Accepted paper:

"We came with high hopes for a new life": Dispossession, Development, and the Urban in Xinjiang


Sarah Tynen (University of Colorado-Boulder)

Paper abstract:

This paper is about rural/urban inequalities and how that manifestation of uneven development functions as a form of dispossession. The goal is to show the link between dispossession and development in the context of alienation of minorities who are belonging, but also not belonging, in the imagined "nation-state" (Simpson 2011; Byrd 2015; Moreton-Robinson 2015). The link between dispossession and development shows the ways in which being both included and excluded in the state is a part of the structural violence of poverty (Gupta 2012). Meanwhile, the real and imagined divide between the rural and urban perpetuates further dispossession realities and development discourses (Lefebvre 2003 [1970]; Harms 2011), and the production of space in racial terms within national geographies (Saldana-Portillo 2016). This paper focuses on Uyghur rural migrants in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with a population of over four million. A repeating theme in the interviews emerges as the city being both oppressive and liberating. Above all, migrants come to the city seeking work and a better life for their children. However, Uyghur migrants face significant economic and cultural stress when they arrive in the city. Uyghurs have significantly more cultural, social and institutional barriers to access to resources in the city. Drawing from these findings in interviews with 43 Uyghurs and ethnographic participant-observation over the course of 24 months in Urumqi from 2014-2017, I ask the questions: How do Uyghur rural migrants in Urumqi experience urban life and socioeconomic inequality along classed and gendered lines? How does uneven development shape social formation among Uyghurs? How does the rural/urban divide as a socially constructed yet material reality shape life histories and trajectories? The purpose of this paper is to show the ways the territorial state dispossesses the rural poor and alienates minorities by producing uneven development between the rural and the urban, and the way this affects people's lives. This is the story of authoritarian-capitalist dispossession of rural livelihoods, and the historical and territorial dispossession of homeland.

panel REG-07
Regions and Imagination