What it’s like to do research in ‘a police state to rival North Korea’

#Repost fromSouth China Morning Post

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SOCIETY

Dec 27, 2018, 6:15pm HKT

As an ethnomusicologist, my interest and involvement in Uyghur music, and my connections to Urumqi, run long. 

I first traveled to the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in far western China, in 2004 and have conducted research there from 2007 onward. Between 2012 and 2016, I spent three and a half years in the city, making Urumqi a place that I came to see as a second home. 

But the political situation had changed drastically since I left in late June 2016. 

Credible estimates suggest that up to 1 million Uyghurs, or roughly 10% of the mostly Muslim group’s population, are in camps, while those outside the camps are subjected to constant monitoring by means of a dystopian surveillance state. Scholar Rian Thum describes the region today as “a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid.”

Earlier this year, I wanted to return to see whether my new research project on gender and music there would be possible. 

Unsurprisingly, I encountered numerous obstacles from the second I entered China on June 14 of this year. 

The first occurred at passport control in Beijing, where I was pulled aside for a round of questioning related specifically to my connections to Xinjiang – a line of inquiry that I had never once undergone in the dozens of trips I have made to China since 2004. 

The second obstacle occurred when I attempted to purchase plane tickets from Beijing to Urumqi. Four bookings I made online were almost instantly canceled, which I suspect was connected to the questioning I had undergone at customs; my name and passport number had clearly been flagged.

Ultimately, I was able to secure a ticket, but not until my departure was already delayed by two days.

The third – and far more troubling – obstacle was what I encountered when I arrived in Urumqi. 

I quickly discovered that individuals and institutions with whom I had hoped to collaborate wanted nothing to do with me. 

I initially planned to contact research participants, all of whom I already know personally, only after arriving in Urumqi, naively believing that it would be safer to contact them if I were already in the country rather than abroad. 

I received one rejection after another, however: 

my previous advisor at Xinjiang University, Rahile Dawut, had long been disappeared, and no one would allow me on the campus;

my contacts at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, where I studied for five semesters between 2014 and 2016, communicated through a proxy that I should not attempt to set foot on their campus;

my attempts to contact the Muqam Ensemble and Women’s Association were met with silence; and

the regional library, where I had planned to do text-based research, was shut down (ostensibly for remodeling, which has now gone on for more than three years). 

Moreover, the bookstores I knew best had been shuttered, much of their previous Uyghur-language stock having been banned and/or burned in a recent “cleansing.”

Musical instrument shops, meanwhile, had been relocated to a tourist bazaar, which took me days to find. I discovered in branches of Xinhua, the state-run bookstore, that the scant Uyghur-language resources still available for purchase included no works that would be useful for the research I proposed.

After being quite sad about the infeasibility of my plans for several days, I readjusted my expectations. 

I conducted no formal interviews related to my proposed topic, but I did talk and interact constantly with local residents by exploring the city each day. 

Back in the thick of my dissertation research days, whenever I encountered roadblocks I’d turned to walking, in the hope that a new city view or human encounter might teach me something more about the textures of Uyghur life. 

I fell back on that tried-and-true method this summer, setting out each morning for long walks. 

In talking informally with the people I encountered, I learned of a major ongoing gentrification and ethnic resettlement project in the city. I also documented, through photography and several sound recordings, ways in which the cityscapes and soundscapes of Urumqi have undergone massive transformations.

I also learned about current happenings – including some of the political work to which professional ensemble musicians are being assigned by the government, as well as the arrests and detentions of prominent Uyghurs – in on-the-streets exchanges I had with many individuals, some of whom I knew personally and others of whom approached me because they recognized me from the minor entertainment career I had when I lived in Urumqi. 

Around a week into my trip, I made the decision to travel outside of Urumqi to see how new policies and practices are affecting Uyghur life in cities outside the center. 

Over the course of two weeks, I came to the conclusion that not only was my proposed study unfeasible, but also that it would be ethically indefensible for me to continue pursuing ethnographic research in Xinjiang for the foreseeable future. 

Minimizing risk is part of the code of ethics for anyone conducting research with human subjects, and to minimize risk is simply impossible in the current climate in the Uyghur Region, where merely expressing interest in traveling abroad or having contact with anyone outside the region is enough to condemn a Uyghur to disappearance into a camp.

I have since come to accept that my own days in China might be over. 

At the very least, they are clearly numbered if the current policies continue, and I do not anticipate that things will change in the near future. 

Increasingly, however, I am convinced that it is urgent for researchers and other interested parties to continue traveling to the region to bear witness to what is happening in whatever ways they can. The research conditions are less than ideal – and indeed dangerous – meaning that anyone must go in with a strong code of ethics and commitment to non-harm. 

But we can and should continue speaking truth to what is happening in Xinjiang, where the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to create a vacuum that it can then, à la the Party in Orwell’s 1984, fill only with itself.

The Party cannot hide this. 

One of my favorite proverbs in the Uyghur language goes kün’ni étek bilen yapqili bolmas, which translates literally as it is impossible to cover the sun with a coat flap. 

The truth always comes out, in other words. It is imperative that funding agencies continue providing support for researchers to travel to Xinjiang so that outsiders can continue bearing witness to some aspects of what is happening there, in the process revealing just how flimsy the coat flaps of the Chinese party-state truly are.

Elise Anderson is a candidate for dual Ph.D. degrees in Ethnomusicology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she is completing a dissertation on the impact of development discourse and practice on classical Uyghur music.

A version of the piece was originally published in #AsiaNow, the blog of the Association for Asian Studies.

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Copyright © 2018 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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