In this book, Timothy Grose presents over ten years of research on the graduates of the Xinjiang Classes, the Chinese state boarding-school project which has been sending young Uyghurs to high schools in Han-dominated cities in neidi, inland China. The text is organised into four different chapters and is based mostly on data drawn from participant observation and semi-structured interviews, including additional insights from online discussions as well as social media posts. After a succinct introduction covering the state of ethnic affairs in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and a brief discussion of his research methods, Grose starts the main body of the book with an analysis of the aims and practices of this boarding school project. This is followed by three chapters pertaining to the lives and attitudes of Xinjiang Class graduates, skilfully sketching general trends from a wide range of personal experiences. Throughout his work, Grose actively engages with other publications on the region, especially those of anthropologists who specialise on the Uyghurs such as Smith Finley, Bellér-Hann and Dautcher, as well as with similar studies conducted on the Tibetan ethnic boarding schools. Notably, his findings do not concur with many previously published conclusions, especially when it comes to those found in Han scholars’ work on these boarding schools or in research done on the minkaohan students (Uyghurs who were educated in Chinese-language schools in Xinjiang). Grose hopes that readers will find in Negotiating Inseparability a compelling counter-narrative containing additional nuances to the work of certain previous scholars.
The findings he presents from his extended research on Xinjiang Class graduates show that, as opposed to the aims of the programme – specifically, the production of an educated elite acculturated to Han society and loyal to the party-state – the Uyghurs who have experienced these boarding schools find ways to refuse the complete adoption of the secular Uyghur identity created and pushed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This secular identity – the Weiwu’er zu (Uyghur) category – is envisioned as one of the components of, and therefore contained within, the Zhonghua minzu – the ‘Chinese nation’. Grose advances that, instead of embracing the state-sanctioned Uyghur identity, the graduates identify, assert and even exaggerate key Uyghur ‘ethnic markers’ to distinguish themselves from the Han majority amongst which they live. They do this above all by making a point of speaking Uyghur amongst themselves, by developing or deepening their attachment to Islam and by mixing with Han people as little as possible. They also tend to cultivate links to transnational communities such as the umma or the Turkic world. Furthermore, the author notes that despite some individuals exhorting their classmates to return to the motherland for what could be called patriotic reasons (to help develop the region or to prevent the demographic balance from shifting further in favour of the Han), most do not seek to go back to Xinjiang upon completion of their studies. In most cases, this is either because they prefer the relative tolerance towards their religion in neidi or because of the scarce job opportunities back home. However, staying in neidi or going abroad is not feasible for most graduates, a fact that forces them to return to under-employment, caused by job discrimination along ethnic lines or simply by the scarcity of positions for the educated youth due to the stated low level of development in certain areas, as well as to the limitations of living under the surveillance state currently in force in Xinjiang. Reintegrating into Uyghur society also presents its own challenges, especially for the women included in the study. To conclude, Grose reminds us that, as a result of their experience and the failure of the state to provide what it had promised (namely socioeconomic advantages), rather than accept the Weiwu’er zu category as defined and maintained by the CCP (and the secularisation and subordination to Han people necessary for the adoption of this identity), ‘Xinjiang Class graduates turned their backs on the Zhonghua minzu [italics added] by asserting Uyghurness, Muslimness and (sometimes) Chineseness in ways that deviated from the state’s vision’ (p.116).
Grose is frank about the limitations of his work. As an American researcher, he was not granted access to any school hosting a Xinjiang Class, and could not talk to any students currently undergoing the programme. This means that the book is not a study of Xinjiang Classes as they are currently being carried out. Instead, Grose’s research focuses exclusively on graduates from the project. He thus compensates for the lack of access to current classes by conducting his fieldwork in cafés, restaurants, at social events, etc., away from the formal setting of the school, where he would have been closely supervised by school officials and where his respondents would supposedly have felt less free in their responses. The majority of the latter (over 60 in total) were university students at the time he met them, and are people he mostly manages to stay in touch with thereafter. This allows him to carry out ‘focused revisits’ as they enter the job market, marry, and then start families, and thus enriches the work with a longitudinal dimension. This, in turn, allows the author to connect his observations all the more to patterns observed by other scholars in the field.
Something that the reviewer particularly appreciated about this book was the researcher’s attitude towards the subjects of his study, apparent from the very start, with a dedication that reads: ‘To the intelligent and selfless young Uyghurs who bravely shared their stories with me.’ This mind set, invested as it is in the people researched, emerges throughout the book and offers an interesting approach to embracing the personal involvement particular to anthropological work. Many of the pages are filled with anecdotes or quotes from the respondents, from which disparate ensemble Grose manages to discern patterns and from which he in turn draws conclusions. The author further does not shy away from presenting evidence that contradicts the general trends he wants to illustrate, neither does he tiptoe around Chinese state sensitivities.
Because of its thematic organisation, its scope and length (the book is only 142 pages long, yet intended to cover more than a decade of research), it reads as an overview of the lived experience, attitudes and life-trajectories of graduates of the Xinjiang Classes, and is maybe a little general. In this way, it suffers somewhat from the lack of in-depth analysis, appears as a compilation of stories and impressions and thus sometimes also seems overly anecdotal. On the other hand, its clarity and succinctness add force to the point Grose his trying to make, namely that the Xinjiang Classes are not having the effect desired by the CCP and that studying the graduates’ negotiation of Chinese and Uyghur identities sheds light on the dynamics of Uyghurness more generally. It remains a key book for anyone wishing to better understand the Xinjiang Classes and the effect they are having on the Uyghur identity of its participants, largely due to the wealth of information it contains about the lived experiences and attitudes of some of the project’s former students.