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Image of Photographs of Prof Michael Dillon, Dr Ildiko Beller-Hann and Tim Clissold

Xinjiang: Pivot of Asia

The China Centre seminar on Wednesday 27 October 2021 took the form of a set of three short lectures on the topic Xinjiang: Pivot of Asia, followed by an extended Q&A discussion. The three speakers were Dr Ildikó Bellér-Hann (Associate Professor, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen), Professor Michael Dillon (Professor of History and Affiliate of the Lau China Institute, King's College London), and Tim Clissold (Senior Research Associate, China Centre Jesus College, and author of three books on China, including Mr China).

Dr Bellér-Hann analysed the way in which the classification of ethnic groups in China has changed over time. She argued that the popular representations of the Uighurs are over-simplified. In fact, there is wide diversity of identities among the Uighurs, which is obscured by the blanket term ‘Muslim Uighurs’. The period since 2000 has seen the development of new attitudes towards religiosity among the Uighurs, which involve the spread of personal piety, ‘reforming the self’ and ‘Islamic clothing’, most notably in the practice of veiling. Dr Bellér-Hann explored the links between Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang and the process of Islamic renewal across the Muslim world. She examined the links between Western Islamophobia post 9/11 and the growth of a movement for an ‘Independent Islamic State’ in Xinjiang. Finally, she explored the contradictions of rapid modernisation of Xinjiang, which has been sustained by a high rate of investment from both state and private entities. 

Professor Dillon analysed the historical origins of the conflict in Xinjiang. He drew attention to the impact that the collapse of the Soviet Union has had upon Xinjiang, due to the tremendous changes this brought for the vast territories in Soviet Central Asia, which have large Muslim populations. He presented a detailed account of the physical transformation of cities in Xinjiang, with systematic reconstruction of old buildings, which has taken place also across the rest of China. Urban reconstruction has included residential buildings, markets and mosques, which have produced a radical transformation of the urban landscape in cities such as Kashgar, Khotan, and Urumqi. 

Tim Clissold approached the situation in Xinjiang from the perspective of conflict resolution. This approach involves (1) understanding how the current situation has been arrived at; (2) the ‘red lines’ for each side in a conflict; and (3) the ‘fuzzy area for manoeuvre’. In the case of Xinjiang this requires understanding the complex history of Xinjiang and the region’s relationship with the rest of China over the course of 2000 years; recognition of the complex setting of Xinjiang with multiple borders with surrounding countries; recognition of the reality of serious violence over many years in Xinjiang; recognition of the Uighurs’ rights to maintain their customs and religious freedom; and understanding that since the Zhou Dynasty, the pursuit of national unity and political stability has been central to Chinese political philosophy. 

A wide range of issues was addressed during the Q&A session. These included the following: nationalism and the construction of the nation state in 19th century Europe; the significance of the situation in Xinjiang for the relationship of the University of Cambridge with China; comparison of the situation in Xinjiang with that in Kashmir;  the views of Han Chinese about Xinjiang; the potential role of business to contribute to harmonious development of Xinjiang; the role of state and private business in Xinjiang’s economy; the role of Uighur students in Western universities; the occupational differences and power relations within the Uighur community in Xinjiang; and the consequences for Sino-Western relations that arise from the use of the word ‘genocide’.

Dr Ildikó Bellér-Hann is Associate Professor of Central Asian / Turkish Studies at the University of Copenhagen. After studying Turkish, Archaeology, and English at the Lórand Eötvös University in Budapest, she received her PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK (in Turkish) and her habilitation degree from the Humboldt University, Berlin (in Central Asian Studies). She has held positions at Newnham College, Cambridge, the University of Kent at Canterbury and the Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany. Her main interests span the histories and societies, historical anthropology, social support networks, kinship, and oral and literate traditions of the Turkic-speaking peoples of Xinjiang, Turkey, and Central Asia. For a full list of Dr Bellér-Hann's publications see here.

Professor Michael Dillon is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society and a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the Mongolia Society. He was founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham. He was a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2009. Between 1988 and 2010 he carried out field research in Xinjiang and other Muslim regions of northwest China on many occasions, both independently and in conjunction with regional branches of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Additional academic visits included Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Taiwan. His most recent publications on Xinjiang include Xinjiang in the Twenty-first Century: Islam, Ethnicity and Resistance, Routledge, 2018 and ‘Religion, repression and traditional Uyghur culture in southern Xinjiang: Kashgar and Khotan’ Central Asian Affairs 2 (2015) 246-263. He is currently preparing a study of religion in Xinjiang for Routledge.  For a list of Professor Dillon's recent publications and current projects see here.

Tim Clissold graduated in Physics and Theoretical Physics from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1982. He has lived and worked in China for nearly thirty years and published three books on Chinese business, society, history and classical poetry. He is fluent in written and spoken Chinese and has travelled extensively into remote regions of China, including multiple trips to Xinjiang beginning in 1988. His most recent book, Cloud Chamber, will be published this year by the Commercial Press of China, China’s oldest publisher. For many years, he has specialised in cross cultural dispute resolution, developing and implementing practical solutions to intractable conflicts that have occurred between Western and Chinese organisations. For details of Tim Clissold's books see here.

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