Uyghur educational elites in China: mobility and subjectivity uncertainty on a life-transforming journey

Research Highlighted

Zhenjie Yuan & Hong Zhu (2020): Uyghur educational elites in China: mobility and subjectivity uncertainty on a life-transforming journey, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2020.1790343 (open access)

Relocation as a strategy: policy designs and spatial agendas of the Xinjiang class

Education has been perceived as a key mechanism to ease interethnic conflict, enhance mutual trust, and promote national unity in China, a state that has been presented for decades in its official media as multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. However, taking the Uyghur as an example, although preferential policies have been deployed for years, conflicts between the Uyghur and Han-dominant educational systems have continuously been reported. Spatial isolation, religion, language, and sense of ethnic belonging, etc. are the most-discussed factors leading to gaps between Uyghur students and mainstream society in educational/career contexts across schools, universities, and workplaces.

This article concerns a boarding school project named Xinjiang Interior Class, which has been defined as an emblem of a nationalist project aimed at improving minority education and fostering solidarity among ethnic groups. Unlike the trend of “moving-inwards” that introduces educational resources into Xinjiang– the focus of most preferential educational policies related to Xinjiang – the Xinjiang class represents a “moving-outwards” trend: Xinjiang students are relocated from their home areas to receive education at designated campuses in selected central and eastern cities. In this vein, the policy involves a physical relocation of students (mostly ethnic minority, especially Uyghur) from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to the eastern and central parts of the country.

The Xinjiang class policy has been defined as successful in official discourses, increasing from 1,000 enrolments in 2000 to around 10,000 enrolments since 2014. By 2017, nearly 100,000 Xinjiang students had received education through this policy, with about 21,000 graduates starting their careers in Xinjiang. However, the policy has been critiqued due to its strategy of removing students from their homeland, and its explicit political goals of cultivating politically loyal (mostly ethnic minority) elites. Arguably, the policy is one of the most influential but controversial minority education policies in contemporary China.

Current debates and research questions

The policy has attracted increasing academic attention. Existing scholarship has focused on interethnic interaction and identity politics among current students and graduates in different spatial contexts (including schools, universities, and workplaces), unveiling both the efficiencies and problems with of the policy. Although the existing research has revealed myriad interethnic politics in everyday schooling, critical, but still underexplored, questions are: Who are the students before they enter such a new educational world? How did they experience the relocation process? Drawing on theories of mobility and subjectivity, especially in relation to train space, this study interrogates Uyghur students’ subjectivity experiences in this space-in-motion.

Subjectivity, in this study, refers to all the elements that make up a thinking, perceiving and feeling human subject. These consist of the various domains of conscious experience – the attitudes, values, memories, feelings, beliefs, interpretations, perceptions, expectations, imaginations and personal or cultural understandings specific to a person. This study focuses on subjectivity since it focuses more on ideas about the subject and one’s own mental world, which is expected to provide a more subtle and nuanced perspective on understanding the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the Xinjiang students during the process of mobility.

Methods

The field site of this study is a moving train. This study is based on a “mobile ethnography”, which is a qualitatively-based method of tracking the students’ journey, gathering students’ insight and capturing the student voice. I had a seat in the same compartment as the students, spending the entire three-day and two-night trip with them, which offered me significant time and space to talk with students, hear their voices and observe their behaviours. Drawing on interviews (N=16), observations, and questionnaire surveys (N=97) with Uyghur students on a train which took them to their new educational world, this article examines what the students felt, thought, perceived and did during the trip, and analyses how these subjective experiences are related to the process of being mobile.

Findings and discussions

We find that the process of mobility provided the students with a specific time and space to rethink who they are and how they are connected to different places, people and communities. The rich but subtle experiences during the mobility process result in intricate subjectivity uncertainty for the students, chiefly entailing a strong sense of eliteness, a reinforced sense of self-discipline, and increased place identity to Xinjiang. Furthermore, these experiences also rendered the train an affective space, where bodies (students), materials, emotions and imaginations were intertwined, but also a social-political space entailing significant implications for examining the politics of ethnicity in relation to the Xinjiang class.

The article supplements the current literature by presenting the poetics and politics of subjectivity among Uyghur students in a mobile space, further reinforcing the significance of mobility theories in understanding ethnic migration and its politics in China.

First, this study offers researchers a mobilities perspective to examine the interethnic politics of the Xinjiang class, but also reminding both scholars and observers of China to extend their focus to other spatial contexts associated with the policy.

Second, we contend that mobility has become a core value and emblem of progress during China’s modernization and urbanization, and should be a critical perspective for examining ethnic politics in contemporary China. We argue that the process of movement/travel, an important but underexplored arena, might not only create a transitional time-space for (ethnic minority) migrants to conduct relocation, but also produces intense psychological and behavioural responses to their decisions about and expectations of im/mobility, which is connected to the broader socio-economic picture in China.

Authors’ bios

Dr Zhenjie Yuan is Associate Professor in School of Geography and Remote Sensing, Guangzhou University. He holds a PhD in Human Geography/Chinese studies from the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, the University of Melbourne. His research is inter-disciplinary, traversing across geography of education, sociology of education and ethnic studies. It focuses particularly on the politics of multi-ethnic interaction of the “Xinjiang Inland Class”. Email: zjyuan@gzhu.edu.cn.

Dr Hong Zhu is a Professor in the School of Geography and Remote Sensing, Guangzhou University. His research interests lie in social and culture geography. He is also the Director of Guangdong Provincial Center for Urban and Migration Studies. He is now the Principal Investigator of a Key Project of the National Science Foundation of China which focuses on human-place interaction and the negotiation of place for various types of migrants in the context of China’s globalization and modernization. Email: zhuhong@gzhu.edu.cn.

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