(Identity) Politics in Command: Xi Jinping’s July Visit to Xinjiang

Xi Jinping, the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), toured eastern Xinjiang on a four-day ‘investigative tour’ 考察调研 in mid-July — his first visit to the Uyghur Region since 2014. On the surface, the trip and its public messaging do not appear to differ much from visits by previous general secretaries of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to Xinjiang. Flanked by Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region party secretary Ma Xingrui 马兴瑞, Xinjiang governor Erkin Tuniyaz and other officials, Xi took in cultural, economic and touristic sights, stopped off at a village, reviewed the military, and sat as a guest in a Uyghur home. He engaged in ‘informal chats’ with common folk, like the Bingtuan (aka Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps or XPCC, 新疆生产建设兵团) farmer who just happened to be working in a cotton field when Xi showed up. Xi spoke of Xinjiang’s fantastic development, stability, progress, and prosperity and of Xinjiang’s core position on the Silk Road Economic Belt. And Xi repeated the mantra that ‘since ancient times, Xinjiang has been an inseparable part of our country.’

In that way, then, the official Xinhua images and readout of Xi’s remarks at various venues project an air of normalcy. But the situation is not normal. Since 2017, central CPC policy directives have led to the extra-legal internment and incarceration of one to two million people on the basis of dubious allegations of ‘extremism’; a huge swath of the academic, cultural and political elites of Uyghur society have been disappeared; the cities have been excruciatingly securitised through high-and low-tech means; thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other non-Han Xinjiang people abroad have been threatened and forced to seek asylum in democratic countries; the United States, Canada, European Union, United Kingdom and other countries and international organisations have issued denunciations and findings of genocide, slapping economic sanctions and import bans on Xinjiang individuals and entities. These entities include the Bingtuan, which is a massive state-corporate conglomerate and principal implementer of colonial policies and serves as the third arm of control in Xinjiang (after the party and regional government). Xi’s Xinjiang policies, while not the only reason for the precipitous decline in Sino-US and Sino-European relations during Xi’s tenure, are a leading contributor to that crisis and to plummeting international esteem for China generally.

The projection of a business-as-usual atmosphere stands out for what is not said. Xi’s visit to Xinjiang University would have been poignant, for example, for those who know that its former president, Tashpolat Tiyip, is reported to have been sentenced to death as a ‘two-faced official’ (a political label meaning, in effect, insufficiently loyal non-Han cadre), or that the internationally renowned professor Rahile Dawut was taken by state authorities in late 2017 with no news of her whereabouts since. The sense of strained normality is all the more salient when one considers what is missing from Xinhua’s account and read-out of Xi’s remarks: in contrast to other official statements regarding Xinjiang over the past five years, this July, Xi did not mention terrorism, extremism or separatism or refer to the so-called ‘vocational training centers’ (internment camps) that were the central feature of his policies. Nor did he mention the labour transfer program which has displaced hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, especially from the predominantly Uyghur south, out of camps or villages into forced labour in factories in Xinjiang or across the PRC. Though implemented in the name of ‘poverty alleviation,’ this proletarianisation of rural Uyghurs is breaking up families, keeping them from more lucrative entrepreneurial opportunities, and removing them lands where they have lived for centuries.

The closest Xi came to acknowledging the elephant in the room, at least in the official account of the trip, was during a visit to the Eighth Division of the Bingtuan, in Shihezi, in northern Xinjiang. There, in praising the Bingtuan’s contributions to stability through ‘garrisoning the frontier’ (Xi uses both the modern 安边固疆 and the historical 戍边), Xi was dog-whistling: due to its problematic past and costly overheads, the Bingtuan was disbanded after the Cultural Revolution, only to be reestablished in 1981 due to the PRC’s fear of Islamic movements. Everyone involved with the Bingtuan knows that despite its heroic self-image it does not defend the actual PRC border (the People’s Liberation Army does that). Rather, protecting the ‘frontier’ means hedging against domestic unrest from the Xinjiang’s non-Han native people.

The Bingtuan was formed when the victorious CPC settled eighty thousand Kuomintang 国民党 soldiers in Xinjiang in 1949. Since then, it acquires land, occupies land, promotes Han in-migration by offering land, and runs prisons and internment camps, including many of those built in the last few years. Bingtuan state farms and factories grow, purchase and process much of Xinjiang’s cotton, which comprises eighty percent of China’s overall cotton production. Because of its close involvement in repression and forced labour, the Bingtuan is now subject to international sanctions—throwing the global fiber, textile and garment trade into confusion as fashion brands are forced to rethink their supply options. Xi’s call for the Bingtuan to ‘adapt to new conditions and demands’ 兵团要适应新形势新要求 is perhaps a reference to this recent global attention and ban on importing Bingtuan products to the United States. Overall, however, by reiterating praise and support for the Bingtuan and its unspecified but well-known role bolstering colonial occupation, Xi doubled down on his policy trajectory of the past several years.

Video released by the Bingtuan 8th Division 143 Corps showcasing the advanced cotton production and peach farms featured in the Xinhua report on Xi Jinping’s visit to the Bingtuan site. (Source: bingtuannet.com)

Not Just Folk: Shifting Definitions of Minzu

The rhetorical messages of Xi’s 2022 Xinjiang trip differ from those of past leaders in another way, one as significant as it is subtle. To appreciate the shift requires understanding some history of how the CPC has talked about non-Han peoples in the PRC. (While amounting to less than ten percent of the total PRC population, if PRC non-Han groups collectively were a country, they would be the ninth or tenth most populous country in the world, about the size of Russia. So they are not numerically insignificant.) Since the 1950s, the PRC has officially recognized fifty-five ‘minority’ groups in addition to the Han Chinese. All these groups, including the Han, are labeled minzu 民族, a neologism coined in Japan in the late nineteenth century to mean ‘folk’ or ‘nation.’ The PRC first used minzu to translate Russian natsionalʹnostʹ and mimicked the Soviet parlance to define PRC demographic and cultural diversity in terms of ‘nationality’ and the PRC as a multi-national nation-state. Since the 1990s, however, PRC official rhetoric has shed the Soviet model to discuss diversity in terms more like those used in Europe and America. For example, what had been translated as the State Nationalities Affairs Commission 中华人民共和国国家民族事务委员会 changed its official English name to State Ethnic Affairs Commission — while retaining the original terminology in Chinese, and still applying minzu even to ancient groups whom many western historians and anthropologists would call neither a nation nor an ethnic group.  Because this mutability of the Chinese term minzu is doing a lot of ideological heavy lifting, I leave it in Chinese, as minzu, below.

Similarly, the ideologically central keyword Zhonghua 中华 is a complex shifting signifier. Its first use as a general, transhistorical term for ‘Chinese’ in a national sense is credited to Liang Qichao 梁启超, who sought a Chinese language equivalent to western words for ‘Chinese’. Liang meant Zhonghua roughly in the sense we use the word ‘Han’ today, but in early twentieth century discourse about the territorial and demographic make-up of the Chinese nation, politicians in the Republic of China, while promoting their territorial claims on Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang, extended the term Zhonghua to include peoples from these other parts of the former Qing empire (all of which, like China, declared independence after the collapse of the Qing). Both Sun Yat-sen 孙中山 and Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石 pushed strained racial or historical arguments that Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols and Manchus were all really originally Chinese, but had diverged from their Chinese roots over time. The PRC initially dropped such pan-Zhonghuaist assertions, and after acquiring Tibet and Xinjiang accommodated its imperial diversity through the fifty-six minzu system. But in 1989, the sociologist Fei Xiaotong 费孝通 wrote an influential article that reestablished the idea of Zhonghua as a kind of super-minzu. Fei’s formula, called the ‘many origins / one entity pattern of the Zhonghua nation’ 中华民族多元一体格局, retained distinct identities for the fifty-five non-Han minzu, but superimposed a Zhonghua minzu on top of them as culmination of modern nation-building and national self-awareness processes: Zhonghua was primarily a national self-awareness processes: Zhonghua was primarily a national identity that emerged after the Opium Wars.[1]

Zhonghua Rules

Minzu, then, became a fundamental building-block of PRC identity and governance. Since 1949, PRC public presentation of its ‘minority minzu’ 少数民族, that is, of those other than Han, has always showcased their cultures, albeit usually only their superficial, non-religious and unthreatening aspects and famously through kitschy costumed song-and-dance performance. Han, as audience and monochrome counterpoint to these displays, were implicitly the more advanced self, juxtaposed against the colorful minzu other.

True to form, this July when visiting the Xinjiang Regional Museum, Xi Jinping watched costumed performers of the Manas, the Kyrgyz oral epic about the heroic deeds of medieval khans. But more than his predecessors, who might be said to have been simply ticking an obligatory box by observing such minzu cultural displays, Xi and those helping craft his ideology are now mobilising the culture and identity in Xinjiang for a specific strategic purpose, one intrinsic to Xi’s broader ideological program of ‘Chinese civilisation’ (using Zhonghua, the cultural term, not Zhongguo, the political one). Xi’s penchant for ancient Chinese phrases, affection for Confucianistic sentiments, and sunnier assessment of the pre-nineteenth century Chinese past (its ‘feudalism’ 封建 notwithstanding) have been widely noted in the context of his ‘Chinese Dream’ 中国梦 slogan. Xi’s ideology rolls up Xinjiang’s peoples into this China Dream and not, as in the past, merely as less developed, junior siblings of the Han. A 1981 central Communist Party Xinjiang work group launched the catchphrase ‘Han are inseparable from minority minzu, and minority minzu are inseparable from the Han’ 汉族离不开少数民族,少数民族离不开汉族. Party general secretary Jiang Zemin later added that the minority nationalities are also inseparable from each other 各少数民族之间也相互离不开, resulting in the ‘three inseparables’ 三个离不开 formula.

Billboard of Xi Jinping in Xinjiang, credit: Flickr

In contrast to the former paternalistic apposition of Han to the less developed ‘minorities’, Xi’s published remarks from the Xinjiang trip, dense as they are with ideological rhetoric, do not use the character ‘Han’ 汉 once. Xi does not discuss the relationship of Hanzu 汉族 to non-Han ‘minority minzu’ at all. Instead, we get the word ‘Zhonghua’ twenty-eight times. Everyone understands that the central tension in the Uyghur ‘Autonomous Region’ arises from heteronomous control by the Han-dominated Party-State, which is promoting Han colonial settlement, offering Han special access to jobs unavailable to Uyghurs and other local peoples, letting Han pass freely through checkpoints while subjecting non-Han to mobile phone scans and physical searches, criminalising Islamic practice but not Han customs, progressively illegalizing Uyghur language in favor of Mandarin — and on and on. Despite the stark colonial divide between Han and non-Han, or, rather, because of it, Xi’s ideology attempts to erase the Han/minzu opposition, in favor of big-tent inclusivity under the newly emphasized rubric of Zhonghua.

This core ideological message resonates in Xi’s remarks at the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumchi, and in his speech to cadres from the Xinjiang party, government and the Bingtuan. After inspecting an exhibition of ‘Xinjiang historical artifacts’ and viewing the Manas performance, Xi proclaimed that

Zhonghua civilisation is broad and deep, with ancient origins and a long history, and formed from the confluence of the hundred rivers of each minzu’s excellent culture. We must strengthen research into the history of the Zhonghua minzu community, and the many origins/one entity pattern of the Zhonghua minzu.



Each minzu of Xinjiang is an important member of the great family of the Zhonghua minzu, with whom its bloodlines are linked and destiny is shared.


When instructing the cadres, Xi emphasised culture and history, deploying the new array of Party-line catch-phrases and stressing the notion of a common Zhonghua identity:

We must firmly forge consciousness of the Zhonghua minzu community, promote the communication, exchange and intermingling of all minzu. Zhonghua civilisation is the site of the root vein of the culture of every Xinjiang minzu. We must educate and lead the many cadres and broad masses to correctly understand Xinjiang history, especially the history of each minzu’s development. We must cultivate a Zhonghua minzu historical outlook, firmly forge a China heart and Chinese soul. We must, in particular, thoroughly promote the ‘foundation building’ project for the youth, and construct a shared spiritual garden of the Zhonghua minzu.


Cadres would have immediately understood what Xi was referring to by ‘correctly understand Xinjiang’s history’ and the ‘cultivation of a Zhonghua minzu historical outlook’. In 2016, at the onset of the current period of extreme repression, a group of Uyghur writers, editors and publishers were arrested and convicted for separatism for the crime of publishing a set of (state-approved) Uyghur language and culture textbooks that Xi’s regime decided gave too much autonomous stature to Uyghur history and culture. [3] (They were replaced with new Uyghur literature textbooks with readings comprised of Chinese literature translated into Uyghur, rather than texts originally written in Uyghur.) A new ‘summary’ 纪要 of historical points, determined by the Central Work Coordination Small Group on Xinjiang, was circulated within the party from 2017. Like other recent pronouncements regarding ethnic diversity in Chinese history, the summary dates the ‘unification’ of tribes and confederations with the proto-Han (Huaxia 华夏) as early as the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han (202 BCE-202 CE) empires, then skips rapidly ahead to the twentieth century. If, as the new approach argues, Zhonghuaness began so early, subsequent developments, such as the 1000 years between the eighth and eighteenth century when no China-based state occupied or had influence in the region now called Xinjiang, don’t matter. Xi can then assert that all peoples in today’s PRC have been part of the Zhonghua collective for millennia. This logic, central to Xi’s historical strategy, depends on the generic, ahistorical sense of Zhonghua. But unlike Fei Xiaotong’s use of the word, it does not treat the emergence of Zhonghua identity as a modern phenomenon, instead, rolling it back to the very beginnings of the Chinese-language historical record.

This Zhonghua-centric historical catechism undergirds Xi’s central ideological program for non-Han peoples, namely, the ‘five identitifications’ 五个认同: identification with the great homeland 伟大祖国, with the Zhonghua minzu 中华民族, with Zhonghua culture 中华文化, with the Chinese  Communist Party 中国共产党, and with socialism with Chinese characteristics 中国特色社会主义. Focusing on affiliative identity in this way independent of class status turns Marxist notions of base and superstructure on their head, of course, but that is just what Xi ordered at the Second Central Work Forum on Xinjiang in 2014 when he raised the issue of ethnic and religious identity above economic diagnoses of the Xinjiang problem — previously, development had been treated both as fundamental cause and ultimate solution to unrest. This new focus on the psychological (or ‘spiritual’) rather than the ‘material’ led to the massive effort to reengineer the identity of millions of non-Han minzu in Xinjiang by subjecting them to psychological and physical maltreatment in prison camps. [Many journalistic accounts group all the non-Han minzu of Xinjiang, including the Uyghurs, under the term ‘Muslim minorities’. Many members of these groups are Muslim, or culturally Muslim, but that is not their essence. They are persecuted for ethno-national, not religious reasons, though religious extremism is used as the excuse.  Secular Uyghur elites were the first to go. The state has also put Mongol minzu in Xinjiang under pressure, though they are not Muslim.]

In July 2022, Xi called on Xinjiang officials to stay the course, explaining that cultural identity is the deepest layer of identity, and enjoined them to:

Correct historical and cultural recognition, and highlight the special characteristics of Zhonghua culture and the visual image of the Zhonghua peoples. We must, in a multifaceted and wholistic way, construct and promulgate the commonality of Zhonghua culture, and [construct and promulgate] a discursive system and effective media for conveying the historical fact of pan-minzu communication, exchange and intermingling from Xinjiang to central China.


The vocabulary here is remarkable: Xi is explicitly calling for a discourse to be constructed and for a particular visual image of Zhonghuaness to be promoted: an image that includes Xinjiang non-Han people as part of the Zhonghua minzu community since ancient times. In short, Xi repeats the CPC claim, now common for a few years, that Uyghurs (and other non-Han Xinjiang natives) have always been Zhonghua people. Note that the term used is not Zhongguo ren 中国人, citizens of the political state of China: such a claim would be still more demonstrably untrue, since for a thousand years before 1759 no state based in geographical China had control over what is now Xinjiang. But by means of the vaguer cultural identifier Zhonghua, it’s easier (if still inaccurate) to claim perduring connection and even identity of Central Asians with Sinitic peoples. Following a 2019 white paper, Urumchi’s mayor and deputy Party chief Yasheng Sidike published an op-ed in the Urumqi Evening Post in which he went so far as to assert that Uyghurs were not related to the Turks of the Turkic khaghanate but were ‘part of the Chinese nation’.

That claim is not supported by history, linguistics, or genetics. After the break-up of the Turkic Khaghanate in the mid-eighth century, the medieval Uyghur tribal confederation controlled what is now Mongolia. One hundred years later, they migrated to Gansu and the eastern part of what is now Xinjiang. Modern Uyghur language developed from old Turkic, as attested by eighth-century inscriptions found in Mongolia, and more recently, from the Central Asian Turkic literary language of Chaghatai, and was enriched by many Persian loanwords. Most modern Uyghur vocabulary, such as words for automobile [mashina] and communism [kommunizm], was borrowed from Russian, rather than Chinese, the legacy of Tsarist and Soviet influence in Xinjiang in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Uyghur population is genetically diverse, reflecting movements of peoples and cultural exchanges from across Eurasia since before the Bronze Age.

Xi’s revision of Xinjiang history is not just for internal consumption. Foreign hearts and minds aren’t to be neglected either. Xi ordered officials to

Launch multi-level, omni-directional, three-dimensional propaganda about Xinjiang directed abroad, perfect the work of ‘inviting in’ [bringing selected groups on Xinjiang propaganda tours], and tell the Chinese Xinjiang story well.


In sum, then, while Xi’s July Xinjiang tour in some ways resembles those of his predecessors, the ideological focus of the remarks he made there was on a new message, one promoting a historical narrative of primordial Zhonghuaness in which Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and other indigenes of Xinjiang were a component from the beginning. This is an aggressively inclusive narrative, one that minimises non-Han ethnic identity not through exclusion, but by engulfing it within a larger invented category. Xi’s Zhonghua-ism has, in effect, weaponised the imagined community for colonial purposes, complete with shared history, shared land and shared blood flowing through ‘root veins’.

Hats Off

Finally, the photos. The set of images accompanying reports on Xi’s Xinjiang trip, again, look like those documenting previous leaders’ trips there (or elsewhere in the PRC). General Secretary of the CPC, President and Central Military Committee Chairman Xi is pictured front and center, or otherwise distinguished from others in the scene by an item of clothing or, in the cotton fields of Shihezi, by a pair of sporty Ray-ban style sunglasses (not like Joe Biden’s Aviators, more like Tom Cruise’s black rectangular Wayfarers in Risky Business.) Xi is often the tallest man in the shot, especially when amidst crowds of Uyghurs, whom he towers over: in a tableau photographed in the Tianshan neighborhood in Urumchi, Uyghur women and children were posed in the front, near Xi, while Uyghur men stand in the background, allowing Xi to rise head and shoulders above the applauding people.

But one, formerly de rigueur image is missing from this gallery. In the past, when in Xinjiang or interacting with Xinjiang people Chinese leaders always posed wearing a minzu hat, such as the Uyghur doppa (huamao 花帽 in Chinese). Xi’s predecessors Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao each put one on; Xi himself did so in 2014, but not in 2022—though the group photo with the Kyrgyz Manas troupe offered an obvious opportunity. I could have missed a photo elsewhere,  but no Party-secretary-in-a-minzu-hat pic is among the nineteen much re-posted images in the Xinhua report on Xi’s 2022 Xinjiang visit. Why not?

Each minzu in Xinjiang has its own distinctive headgear. (There is no official Han hat; no image of a Zhonghua hat comes to mind). The PRC imperative to represent non-Han peoples in ‘native costume’ perpetuates the stereotype of minzu as eternally quaint, ethnic, traditional dancing monkeys, as opposed to people who wear a business suit to work or a stylish dress for a night out. But the hats do symbolise each group’s unique culture, and by donning the cap, a leader recognises that minzu’s individuality. Considering Xi’s call on the cadres to construct the ‘visual image of the Zhonghua people,’ I wonder: as Xi phases out the ‘Han plus fifty-five minority minzu’ plural language of discrete groups in favor of the unitary ‘great Zhonghua national family,’ might he have intentionally declined to wear the hat, to avoid even that minimal nod to distinctive identity outside of the Zhonghua corral?


[1] Fei Xiaotong, ‘Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese People’, paper presented as part of The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 15 and 17 November 1988; and also ‘Many origins / one entity pattern of the Zhonghua nation’ 中华民族多元一体格局, in Fei Xiaotong ed., Many Origins / One Entity Pattern of the Zhonghua Nation 中华民族多元一体格局, Beijing: Xinhua shudian, 1989. There is a large and growing literature on the construction of nation and ethnicity in the Qing empire and Chinese republics.  These two historical surveys are good starting points: James Leibold, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism: How the Qing Frontier and its Indigenes Became Chinese, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; and Bill Hayton, The Invention of China, Yale University Press 2020.

[2] In an earlier tweet on Xi’s Xinjiang trip I mistakenly wrote that the catchphrase about common bloodlines did not appear in the read-out of Xi’s comments.

[3] See also ‘Colonialism, Assimilationism and Ethnocide’ in James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, Columbia University Press, 2021.


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