Xinjiang and Central Asia: China’s Strategic Shift

Friday, January 6, 2023: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Room 306

Jessica Ann Sheetz-Nguyen, University of Central Oklahoma

Central Asia—China’s Xinjiang: Reasonable Concerns and Development Interaction
Baktybek Beshimov, Northeastern University

Necessitated by Geopolitics: China’s Economic and Cultural Initiatives in Central Asia
Yi Sun, University of San Diego

Xinjiang—From Strategic Rear to Strategic Frontier
Xiao-Bing Li, University of Central Oklahoma

Will the New Local CCP Secretary Bring about Economic and Security Balance?
Xiaoxiao Li, University of Central Oklahoma

Comment: Harold Tanner, University of North Texas

Panel Description:

Beijing repositioned China by creating a new center of gravity in Central Asia, even though this policy faced new challenges and created new problems with the US. China’s policy shift changed Xinjiang’s status from the strategic rear to strategic joint in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Historians on this panel discuss the profoundness and complexity of the issues relating to the conflicts and violence in Xinjiang, as well as different government attempts to find solutions. Moreover, the panelists strike at the very core of the issues to present how people confront difficulties and break barriers such as racial and ethnic conflict and ideological differences to reach their goals of sustaining human dignity and rights while fighting for peaceful coexistence in the fast-growing and diverse world.  

Paper Abstracts

  •  “Central Asia – China’s Xinjiang: Reasonable Concerns and Development Interaction”, Baktybek Beshimov, Northeastern University

The author explains why China’s Xinjiang issue regarding Muslim ethnic minority groups becomes the concern of Central Asian societies, how reasonable and legitimate these concerns are, and what kind of economic opportunities the rapid development of Xinjiang offers to its neighboring states in post-Soviet Central Asia.

  •  “Necessitated by Geopolitics: China’s Economic and Cultural Initiatives in Central Asia”, Yi Sun, University of San Diego

on January 25, 2022, China and the five Central Asian countries– Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan — held a video summit, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China’s diplomatic relations with the five republics and affirming the multilateral intentions to continue their economic and security cooperation in an effort to create a “common community of destiny.” Largely overshadowed by other international news, this summit and the accompanying joint declaration nonetheless marked an important milestone in China’s relations with Central Asia. This paper is intended to take a close look at the development of this multifaceted relationship in the wake of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union during the early 1990s. Although political and diplomatic activities initially focused on resolving the border disputes and overcoming the uncertainties stemming from the new-found independence of these republics, China’s relations with Central Asia have increasingly reflected a desire to protect its border economic and security interests in that region. Even before the onset of the One Belt One Road (BRI) Initiative, a vast network of trade, transportation, and communication, including roads, railroads and oil and gas pipelines, had already linked China closely to Central Asia.  In recent years, the BRI, accompanied by over a dozen Confucius Institutes, has further deepened China’s economic and cultural influence in the area.  Arguably, beset by American-led geopolitical encirclement of China in the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia remains an oasis in China’s strategic achievements. 

  • Xiaobing Li, University of Central Oklahoma

When the Chinese Communist Party started its governance over Xinjiang in 1949, Xinjiang was the grand strategic rear and base of economic supply to the overall economic development for the whole country. Xinjiang has witnessed shifts of its political and economic positions from the first generation of leadership to the current Xi Jinping administration. To find a breakthrough and establish a system that enables China to further its economic development under the current turbulent economic and geopolitical environment and great changes not seen in a century, Xi Jinping proposed the Belt Road Initiative in 2013. Xinjiang, then, became China’s strategic frontier ever since. This presentation tries to answer questions such as “Is China’s BRI a response to the perceived US strategy to contain China?” and explores such questions by reviewing the brief history of Xinjiang’s geopolitical positions under different leaderships and its new role and strategic position in Xi Jinping’s BRI strategy and national security.

  • “Will the New Local CCP Secretary Bring About Economic and Security Balance?”, Xiaoxiao Li, University of Central Oklahoma

Ma Xingrui was appointed the Xinjiang CCP Secretary on December 26, 2021 to replace Chen Quanguo, who had come to Xinjiang on August 29, 2016 from his former position as the CCP Secretary of Tibet. At the start of Chen’s tenure in Xinjiang, in September 2016, his leadership announced the plan to hire 30,000 additional policing positions in an effort to increase surveillance capabilities in the region. Most of the new hires were associated with convenience police stations. Such tight control over the people halted economic development in the region that has become the main hub for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.  How has Ma Xingrui been coping with these challenges in Xinjiang? This presentation will briefly review the differences between Ma Xingrui and his predecessor Chen Quanguo and how Ma tries to balance economy and security.

Roundtable: Engaging the Studies of Blackness in China: Scholarship and Curriculum Development

Friday, January 6, 2023: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Room 306

Organizer: Danke Li, Fairfield University


Yunxiang Gao, Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University)

Yunxiang Gao, Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University)
Danke Li, Fairfield University
Xi Wang, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Guangzhi Huang, Thomas Jefferson University
Ruodi Duan, Haverford College
Zifeng Liu, Pennsylvania State University

Session Description

Inspired by Yunxiang Gao’s new book Arise, Africa! Roar, China! Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century (2022), this roundtable is to promote the study and teaching of Blackness in China.  In an open discussion format, the roundtable panelists will share their research and teaching with the audience. Yunxiang Gao will offer her insights on how Afro-Asian studies provides a new approach to race in transnational history, Sino-American relations, Black internationalism and the experiences of Chinese Americans.  Ruodi Duan will share her study of Liu Liangmo’s role in the municipal campaigns in the early 1960s and use the lens of Liu’s cultural and political activities to understand the evolution of modern Chinese conceptions of race and nation in the context of the developments in Africa and the African Diaspora. Xi Wang will share his study of how W.E.B. Du Bois and Robert F. Williams and the PRC leaders had mutually attempted to forge a political alliance but with different agendas during the Cold War. Guangzhi Huang will talk about the interconnectedness of anti-black racism and class in China, especially within the context of African migration to China in the past decade.  Zifeng Liu will present his research on the gendered dimension of Sino-African American relations, especially Black women’s role and U.S. state surveillance of China-related political activism.  Danke Li will share her experience of integrating Sino-African American cultural activities into the teaching of China-U.S relations as a cultural history.

Roundtable: Bridging Cultural and Political Divides: Unique Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching Modern China As CHUS Historians in the Post-Pandemic World (Co-sponsored by CHUS and AHA)

Sunday, January 8, 2023: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Independence Ballroom I

Yi Sun, University of San Diego

Dan Du, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Patrick Fuliang Shan, Grand Valley State University
Yi Sun, University of San Diego
Guo Wu, Allegheny College
Qiong Zhang, Wake Forest University

Session Abstract:

The Covid-19 pandemic, first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019, has compounded the deterioration of Sino-American relations by exacerbating anti-Chinese sentiments, with some politicians and media outlets fanning the flame. The American public’s unprecedented negative perception of China is no doubt attributable to a multitude of factors, both domestic and international, but at least some of these are rooted in the lack of comprehensive understanding of China and its modern history.

Prompted by these urgent concerns of our time, this roundtable explores pedagogical issues related to the teaching of modern Chinese history, especially that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949-), in American colleges and universities. The five of us are members of Chinese Historians in the United States (CHUS), an AHA-affiliated society founded in 1987. Like the majority of CHUS membership, we are Chinese expatriates or naturalized US citizens. With firsthand experiences in many historical events of contemporary China, we have been trained, first and foremost, as professional historians here in the United States. Our distinctive identity lends itself to an ability to cover modern China in a multi-dimensional fashion that goes beyond headlines and soundbites. Simultaneously inhabiting two cultural and intellectual worlds, we feel compelled, and uniquely positioned, to launch a conversation on the current state of American education about China and Chinese history and share our perspectives on how we “CHUS historians” can help make a positive difference.

Our roundtable conversations focus on the following themes:

First, we will reflect on our pedagogical journeys teaching modern China and PRC history, focusing on the common epistemological challenges we face, which stem from our hyphenated identity, and our coping strategies as we strive to teach with professionalism and academic integrity. We will discuss questions such as how to incorporate our insiders’ experiences/knowledge/perspectives to empower our teaching and impart a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of a complex subject to our students without either slipping into the role of a China advocate or being perceived as such by our students. (Yi Sun and Guo Wu)

Second, we will share some examples of how our unique analytical lenses and advantages in gaining access to certain historical sources have enabled us to depoliticize and demystify the narratives about some of the key figures, events, or facets in modern Chinese history, correcting misunderstandings and biases that have been perpetuated in the standard Chinese as well as Western history textbooks. (Dan Du and Patrick Fuliang Shan)

Third, we find that the general curricular coverage on modern China and the history of PRC in American colleges and universities tends to be one-dimensional, featuring primarily the political arena and state leaders, an angle that may engender misperceptions of China as being inherently different from, hostile or inferior to, the US. This is where CHUS historians can do much by way of developing wide-angled (top-down and bottom up) curricula and excavating and translating teaching materials that allow our students a more authentic, richly textured, and balanced view of China and its history. (Wu Guo and Qiong Zhang)

Roundtable Participant Position Statements

  • Dan Du

Trained in the field of Capitalism Studies, I teach economic history with a transnational perspective. While scholars in this field have been revising the conventional understanding of capitalism, free market, and their relations with democracy, imperialism, and globalization, it is a challenge to help students, many of whom are more familiar with the Euro-centric narratives, to understand Chinese business culture and trading environment, such as the Canton Trade System and China’s model of economic development after its Open-Up policy from the 1970s.

  • Patrick Fuliang Shan

China’s historiography in the recent centuries has been politicized, because regime changes have impacted the assessment of historical figures and events. In particular, in the 20th century, a number of regime changes occurred, notably from the Qing Empire to Yuan Shikai’s Beijing government, to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanjing regime, and to Mao Zedong’s Beijing government. After each change, the latecomer had habitually demonized the former regime by publishing a new revised history for its political maneuvers and purposes. Even for the same government, “internal regime changes” happened, as I myself experienced Mao Zedong’s totalitarianism and Deng Xiaoping’s reform. I first witnessed Mao as a demi-god but then I saw Mao being regarded as a disgraceful man. Consequently, depoliticizing the recent past has become an urgent mission, in particular for China’s expatriate historians (like me) who currently live in the United States. To be specific, I have tried to offer an objective assessment of modern China by fairly reevaluating a number of historical figures, for which I did research on Yuan Shikai, the Seven Gentlemen, Chen Yonggui, Xu Shiyou, and many others. For example, Yuan Shikai was condemned as a historical villain, a vicious dictator, and an obstinate reactionary after his death. Through my studies, I found that Yuan was a reformer, a talented official, and a progressive modernizer during the late Qing dynasty. Without a doubt, he committed serious mistakes. For this round table, I will discuss my efforts to depoliticize and demythologize the recent past, which have significantly enriched my teaching of Chinese history through my introduction of diverse perspectives.

  • Yi Sun

As a historian who grew up in China and received a graduate education in the U.S., and who has been teaching Modern China and U.S.-East Asia Relations at American institutions of higher learning for nearly three decades, I still find it necessary to navigate between my legal identity and cultural identity in the classroom, especially in recent years when the anti-China sentiment has been on the rise.  Students’ perception of an inherent, though unwarranted, partiality due to my Chinese heritage has prompted a strenuous effort to validate my professional integrity by going out of my way to be “objective” when covering China. 

While this uncomfortable reality at an individual level reflects broader societal issues concerning race and ethnicity, it is nonetheless immensely gratifying that, overall, my intimate knowledge and nuanced understanding of China, owing to my professional and personal ties to the country, have been an asset rather than liability in my teaching endeavors by enabling me to offer something that is authentic, unique, and constructive. 

  • Guo Wu

Scholars who grew up in China and teach about modern China in American colleges might not need to have a self-imposed pressure to pursue absolute “neutrality” and “detachment.” I will share my reflections on how I stick to my hybrid identities as both an “insider” of contemporary China with memories, experiences, and personal connections, or a “stake,” and an outsider: an observer and researcher of China based in the US often using Western conceptual frameworks to analyze Chinese history, and how students responded to my approach.  I argue that CHUS historians should be more assertive to provide alternative angles, source materials, and conceptual frameworks to guide the students and temper the narrative of some existing texts published in the US.  For instance, while looking at “conflict”, “control”,  “confrontation”, “oppression”, and “resistance”, or “nationalism”, we can also examine the dimensions and phenomena in contemporary Chinese politics and society that reflect “apathy” , “acquiesce”, “acceptance”,  “symbiosis”, and “(self-)empowerment”, especially among China’s Generation Z.

  • Qiong Zhang

History education plays a critical role in the training of a well-informed and free-thinking citizenry.  Yet the reality of American education about Chinese history seems to fall short of that ideal.  This is illustrated by the irony that while Western scholars and observers are keen to point out how standard history texts used in Chinese schools have withheld or effaced certain historical truths about the recent past that detract from the stature of the Chinese Communist Party, the mainstream American history curriculum on contemporary Chinese history is almost guilty of the reverse.  Typical coverage of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949-) does not go much beyond major political campaigns, leaders, government policies and policy failures, and incidents of clashes between the state and society.  This exquisite focus on political and ideological issues and on China’s state actors deprives our students of the opportunity to understand China and its history in their full complexity.  What can CHUS historians do to help address this curricular imbalance?

Drawing on my personal experiences growing up in rural China and witnessing the phenomenal changes of village life both firsthand as I grew up and as an outsider and historian in several provinces where I conducted field research in recent years, I would like to discuss the ways in which a bottom-up perspective can zoom in on how the policies, and their failures thereof, were received and experienced by people in their lifeworld, and how ordinary villagers strived to shape their destinies and create meaning in their lives. I believe the combination of “master narratives” and real-life experiences and observations can help our students gain an authentic and multi-dimensional view of China as a developing country undergoing economic boom and social transformation.