Rowena Xiaoqing He
In spring 1989, millions of Chinese took to the streets calling for reforms. The nationwide movement, highlighted by a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ended on June 4 with the People’s Liberation Army firing on unarmed civilians. Over 200,000 soldiers, equipped with tanks and machine guns, participated in the lethal action. Student leaders, intellectuals, workers, and citizens were subsequently purged, imprisoned, or exiled.
Tiananmen remains one of the most sensitive and taboo subjects in China today, banned from both academic and popular realms. Even the actual number of deaths from the military crackdown remains unknown. Every year on the anniversary of June 4, the government intensifies its control, and citizens who commemorate the events are put under various forms of surveillance. The Tiananmen Mothers are prohibited from openly mourning family members who died in the massacre, and exiles are prohibited from returning home, even for a parent’s funeral. Many older supporters of the movement, leading liberal intellectuals in the 1980s, died in exile.
The post-Tiananmen regime has constructed a narrative that portrays the Tiananmen Movement as a Western conspiracy to weaken and divide China, hence justifying its military crackdown as necessary for stability and prosperity and paving the way for China’s rise. Because public opinion pertaining to nationalism and democratization is inseparable from a collective memory of the nation’s most immediate past—be it truthful, selective, or manipulated—the memory of Tiananmen has become highly contested. While memory can be manipulated or erased by those in power, the repression of both memory and history is accompanied by political, social, and psychological distortions. Indeed, it is not possible to understand today’s China and its relationship with the world without understanding the spring of 1989.
The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.