Letters, Reviews

How an Academic Journal Censored My Review on Xinjiang9 min read

A squelched review of Oil and Water by Tom Cliff – Timothy Grose

On January 1, 2018, I received a request from China and Asia: A Journal in Historical Studies, a new journal sponsored by the academic publisher Brill, a respected Dutch publishing house with some 275 journals under its aegis, which claims “over three centuries of scholarly publishing.” The request from the journal was to review Tom Cliff’s book Oil and Water – an ethnography about Han settler experiences in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I agreed, and the review had a generous November 2018 deadline as the journal would publish its first edition in early 2019. The journal’s book review editor is a trusted friend, and I was pleased to read China and Asia’s mission statement: “Its purpose is to promote communication and exchange among the global Asian studies community, especially among scholars based in Asian countries.”

After receiving several deadline reminders, I submitted the review on November 7, 2018. During those eleven months, the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang weighed heavily on my mind, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs reported to be detained in re-education camps. Cliff’s prevailing argument (see my review, which is reproduced in full below) afforded much-needed clarity to the confounding situation in the region. Therefore, I contextualized my review by opening with a paragraph-long discussion of Xinjiang’s “concentration re-education centers.”

The next day, I received a brief message from the book review editor. The editorial staff “suggest a minor change,” he wrote: to delete the entire first paragraph, in which I had outlined the situation in Xinjiang. I opened the edited document to see the first paragraph, as well as the first two sentences of the second paragraph, had been crossed out (see screenshot below). I was more confused than upset. I spent the evening and next morning trying to make sense of this editorial decision, before responding in an email asking for clarification and expressing my concerns over censorship. The book review editor forwarded my note to the editor-in-chief of the journal, Han Xiaorong.

After waiting over a month for the editor’s response, to no avail, I sent a follow-up email in mid-December. The book review editor responded within a week and expressed serious doubt over the possibility of publishing the piece. He did not offer specific reasons behind the decision.

Three months of silence festered into frustration. Wanting to still publish the review and wishing to express my displeasure at Brill, I offered the piece to the first bidder in an April 5 tweet. The tweet sparked a firestorm of responses.

Amidst the uproar, the chief publishing officer of Brill reached out to me on the Twitter thread seeking a “better understanding” of the situation. Brill’s publishing director for Asian studies later contacted me by email, claiming that “an honest mistake was made by soliciting a review of a book that lies outside the scope of the relevant journal” (which is supposedly about China’s historical relations with other Asian countries), and that “this was then exacerbated by mistakenly citing the wrong reasons for the editor-in-chief’s reluctance to publish the review.”

On digging deeper, I came to believe that this was not an “honest mistake” (they chased up the review several times, after all) but that the journal would not allow my review to criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies in Xinjiang. I discovered that the editor-in-chief, a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, conducts formal research on Xinjiang and Tibet, and claims state-minority relations as one of his specializations. In 2013, he wrote an op-ed in Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao that was republished in Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong’s pro-CCP paper, in which he identifies “outside influences, especially from the western world and the Muslim world” as one of six sources of the region’s unrest. I shared this information with Brill, but they haven’t responded yet. Having opened a Beijing office in 2017 to “strength[en] Brill’s presence in China,” that response may never come. The journal launched as planned in February 2019.

Editor’s note: Below is the full, unedited text of Timothy Grose’s original review, as filed to the journal China and Asia in November 2018, and later published in The Asia Dialogue in April, reproduced with permission.

The disturbing images of detainees held across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) concentration re-education centers (jizhong jiaoyu zhuanhua zhongxin) provide a sobering reminder that the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) far northwest is governed using radically different measures than those enforced in Han-dominated central and eastern China. The fact that the incarcerated are predominately Uyghur and Kazakh exposes, once again, the PRC’s socio-ethnic hierarchy, which valorizes Han people and their culture over ethnic minorities. Unquestionably, Uyghurs and Kazakhs undergoing “re-education” are thrust into an environment that simultaneously denies them of Central Asian and Islamic norms while they are bombarded with secular Han values and “correct” thinking. Indeed, the proliferation of re-education centers marks an acceleration of the CCP’s larger socio-political goals in Xinjiang: transform the region to more closely resemble China proper (neidi).

Yet this project is comprehensive, gradual and far-reaching. It seeks to dramatically alter the region’s topographies, demographics, political structures and cultures under the guise of economic development. In his theoretically engaging and richly descriptive ethnography, Tom Cliff, Research Fellow at Australian National University, examines this transformative process from the perspectives of multi-generational – as well as regionally and socially diverse – settlements of Han migrants who hold the key to CCP-led development. This book is the fruit of over two years of field work in Korla, the second largest city in Xinjiang, which is located 200 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Ürümchi. While residing in Korla and teaching English at a middle school connected to the Tarim Oilfield Company, Cliff collected oral histories from the city’s Han residents. His position at the middle school proved invaluable for establishing rapport with his Han interlocutors, who may have been hesitant to share intimate details with a foreign researcher.

Cliff organizes his findings in seven main chapters that present three themes – migration, empire and time. Chapter One profiles the so-called constructors (jianshezhe) – Han people who contribute physical labor in socio-political transformation projects – many of whom traveled to Xinjiang in the 1950s and 1960s to serve in the semi-autonomous paramilitary farming Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan. Beyond transforming physical space, the efforts of Bingtuan constructors have been paramount in “normalizing” the local (i.e. Uyghur) culture to be more akin to central China. The following three chapters juxtapose Han experiences within the Bingtuan and the Tarim Oilfield, a state-owned enterprise (SOE) and an example of “21st-century developmental modernism in Xinjiang” (p. 51). This comparison throws into sharp relief the gradual transition (e.g. changes to structures and social expectations) from Maoist-era work unit employment (danwei) to the reform-era’s social contract system. Chapters Five and Six underscore the importance of interpersonal networks (Ch. guanxi) among Han in Korla to demonstrate another process by which the cultural practices of the metropole (i.e. the Han) are spread and reproduced in “peripheral” Xinjiang. Finally, Chapter Seven explores the dynamics of the relationship of mutual dependence forged between the Party state and XUAR’s swelling Han population.

Oil and Water’s central argument is compelling: CCP leaders and Han migrants constantly negotiate and reproduce the asymmetrical arrangement between the “modern” Han core of neidi and the “backwards” XUAR frontier.  Therefore, the CCP’s “colonial endeavor” (p. 9) in Xinjiang – a syllogism that attempts to reconcile the difficulties applying contentious terms such as “colonialism” and “empire” in an analysis of Xinjiang – is paradoxical. According to Cliff, “The integration of the persistent frontiers of China’s northwest is not only impossible, it is undesirable to the imperial-thinking core” (p. 215). In other words, it is politically and economically advantageous – even necessary – for both the CCP and Han migrants to preserve a periphery-metropole relationship between the XUAR and neidi.

To be sure, Oil and Water does not present Han migrants in Korla as a monolith. With precision and empathy, Cliff carefully peels back the layers of state-sponsored development in Xinjiang to place into focus the individual Han agents – and their subjectivities – integral to the CCP’s nation-building programs. Viewed from afar, Han migrants share common “constructor” collectivities built upon an inherent, but sometimes tenuous, relationship to the state (p. 185). However, their place of origin, time of relocation, and motivations (i.e. self vs. state-sponsored) have created an intra-group hierarchy. More specifically, urban Han who relocated to the region as part of state-directed migration programs (bendiren) – and their offspring – sit atop the perch of this hierarchy, while recent arrivals struggle to form symbiotic political and economic relationships. Therefore, the state must carefully address Han grievances in order to prevent intra-ethnic conflict, which may compromise stability. In fact, Cliff argues – perhaps too confidently – that the CCP regards Han discontent as a greater threat to stability in Xinjiang than the so-called “Uyghur problem.”

Specialists may raise issue with other assertions. For example, Cliff interprets a slight modification – actually a correction – to the corresponding English translation of a Chinese-language billboard to be indicative of a fundamental shift in the Party’s discourse on “civilization” without providing evidence to substantiate his claim. One may wonder why such an important shift in discourse would only appear in an English caption. In another example, Cliff assumes the Qianxi residential complex, whose name means “to migrate” (qiānxǐ 迁徙), is purposely used to invoke the homonym meaning “to advance one’s seat” (qiánxí 前席). It is just as conceivable that the name Qianxi was chosen for this exclusive housing building to capture the emotions of romantic evenings (qiánxī 前夕). Similarly, several of Cliff’s English glosses of Chinese terms were too creative, sometimes to the point of inaccuracy).

I cannot overstate that these minor (and debatable) shortcomings do not detract from otherwise pathbreaking scholarship. Lucidly written, Oil and Water provides its audience with an intimate look inside one of the most securitized regions of the world. It is essential reading for experts and graduate students in the fields of Xinjiang studies, critical Han studies, and modern China, and is a valuable case study for post-colonial theorists. ∎


Tom Cliff, Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang (University of Chicago Press, June 2016).
Correction (May 16, 2019): Han Xiaorong’s 2013 opinion piece was first published by the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, not by Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao as previously stated. It was later republished in Ta Kung Pao.
Read Han Xiaorong’s response to this article in MCLC forum here.

Timothy Grose

Timothy Grose, PhD is an assistant professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. His research on Uyghur ethno-national identities and expressions of Islamic piety has been published in the China Journal, Journal of Contemporary China, and Foreign Policy and featured in the Economist, the Atlantic, and CNN. His book on Uyghur boarding schools, Negotiating Inseparability, will be published by Hong Kong University Press in October 2019.