread on the table and pay for the cost of housing.


An older Uyghur woman warms her hands over a coal fire.

Many rural origin Uyghurs attempted to get by within the cash economy by selling products on the streets without vender permits. They learned to be mobile and dodge police patrolling the streets.


A young Uyghur restaurant worker roasts meat over an open fire.

Young, low-income Uyghur migrants often attempted to find service sector jobs that gave them legal protection against expulsion. But these positions were also precarious as the state began attempting to arrest all Uyghurs who had practiced any unapproved forms of Islam over the past decade. Any Uyghur who was accused of praying five times per day, studying the Quran in an unapproved study group, listening to unapproved Islamic teachings, or studying Arabic was subject to indefinite detention. Often employers and coworkers were asked to expose those who they suspected of practicing unapproved forms of Islam.   


Newly built freeways in the city.

At the same time, the city continued to expand and grow. New high-rise buildings were under construction and high-speed infrastructure projects were built at break-neck speed. Although some of the new commodity housing remained unoccupied, many wealthy Han settlers from the Eastern Regions of the country continued to invest in the region. They often saw it as a site of expansion of Chinese economic power. For many Han, the sense of threat they feel from Uyghur resistance was softened by the assurance they felt from the Chinese police and military presence.


A Uyghur young man walks by a government sponsored sign promoting Xinjiang economic development.

For many Chinese citizens, Chinese Central Asia is thought of as an inalienable part of China. Classical Chinese novels such as Journey to the West and standard education texts describe the region as a historical part of the nation; the landscape is well-within the boundaries of their national “imagined community.” In popular culture, the region is often represented as a site of indescribable natural beauty, and the Uyghur inhabitants of the region are described as uncivilized and dangerous. Because of this perception of Uyghur “savagery,” many Chinese citizens whole-heartedly support the “People’s War on Terror” in which the state is attempting to eliminate much of Uyghur society through a human re-engineering project. In this way, the conquest of the Uyghur homeland is turned into an essential part of China’s New Silk Road – a way of connecting Han settlers with new markets, new resources and a larger presence on the world stage.

Darren Byler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He studies emerging forms of art and politics among Uyghurs and Han in Chinese Central Asia.  For more on his work, visit the digital companion to his dissertation project The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia.

Nicola Zolin is a photojournalist and writer interested in the social and environmental transformations at the borders of Europe, Middle East and Asia. He is currently based between Rome and Athens. Visit his portfolio here.

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