“Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West”, edited by Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle

Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West is a collection of academic articles edited by Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle. Although ethnically and historically quite dissimilar, the two regions of Xinjiang and Tibet occupy a similar space in China’s political landscape. Both are large volatile regions on the country’s western borders with large non-Han populations—many of whom continue to bristle at their integration into the People’s Republic of China.

Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, Ben Hillman, Gray Tuttle (eds) (Columbia University Press, April 2016)
Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, Ben Hillman, Gray Tuttle (eds) (Columbia University Press, April 2016)

Xinjiang and Tibet represent China’s two largest officially classified Ethnic Autonomous Regions, with the ethnicities in question being the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Although this classification underplays the degree of ethnic diversity within each region, and indeed within the Uyghur and Tibetan ethnic communities themselves, it is still the Tibetans and Uyghurs who are the largest population and primary focus of the book.

Although the history of Uyghur and Tibetan resistance to Han-Chinese rule is centuries old, the articles within this book is concerned only with the manifestation of conflict in the modern era. For both regions, 2008 is the key date that marked the resurgence of ethnic unrest that continues to this day. The year of the Beijing Olympics saw mass protests across both regions, with Tibetans and Uyghurs in their thousands taking to the streets to protest. While the scale and motivations of the protests continue to be debated, it is clear that factors such as economic inequality, large-scale Han Chinese migration and demands for greater autonomy—if not independence—were among them. In both cases, reprisals from the Chinese Government were swift and severe. A heightened military and security presence continues to this day, with increased curtailment of religious activity, freedom of movement and political discourse.


The collection contains contributions from some of the best known academics studying China’s minority nationality areas, including James Liebold and Emily Yeh, as well as a number of up-and-coming authors. Different chapters of the book attempt to analyse the issues contributing to the ongoing conflict in Xinjiang and Tibet, include the role of local government in the development of Chinese Government policy, the impacts environmental policy on Tibetan pastoralists and the challenges of economic underdevelopment in minority areas. Other chapters attempt to explain the responses of the Chinese Government and make predictions as to the future of these regions within China.

Despite the high quality of the research contained within the book, the absence of local voices is manifest. The book’s sole minority contributor is Tibetan Yonten Nyima. Nyima aside, no other Tibetans, Uyghurs or even Han Chinese can be found among the book’s contributors. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is true that most of the academic writing produced on Xinjiang and Tibet is written by non-Chinese authors. As the editors acknowledge in the book’s introduction, it is almost impossible for Chinese academics—particularly Tibetans or Uyghurs—to write critical academic analysis of China’s government policy without fear for their careers and safety.


Because of censorship Chinese scholarship is largely silent on the question of Tibetan and Uyghur grievances. By blaming unrest on separatists and other hostile forces, and by treating most forms of protest, including self-immolation, as criminal acts, the official discourse makes it politically difficult, if not impossible, for Chinese scholars to investigate the unrest from the perspective of Tibetan and Uyghur grievance. Chinese researchers who have attempted to do so have been censored, sacked, and in some cases, imprisoned… Because of the political difficulties faced by Chinese scholars, nuanced analysis of the unrest has been left to the international scholarly community


This is undoubtedly true. However, there are some Chinese academics—including those from ethnic minority backgrounds themselves—whose inclusion in the book would have been beneficial. Academics such as Zang Xiaowei have been able to make significant contributions to the academic study of the PRC’s approach to Xinjiang and Tibet within the sometimes confined limits of domestic academic discourse. It is also worth noting that foreign academics also have their own limitations, given the restrictions on political and physical access imposed by the Chinese Government on foreigners when it comes to the study of “sensitive areas”. This too is acknowledged by the editors.

However, it would be unfair to criticize the book for the limitations which shaped its creation. While a more inclusive diversity of contributors would add value, the reasons for its absence are understandable. The body of research produced is undoubtedly of a very high standard, and makes a valuable contribution to the study of the ongoing conflicts in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Dr Joshua Bird is an international development professional working across the Asia-Pacific. He is currently editing for publication his thesis on economic development and ethnic identity in China’s northwest.