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‘Anticolonial friendships’: How should anthropologists learn from Uyghurs in contemporary China?

When I was first starting to research Xinjiang as a graduate student in the late 2000s, I spent a few weeks with a Taiwanese-American anthropologist at Berkeley named Cindy Huang, who was just finishing her doctorate. Cindy, whose parents were born in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province and who still has family there, had lived in Xinjiang for over a year just before the mass violence of 2009.

In my conversations with her, and in her dissertation, she described the way Uyghur women welcomed her into their world as a friend and sister. After a year of building a relationship with her, her two closest Uyghur friends, Ayshe and Nurgul, cooked a special dinner for her. She wrote:

For more than a year, Ayshe has been searching for a suitable Uyghur name for me. She finally settles on Zuhre, explaining that it is a name with Arabic origins, meaning bright, beautiful star. She shaves down a chopstick, dips it in a jar of ink and writes my new name in elegant script. We feast on rice and stir-fried vegetables with mutton. We finish the meal by savoring juicy pomegranate seeds. Ayshe gives a short speech about how she hopes that I become a shining star in the future, leading others in times of darkness. Nurgul adds that I should become the guiding light for those who know nothing about Uyghurs. We laugh at the solemnity of the occasion, I more nervously than them. Though I doubt myself, I am touched that Ayshe’s faith extends to me. From that night onward, Ayshe and Nurgul call me Zuhre. Our improvised ceremony coincides with my transition from visitor to housemate. According to Uyghur custom, you are no longer a guest after three days have passed.

Though no one could forget that I was an outsider, Ayshe’s blessing was not for naught. I celebrated the small victories as much as the large. One afternoon early in my stay, I ate at a small restaurant near Urumqi’s Grand Bazaar. I was hungry and quickly slurped down a plateful of pumpkin and mutton dumplings. When I returned a few weeks later, I chatted with the wife of the owner and a few of the staff. As I finished my meal and tried to pay, no one would take my money. Finally, one of the waiters told me that it wasn’t generosity: on my previous visit, they had charged me double. Here, at least, I would no longer have to pay the foreigner tax.

Receiving Ayshe’s blessing, however, did not mean that I was exempt from her criticism. After a frustrating week of conjugating Uyghur verbs, I complained to her that my progress was slower than I had hoped. So many people had praised me the week before, Ayshe responded, perhaps I had attracted the evil eye. I understood that Ayshe was warning me against being prideful. There would be plenty of opportunities for friends to chide me for failing to understand or follow what they took to be common sense or moral and spiritual truths. Even as I blushed and at times resisted, I took their prodding and censure as a good sign: not only was I someone other than a guest, I was also a person worth cultivating.

Cindy, like me, was deeply influenced by a feminist, anticolonial anthropology. Scholars like Trinh Minh-Ha and Saba Mahmood, who taught at Berkeley, showed her — and, through their writing, me — the value of “speaking nearby” the people whose voices we were attempting to amplify as anticolonial anthropologists. This meant that as scholars (though Trinh was also speaking to journalists and filmmakers), we should draw on intimate observations and relationships as we strive to understand and represent worlds that are not our own. But we should always be clear that though we draw close to others, there are aspects of who they are that we can never fully know. For example, when we analyzed and explained how stereotypes about Muslims caricatured their lives, we were not trying to speak for them, but rather we were thinking in dialogue with them, accountable to them as partners in creating knowledge about their lives.

At the University of Washington, I met another Chinese American anthropologist and gender studies scholar, Sasha Su-Ling Welland, who became my primary mentor. Drawing on the writing of another feminist anthropologist, Lila Abu-Lughod, Sasha taught me about writing anthropology in a way that explicitly attempts not to “dominate” the communities we engage with, but rather to reverse the colonial gaze by uplifting voices, knowledge, and practices of the people we meet.

It was this training that has pushed me to foreground my position as a white male settler from North America. It is also why I try to be as clear as possible with my interview subjects and in my analysis of my ethnography that what I do in my writing cannot and should not be read as an attempt to “save” the colonized from their suffering; instead, as I note in the end of the introduction to Terror Capitalism, I am trying to uplift unheard voices so that readers can sit with them — and I hope really hear and recognize their human experiences. I argue that ethnographers should refuse to be enticed by white, liberal framings of universal values that can be projected onto the colonized in order to “save them” and make them conform to white liberal values.

Anthropology cannot “save” the people anthropologists care about. When anthropologists do speak, it should be alongside the voices of the disenfranchised, speaking as listeners and translators. The inability of ethnography in itself to offer more than palliative protection for the colonized is a difficult truth, but it is one that I have been forced to sit with. The rage I feel about the ongoing loss of my friends fuels my work of translating and documenting state and corporate violence.

In a similar way, I do not want to claim some sort of presumed neutrality because I’m an outsider, as much as readers may project this onto me. This is why I say explicitly in the introduction to Terror Capitalism that I am making an argument for global decolonization. For me this means calling out global histories and circuits of power and uplifting the voices of the silenced beyond the nation-state form.

My goal is also not to make this a story about me. My training, which was shaped so directly by Chinese-American feminist scholars, has taught me that anticolonial work is about honoring colonized carriers of knowledge, not centering the self and the standpoint one grew up with, even as it means grappling with and using the histories and privileges one carries in their body. Committing to this kind of work as someone who has benefited from histories of colonization is something I refer to in my writing as “anticolonial friendship.” To me, it requires building relationships with the colonized that reshape the daily life of the colonizer and that over time strives to redistribute power. It means respecting different experiences of history, even as we strive to build solidarity across those differences. It means caring for others even when you cannot fully protect them.

But what does this mean in practice, and how does it relate to the chiding and prodding that Cindy Huang described as part of her relationship with Uyghur women? In chapter five of Terror Capitalism, I write about a Han settler artist who has taken on a kind of colonial-traitor position by dedicating much of his life to documenting the violence against his Uyghur neighbors. Because this Han photographer, who I refer to as Chen Ye, engaged the community so directly and over such a long duration, Uyghur migrants came to refer to him by a Uyghur name, Ali Aka — or older brother Ali. They began to think of him as one of their community.

Most Han people I met in Xinjiang simply assumed that, as an American, I must instinctively agree with them that Muslims were inherently “backward,” a problem that required military force, police, and education. As I wrote recently, many assumed that the Muslims that the United States military fought in Afghanistan and Iraq were more or less the same as their Muslims, the Uyghurs.

Chen Ye, however, was unusual in the way he was able to question his own Islamophobia. For instance, at one point he asked me, “What is wrong with Islam? Why does it make Uyghurs do what they do?” We had a long discussion unpacking why he thought these were the questions he should be asking. And whether or not a better question might be why do people use Islam in the way that they do? And how is that use of Islam related to the state violence they have experienced?

But as much as he was willing to question his assumptions, when I staged a private meeting with him and Ablikim, my cotranslator of the Uyghur novel The Backstreets, Chen Ye talked about all of the violence he had seen and how he came to see that Uyghurs were kind-hearted — “just like all lǎobǎixìng 老百姓.” In that moment, when Chen Ye referred to Uyghurs as being “just like all the ‘old hundred names,’” a cloud came over Ablikim’s face. To his thinking, laobaixing was a term that refers primarily to Han workers and farmers, was not equivalent at all to the position of Uyghurs. Laobaixing in Xinjiang are privileged settlers relative to Uyghurs. Later, Chen Ye also referred to Uyghur migrants as mángliú 盲流, a term that means “blind wanderer” and is used by many people in China to refer to Han migrants. Chen Ye, like many Han migrants to Ürümchi, referred to himself in this way. So when he also used this term to refer to Uyghur migrants, it appeared to Ablikim that he was flattening out Uyghur differences, ignoring the structural forces that had forced Uyghurs from their ancestral lands and into a Han majority city. He was again conflating the experience of poor Han migrants with the colonial dispossession of Uyghur migrants.

When we talked about the encounter over the course of the many weeks we spent sitting side by side translating The Backstreets, Ablikim said that it was the way Chen Ye conflated Uyghur experience with Han experience that made him feel that Chen Ye still did not fully recognize the difference between being a colonized native and being a poor Chinese person. This is why Ablikim held his hand up with a one-inch gap between his thumb and forefinger and said that Chen Ye was “this close” to understanding. The problem was not that Chen Ye was Han or a Chinese citizen, but that he hadn’t yet fully understood how Uyghurs view the world and experienced histories of racialized trauma. The difference between Chen Ye and Cindy was that he had not learned to speak Uyghur and fully think about what it means to inhabit social positions from within that knowledge system.

This is not to say that Ablikim saw Chen Ye as performing a colonial politics. Ablikim saw Chen Ye’s work of witnessing Uyghur struggles as anticolonial. And he regarded him as a friend. Chen Ye was an exceptional figure in the way he made sacrifices to learn from ethno-racial minorities. I saw him as an anticolonial friend too, to me and to my Uyghur friends. As I write in the introduction, “Friendships, both between Uyghur men and across ethnic barriers, held out a promise of a more expansive form of social reproduction in which the work of sharing grief and rage through acts of storytelling and active witnessing was valued as a practice in and of itself.”

Anticolonial friendships come in many forms. They can include Han settlers from Anhui like Chen Ye and white American settlers from Ohio like me. They are imperfect, but they center on an effort to amplify the voices of the colonized and a careful effort to speak alongside them toward human liberation. When Ablikim told me that he thought Chen Ye was misrecognizing the Uyghur position, he was telling me this with the understanding that I would convey this to Chen Ye the next time I saw him. The critique was coming from a place of care. Ablikim was involving me in a process of prodding Chen Ye to be better. He was trying to make Chen Ye a better anticolonial friend.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, where I talked about the Taiwanese edition of my book In the Camps, I was struck by the way that audience members and journalists asked about the way my whiteness and Americanness shaped the way I was welcomed into Uyghur communities in Xinjiang. It is undeniable that my position as a privileged outsider, a representative of what Jay Ke-Schutte terms the Angloscene, meant that people were interested in getting to know me. But this interest was often utilitarian — a way of practicing English or a source of information about getting an American visa — not one of immediate trust. In fact, dozens of times, Uyghurs assumed that I, like the vast majority of global North foreigners in Ürümchi at the time, was a Christian missionary — a misrecognition that resonates with the misrecognition Uyghurs had toward Chen Ye, when they thought he might be a Korean missionary. This position, the missionary, was one that Uyghurs like Ablikim did not identify as neutral or anticolonial. While less dangerous than agents of the Chinese state, they often saw Christian missionaries as extractive and, at times, offensive.

I, like Cindy Huang and Chen Ye, found that moving into deeper relationships with Uyghurs meant seeing them by more than simply their ethnicity or citizenship status. Trust could only be built through our shared experiences and examinations of our differences. They tested my solidarity with Palestinian struggles, of Kashmiri struggles, my knowledge and respect for Islamic traditions. Uyghurs were interested to hear about the way I had come to understand my position as a settler in relation to Indigenous peoples in the Americas, what I thought about police brutality and prison abolition. They liked that I saw value in their stories, their poetry, their music, their village traditions, and that I turned to them as carriers of knowledge, as my teachers.

They saw me as different from the Han anthropologists who had stolen their sacred songs or made exquisite documentary films but treated Uyghur collaborators only as assistants. They saw me this way not because I was a white American, but because I was learning their language and history, and because we were becoming friends who lent each other money and shared the same life events. When they saw me doing or saying something that was disrespectful or offensive, they told me. They saw me in much the same way that Cindy’s Uyghur friends saw her.

In 2017, a Han graduate student from Hangzhou named Feng Siyu began working with Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut at Xinjiang University’s Folklore Research Center. As a native Chinese speaker, Feng’s Uyghur language training was a major asset in communicating Uyghur traditional knowledge to the Chinese public. Her Chinese-ness and her commitment to understanding Uyghur struggles was precisely why Uyghur scholars wanted to work with her. But in 2018 she was arrested, precisely because of this work. According to internal police documents obtained by The Intercept, they detected “foreign obscure software” on her OnePlus smartphone. Even though this software was part of the default software package of the phone and there was no evidence that Feng used what was likely VPN software, she was detained and, like Dawut, has been missing since.

Feng’s disappearance speaks to the threat and force of Chinese power over its own citizens, and the privileges that the imperial power of U.S. citizenship carries. I could do nearly the same work as Feng (though unlike her I no longer had formal affiliation with a Xinjiang-based institute); in fact, I was in Ürümchi in the same year of her arrest and was only subjected to harassment and brief detention. They let me go because of the protections I carried as a foreigner from a powerful country.

Chen Ye’s grassroots project and Feng’s more formal scholarship points to the possibilities (and state-imposed limits) of Chinese citizens doing ethical, anticolonial work in Xinjiang. And Feng and Chen Ye are not alone, over the past five years, dozens of Han citizens of China have shared information with me about what they have observed on the ground. They want the world to know that this is not the China they believe in, and they also recognize their relative privilege in being able to travel and share these stories.

Like all social sciences, and hard sciences, anthropology has a colonial history. It, like all sciences, has been dominated by white men. But it also offers a method for encountering and sitting with the world, and demanding something better. There is a whole generation of young members of the American Anthropological Association who voted to stand with Palestinians and Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) all Israeli institutions. If the organization honours the wishes of its members, it will mean that all 10,000 members of the association will no longer be able, in good standing, to work with Israeli universities, companies, or government organizations. This BDS effort builds directly on similar efforts in the 2000s to divest from Apartheid South Africa. Many of the leaders of this effort in the American academy, particularly the feminist, anticolonial scholars Lisa Rofel and David Palumbo-Liu, who have directly influenced my book Terror Capitalism, have also been some of the most vocal public intellectuals in support of Uyghur rights.

There is much more that can and should be done to bring a decolonial ethos to the study of contemporary China, but I am deeply encouraged to see an emergent cohort of Chinese national anthropologists who have turned the focus of their life’s work toward supporting Muslims and other racialized minorities in China. Because this commitment comes at a cost to them and their relationships with their families who are still in China, the way they disclose this commitment must remain their prerogative. So I will name them only by their initials: M.Q., J.Q., and X.K. They are there, doing the work — translating, observing, going where us foreigners can no longer go — and I want them to know that I see them. And the Uyghur community sees them too.

This article first appeared in the China Project on June 21, 2023.

Filed under: Han Perspectives


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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