Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland

Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland / edited by S. Frederick Starr. New York: M.E Sharpe Inc, 2004. ISBN 0-7656-1318-2. P.484. US$23.00 Amazon.

Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland  when it was published in 2004, brought together some of the leading names in the fields of history, culture, economics, politics and anthropology to provide as comprehensive an insight into Xinjiang, as had previously existed.

This book was borne of a period when, for the first time, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China's far northwest came to international attention as a result of several factors such as the dissolution of the Soviet Socialist Republic, the consequent setting up of several independent Central Asian states, '9/11' and deadly ethnic unrest in Xinjiang itself.

Prior to the 1980's English language scholarship was sparse concerning Xinjiang. Most scholarship till then had been carried out by mainly Russian, Japanese, Swedish, Chinese and Turkic academics and, for a variety of reasons, not easily accessible. Apart from the 'Silk Road' and 'The Great Game' little was widely known in the English speaking world about the region or it's inhabitants. It was quite literally in the middle of no-where and that, combined with the then isolationist policies of the Communist regime, precluded a great deal of interest and research.

The 1980's and China's 'Opening up' brought about change and several scholars took the opportunity to travel to Xinjiang and see, hear and explore, first hand, the history and culture of the region. Some of those early 'pioneers' are contributors to this book and are, for 'Xinjiang/China watchers', well known. Professors Dru Gladney and James Millward come top of mind but they are joined in this book by a group of contributors who bring a wealth of experience and scholarship to this collaborative offering.

Xinjiang is big. Not only is it big in size - as we are told in the book it covers 1/6 of China's land mass and is three times the size of France- but very big in it's history.

It is a little cliché'd, but nonetheless true, that Xinjiang has stood at the very crossroads of eastern and western culture for two millennium. Through the trade routes that transversed the region for hundreds of years came and went incredible historic figures, peoples, ideologies, religions, trade goods, science and culture. 

It was also, despite what the Chinese may claim, a Central Asian region where for centuries a great number of tribes and Khanates jockeyed with each other for supremacy, most times, with the seemingly breakneck speed of a Chinese checkers game.

We have the more later history of the Ming, and Qing dynasties, the involvement of the likes of Great Britain and Imperial and Soviet Russia in the 'Great Game' and the first Chinese Republic. 

Then, the great influence and momentous changes concomitant with the coming of Mao, the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Republic of China.

There is much ground to cover and also, studying and attempting to understand Xinjiang is fraught with difficulties especially for the beginner. Not only is scholarship reasonably limited as a result of some of the factors I have allude to, but, the very first thing a newcomer to Xinjiang will quickly come to understand, and then to almost fear, is the multiplicity of names and spelling relating to the nomenclature of every aspect of Xinjiang. The Chinese terms, the Uyghur terms, the Russian terms, the list goes on and on making transliteration and conformity problematic to say the least.

I will turn now to a closer look at this offering. 

Firstly, the subject matter is too huge to be covered in one book and that is by no way a criticism. So much history, so much disinformation, so many gaps in our knowledge. As Starr states so very succinctly in his introduction:

“Bluntly, there is hardly any 'fact' concerning Xinjiang that is so solid, no source of information that is so independent and no analysis based on such overwhelming evidence that someone does not hotly contest it's validity or meaning” (p.6)

That having been said, the contributors do a very good job in introducing and exploring a multitude of topics in terms that a non academic can readily understand. History, Chinese policies, demography, economics and of course the effects of all the above on the 'indiginous' peoples and the issues thus arising, none the less, those of 'separatism', 'terrorism', health, education, basic human rights of freedom of religion and  association and 'Rule of law'.

Being someone who believes that he is, whilst not an expert or a scholar, one with a reasonable understanding of the subject matter, I will quickly look at just a couple of things that the book has forced me to reconsider about my knowledge and perspective. 

Space prohibits me from exploring all the interesting tidbits suffice to say I was forced to ponder and reconsider many more things in the reading of this book than the two I will quickly look at.

Before that, to say that I am biased toward the Uyghur people would be a fair assessment, I have followed their plight very closely over the last 15 years and have witnessed, from afar, much suffering and much maligning of a people that, by all the evidence that has been put in front of me and through personal friendships with Uyghur people, are, by and large, peaceful and fascinating. But, that having been said, I am not blinded by that bias. They are, like the Han Chinese, human beings with both good and bad among them.

The two areas I will quickly look at relates to the military in Xinjiang and Xinjiang's economic development.

The chapter on China's military and strategy was an area where I feel I have been disabused of certain convictions. My belief that militarily Xinjiang is of extreme importance to China strategically and this would therefore be evident in troop concentrations and military strategy does not seem to be the case. Yitzhak Shicor a professor of Political Science specializing in military matters and the East argues convincingly, with the limited source material available, that Xinjiang was (is?) not as highly militarised as I had thought and that strategically China is willing to adopt a Stalinist “Burnt earth policy” in the defence of Beijing. Logical in retrospect.

Another area is China's “Develop the West” policy that has been in place the last ten odd years and one that I had to re-think. 

My belief, long held, that such development, whilst causing some dislocation for the Uyghur, would ultimately be beneficial may not be the case, especially in the short to medium term. The capital intensive nature of developments perforce are excluding proportional Uyghur representation in the benefits because the Uyghur's intransigence re learning Mandarin is working against them in gaining employment in these new developments. This is compounded with the run off of more Han being required to in-migrate to man the breach. A double edged sword for the Uyghur adding to their feeling of alienation and one, I believe, that was not unforeseen, or at least, could not have gone unnoticed by Chinese government planners!

The question of Uyghur 'separatism', 'terrorism' and 'Political Islamism' is covered quite well given the constraints but would not hold anything new for other than a casual observer but rather re-enforces the serious doubts about their representation by the Chinese government.  Well worth reading nonetheless.

All in all this book does have much to offer the newcomer and some more seasoned observers. Unfortunately, it is dated being published in 2004 and yet to be revised, however, even that does not detract from it's utility as the issues current then remain pretty much so today.

Is there western bias in the writings? Overall it would be understandable if there were but, no, I feel given the information that was available at the time it is fairly even handed in both it's analysis and representation of all issues.

The book is not overly burdened with graphs or pretty pictures but there is some statistical data relating to demographics and economics albeit, as I stated, dated.

All in all as we stand here today, even almost a decade after publication, if you only read one book in an attempt to have a general but insightful exposure to Xinjiang then this would have to be the one. It covers all the salient areas and it covers them more than adequately

Let us hope it will be revised sometime in the not too distant future, my order is ready to be placed!