Identity and Mobilization in Transnational Societies: A Case Study of Uyghur Diasporic Nationalism

Guang, T., & Debata, M. R. (2010). Identity and Mobilization in Transnational Societies: A Case Study of Uyghur Diasporic Nationalism. In China & Eurasia Forum Quarterly (Vol. 8, No. 4). [Link]

This paper begins with a definition of certain terms like “transnationalism” and “diaspora”, gives a quick summary of Uyghurs living abroad through statistics and an outline of the sort of work and culture they partake in, and then focuses on Uyghurs in the US. After a brief introduction of the Uyghur American Association and the East Turkistan Government in Exile, they move on to the crux of the paper: the Uyghur Diaspora Nationalism Movement and Cultural Rights Approach.

The authors state that organisations to preserve Uyghur culture and language have been created, however there are different factions as well as disagreements between these organisations with regards to “strategies to be adopted in their mobilization and the nationalism movement overseas connected with their homeland.” The group they focus on is one that wants complete independence from China. They say that this will be impossible without violence as China would not “be willing to compromise its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interests in this case” unless there were immense changes within the current government. They briefly mention a couple more reasons. The authors believe that independence might not be the best idea for Uyghur people because of some jargon about the difference between a cultural nation and a political state – they seem to think independence and nationalism will lead to extremism and ethnic cleansing which, to me, sounds like a slippery slope argument with no factual basis (they didn’t cite any papers either). Anyway, they mention other authors who also believe the best thing for Uyghurs would be to achieve full autonomy while staying within the borders of China, since independence would be costly and unsupported by the international community. Their solution to the problem:

The authors, therefore, propose a cultural rights approach for the Uyghur diaspora communities to consider – in terms of Uyghur political mobilization and nationalism movement. The culture rights-based nationalism requires that national self-determination be based on individual self-determination by legal, peaceful and rational measures at its best. Cultural rights-based nationalism consists of special national rights and national cultural developing rights in terms of national identity. This demands that nationalism must take individual rights as its core value, and regard individual liberation as its end. Collective rights should not displace individual rights.

Hence Uyghur nationalists need not only the task of protecting their traditional culture but also to develop it, which is much more crucial. The uniqueness of the Uyghur national culture should not only be dug out and preserved, but also be promoted to a higher level of cultural identity and refreshment. Thus, it could serve as the basis for the Uyghur nation to get a deal with China. At the same time, Uyghur nationalists should use every opportunity to appeal for cultural rights peacefully, to demand for true national autonomy, and to share the benefits of Chinese progress and prosperity. Both the authors believe that such a cultural-nationalist approach would surely win international sympathy and support.

…and from then on it sounds a little bit like a patronising lecture rather than an academic paper on nationalism in the Uyghur diaspora. The conclusion states:

The Chinese central government, in turn, should be tolerant and flexible in dealing with Uyghur nationalists advocating cultural rights. The central authorities of China should make an all their effort to help integrate the hapless and hopeless Uyghur minorities into the national mainstream, putting an end to all forms of discrimination against Uyghurs and enabling maximum autonomy. This way, the Uyghur goal for achieving cultural rights and Beijing’s aim at securing unity, territorial integrity and stability in Xinjiang can be realized. As long as both sides are willing to enhance cultural rights of the Uyghurs, a win-win situation will definitely emerge.

…which sounds great and amazing but I don’t think the authors realise how impossible that is for the Chinese government. “Tolerant” and “flexible” are words that do not seem exist in the Chinese dictionary.

In general, I agree that having true autonomy would be a vast improvement for Uyghur people and I can see how it could be a strategically smarter move to stay within the economic growth of China. However, based on what is actually happening, this sounds quite naive and I highly doubt the Chinese government will be willing to enable maximum autonomy for Uyghurs without first getting rid of all forms of contradiction against current Party policies, or implementing an ethnic cleansing of their own upon the Uyghur people.

To be fair, this paper was written in 2010, before people like Ilham Tohti were arrested for attempting to do exactly what the authors suggest. It would be interesting to know if their ideas and suggestions have changed in the last 7 years in response to the government’s new policies.

I did hope this paper was going to be an analysis of the diaspora rather than suggestions for how the diaspora should tackle the issue of independence vs autonomy. Oh well.


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