Nation-Building and Ethnic Boundaries in China's Northwest.

  • David Tobin

Student thesis: Phd


ABSTRACTNation-Building and Ethnic Boundaries in China's NorthwestThis thesis will analyse the identity politics of the Chinese party-state's nation-building project in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It will examine how the party-state intends to overcome the barrier of ethnic boundaries in the production of a shared sense of multi-ethnic, national belonging. Uyghurs and Han can be thought of as belonging to different civilisations (Chinese and Turkic-Islamic) but in modern times they are often thought of as divided by ethnic boundaries. The party-state's idea of the Chinese nation (Zhonghua Minzu) is a nation-building project to eliminate these boundaries so as to produce a multi-ethnic nation. Fieldwork was conducted after the riots of July 2009 engulfed the region. Ethnically targeted violence against both Han and Uyghurs destabilised the city of Ürümchi and challenged the party-state's vision of China as a unified and harmonious nation. The official Chinese explanation was that this was an internationally funded and synchronised terrorist attack but Uyghur rights groups have blamed tensions on government policy repressing Uyghur culture and stoking Han nationalism.The theoretical framework employed draws from the concepts of production and performativity in Post-Structuralist and Critical International Relations (IR) theory, particularly the work of Cynthia Weber (1998) and David Campbell (1998). The critical approach adopted here takes security as a process of performative enactment of identity, which produces the units we take for granted as worthy of security. The analysis will examine official performances of what it means to be Chinese and Uyghur. It will then ask how these performances are received and (re)performed by members of the postulated nation. The party-state seeks to include Uyghurs as Chinese but it also excludes and securitises Uyghur Turkic and Islamic identities as 'outside' threats to the unity of the nation.The research is a result of one year of fieldwork (September 2009-August 2010) in Ürümchi, the capital city of Xinjiang. This was the first ethnographic study of responses to the violence of July 2009. Furthermore, the incorporation of Han perspectives has been very limited thus far in the literature on Xinjiang. The analysis uses a top-down approach, which employs discourse analysis of official texts to understand what type of national identity the party-state seeks to produce. However, these methods are coupled with a bottom-up analysis using ethnographic methods, particularly detailed, semi-structured interviews, to explore how these official discourses are received. The perspectives of Han and Uyghurs in Xinjiang can inform us how nation-building will unfold and what type of social dynamics it will engender. Analysing perspectives on the nation from below can help us understand the type of nation we expect to be produced in China rather than the type of nation the party-state narrates. The findings of this research demonstrate that both Uyghurs and Han are turning official Chinese nationalist discourses against themselves to articulate separate ethnic nations. Uyghurs frame China as an assimilationist transgression of ethnic boundaries for the benefit of the Han. Han frame their nation as under threat from Uyghurs and articulate China as a Han nation. The party-state's nation-building project is unintentionally producing insecurity and reinforcing ethnic boundaries which remain obstacles to a shared sense of nationhood.
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorWilliam Callahan (Supervisor) & Elena Barabantseva (Supervisor)


  • China, Xinjiang, ethnicity, nationalism, ethnic relations, Uyghur, Han, politics, international relations, security, identity, post-structuralism.

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