Unruly Speech
Displacement and the Politics of Transgression
Saskia Witteborn



Uyghurs and the Space of the Limit

I HAD CONDUCTED FIELD research in southern Xinjiang1 for one week when I met an English-speaking Uyghur young man in a carpet store while looking at the woven products. He sat cross-legged on the floor next to a friend. After some negotiations and buying a piece, I asked him about the history of the province, and its linguistic diversity. I had become curious as the hotel staff had given me three maps in three scripts: one in Chinese characters, one in Cyrillic, and a third in the Uyghur script (Arabic). Neither the young man nor his friend said much, but when I inquired whether they knew tour guides for the city and its surroundings, the young man asked for my phone number. The next day I received a call, summoning me to “to talk about the tour” right away. When I arrived, the man gestured for me to enter a room in the back of the store and spoke to me in an urgent voice:

It is dangerous to ask about history. Very dangerous. Please stop. I have many stories of men who talked to tourists and were asked by undercover police to report to the police station. I sold a very nice carpet once to a tourist and then was questioned by the police. Sometimes they follow you, especially if you are with foreigners. They want to see whether you tell them something dangerous, like politics.

The speaker hesitated but went on to tell me that if I really wanted to know, the area was called a different name but neither he nor anybody else could talk about it. “People stay quiet, they don’t want to get in trouble.” Only when I got up to leave did the young man say under his breath, “We call it East Turkistan. Don’t mention that name.” He was immediately reprimanded by the friend who put his index finger briefly to his lips while saying: “Stop the talk. The walls have ears. You know that. We cannot say it. It should be Xinjiang.”

The verbal sanctioning of the name East Turkistan was an indicator that unruly speech had occurred. The speaker decided, if only for a brief moment, to break into a performative mode by using a repressed set of verbal resources. The urgency with which he spoke, the low voice, and the interruption by his friend were all indicators that the young man had transgressed a limit. The gesture of a hand to lead the listener into a safe space, the finger put before one’s mouth, and a smile indicating not knowing an answer were nonverbal cues that I learned to read as announcements of unruly speech and a transgression.

In contrast, East Turkistan was the name of choice of Uyghur migrants in Germany and in the United States. In 2008, I observed Uyghurs in Munich, Germany, holding signs during protests and shouting in English, “Free the Uyghurs, Stop massacres in East Turkistan, Stop the assimilation politics in East Turkistan, Human rights for East Turkistan,” repeating the messages in German, using the name Osttürkistan. For bystanders, Osttürkistan or East Turkistan was a faraway place, and the people holding the flags an unfamiliar group protesting injustice. The boisterous group of Uyghur rights protestors looked like a tiny island in a sea of shoppers, ice cream–eating tourists, and busy, well-dressed Munich residents. In contrast to the case of Tibetans, very few of the passersby had heard of Uyghurs. An older man asked me, “Who are they and what are they talking about? Yogurt?” The man’s instinctive phonetic mistranslation demonstrated the large social distance between him and the protestors who had left China for Germany. Phrases like Free the Uyghurs or Human rights for East Turkistan gained traction when Uyghurs were joined on other days by Tibetan groups, Amnesty International, and UNPO, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, which helped raise general awareness about Uyghurs. Nevertheless, in contrast to Tibetans, Uyghurs have been little known in Europe or North America in the past. There are two main reasons, according to Uyghur interviewees in Germany and the United States. First, Uyghurs are Muslims. While Tibetans have gained support from Western governments and people, moral support for Muslims can be scarce as a result of suspicion and distrust after the September 11 attacks in the US, the violent deaths of critics of Islam in Europe such as in the Netherlands and France, and the one-sided and heavily mediated linkages between violence and Islam. Second, unlike the Dalai Lama, Rebiya Kadeer, the former long-time leader of Uyghurs in exile, has gained only marginal global attention and support.

East Turkistan is an example of unruly speech practice. Unruly speech refers to the oral, written, embodied, and digital modes of expression that exceed the limit of what is permitted to be said, written, or shown. Unruly speech calls the limit into question by illuminating its social and political mooring (Foucault 1977) and by pointing to the actors and mechanisms that allow for expression to happen. Unruly speech is transgressive precisely as it questions boundaries between set categories, exposes the limits of the sayable and doable, and reveals the conditions for what can be articulated, heard, and seen (Jervis, 1999) in a communicative space, as in the example in the carpet store. Merleau-Ponty describes this space as “the means whereby the position of things becomes possible” (1962, 167), including an imagination of alternative relations between self and other. The space announced by unruly speech has potential because taken-for-granted communicative roles are rearranged, providing the base for social change. The space can have the qualities of a safe environment in which the unspeakable can be told and trust can be created through productive debate about diverging ideas, as Conley (1997, 180) maintains:

In these moments pregnant with the fantasy of imminent communication, something is about to make manifest the “taking of place” in which, suddenly, among a collectivity of participants, a “space” becomes invented. In it circulated the affirmative interrogative, “you, too?!” that gives cause to solidarity.

Denis Hollier writes that traditional institutions are “able to tolerate any message, including the most subversive ones, so long as they remain messages and do not call its code into question” (1989, 1040). Speech is action, as discussed at length by speech act theorists (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) and communication scholars (Carbaugh 2017; Philipsen 1992). Culturally situated speakers draw from communicative norms, values, and codes and act upon them in daily life (Katriel 2021; Philipsen 1992, 1997; Philipsen and Coutu 2005). Unruly, transgressive communication engages the codes governing a social and political structure, including the codes to speak, be heard, and be (in)visible. Uyghurs who are represented in this book have called the political and social codes into question. They engaged not only the political code in China but social codes in Uyghur culture as well.

Transgressions also act as catalysts, as Stefan Horlacher maintains (2010, 15). The young man described in the encounter in the carpet store had a scared facial expression when making his transgressive move as he was not sure whether he could trust me as an outsider. At the same time, he seemed to release a pent-up energy through the urge to make known a collective perspective. This urge was expressed in the diaspora in Germany and the United States where Uyghurs advocated for human rights and belonging. In contrast, in Xinjiang, speaking about history became inextricably linked to the question about place and was eventually subject to speech censorship. Fear and distrust by local Uyghurs became even more tangible when I walked through the streets of Kashgar, an old oasis city on the fringes of the Taklamakan desert and a trading hub for centuries, close to the borders with Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In the old town, Uyghurs hustled out of my way and closed their doors while avoiding my gaze. They were right to be wary of me, as I was shadowed throughout my stay. For example, after visiting the main mosque and standing outside the gate, I was photographed by a young man who exited the premises after prayer. The man also sat in the lobby of the hotel where I stayed the same evening, reading a newspaper. He observed me when I went online in the internet cafe of the hotel and when I went out.

Having grown up in East Germany, I was accustomed to the practice of being followed, along with my family members, physically and symbolically. Low-level surveillance, so it seemed, was a routine way of making the other internalize self-censorship and dissuading people from speaking in unruly ways. Moments of self-censorship represent a productive breach, however. These moments expose the repressed and unspeakable as a rich field for exploring transgression as part of the social process. Uyghurs’ self-censorship and discrepancies in naming place oriented me to the names Xinjiang and East Turkistan as practices that exemplify the crossing of limits.

Practices are understood here as spatially and temporally dispersed ways of acting (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012). Practices are co-constituted by premises and symbols, with a symbol being a “vehicle for a conception” (Philipsen 1992, 8). “Premises express beliefs of existence (what is) and of value (what is good and bad)” (8). In this study, place names are conceived of as vehicles for imagined physical and social place, backed by beliefs of “what is” and their valuation. As such, premises encapsulate the implicit or explicit beliefs that interactants have about each other, the interaction, and the physical and social place in which they find themselves (Carbaugh 2017).

Like place names, testimonios were an unruly speaking practice. They were typically told in unelicited ways in personal interviews. Here is an example. Roshan, a Uyghur woman in her early thirties, was among those who had migrated to Germany. I met her in Munich in 2010 and interviewed her several times. Early on, in a personal interview, she witnessed to experiences of flight and persecution that transcended a personal experience and gestured to a collective narrative. During a business trip to Kazakhstan, she was informed that her mother had taken ill and that she had to return immediately. Roshan knew that her mother had no illness and that she was targeted for her activism and distribution of leaflets addressing forced abortions and discrimination against Uyghurs in the labor market. Roshan never returned to Xinjiang but used her friends’ networks to hide in Central Asian countries before starting the journey to Germany, reaching Munich in the early morning hours on a cold winter day and applying for asylum, which was granted. Roshan tried to participate in as many of the Uyghur protests as she could to raise awareness. Roshan’s story of flight and ongoing advocacy is typical for Uyghurs in the diaspora who mobilized politically and engaged in defiant ways of speaking and acting. Her testimonio is told in detail in chapter 4.

Even more, testimonios on websites and social media were practices that pushed the human rights discourse. The affordances of digital technologies, such as intertextual linkages and visibility, helped amplify the reach of the testimonios and are also explored in chapter 4. Witness accounts are conceptualized here as testimonio in reference to the Latin American political genre of seeking justice by linking individual to collective experience and narrating it to the world (e.g., Beverley 2005; Deeb-Sossa 2019; Figueroa 2015; Marquez 2019; The Latina Feminist Group 2001; Villenas 2019). Testimonio grew out of the persecutions, civil wars, and violence experienced by different populations in Latin and South America since the 1960s. I employ testimonio instead of the legalistic term testimony in this book to position the witness account as a political act. I use the term to highlight an ontology of violence that transcends geopolitical locales and is traceable through the marks it leaves on bodies, minds, words, and human-object relations.

In digital contexts, transgressive practices like naming place and testimonio cannot be discussed without the notion of visibility, as visibility is one main affordance of these contexts (Treem and Leonardi 2013). Media-type visibility is linked to what Brighenti (2007) calls social-type visibility, which means social recognition. Social recognition through mediated visibility is often controlled by political and social actors, including governments, legal bodies, and social groups with the power to influence public and political discourse. Control-type visibility “transform(s) visibility into a strategic resource for regulation,” writes Brighenti (2007, 339). Powerful are those who become visible on their own terms. Examples are governments and transnational organizations that create the parameters for what is visible in digital spaces and what remains hidden. Digital testimonios posted on activist, media, and advocacy organization websites, as discussed in chapter 4, are a showcase for open source data and mediated visibility, giving Uyghurs international exposure.

For example, a video witness account was posted on WeChat by a young Uyghur man named Merdan Ghappar. The account was published in an article by the BBC in August of 2020 (Sudworth 2020). Merdan sits handcuffed on the metal frame of his bed in a small room with bare walls. The windows are open and through the metal bars, one can hear public information announcements about Xinjiang politics and history. “Xinjiang has never been ‘East Turkistan’” echoes through the loudspeaker, “and neither has a state ever existed by that name.” Two years back, Merdan had been the shining example of Uyghur integration, one learns from the BBC article. He had worked as a model for the online retailer Taobao in the southern Chinese city of Foshan and was an eloquent young man with very good Chinese language skills. He was sent to prison for sixteen months for the alleged sale of cannabis. Two months after his jail sentence was served, in January of 2020, he was flown back to Xinjiang and accompanied by two officers to his home town of Kuqa. Merdan then sent a video to his parents, followed by text messages on WeChat. The messages narrated in Chinese what had happened to him after arriving in Kuqa. He was kept in a police jail, wearing a black head sack and leg shackles and handcuffs, connected by an iron chain, according to the WeChat texts displayed in the BBC article (Sudworth 2020). Merdan’s whereabouts were still unknown by January of 2022.

Open source information has become important for researching, reporting on, and documenting human rights violations (Dubberley, Koenig, and Murray 2020). Nevertheless, there are challenges. Like Dubberley, Koenig, and Murray (2020), Guay and Rudnick (2020) discuss incidental threats when working with digitized materials and the potential harms for already vulnerable populations resulting from data experiments and unintended data disclosure. The digital testimonios analyzed in chapter 4 are publicly available witness accounts that were posted with the intention of raising awareness and to gather and archive evidence of rights violations. In addition to the empowering aspects of digital technologies, the discussion of digital surveillance of Uyghurs in chapters 2 and 3 illustrates control-type visibility and the power of technology for regulating Uyghurs’ speech.

To recapitulate, my research was guided by the questions of how transgressive communication practices challenge and dislocate established social and political limits, how they travel across geographical space, and how they create opportunities for sociopolitical change. Language is inherently dislocating (Cooren 2010) as it evokes principles, rules, persons, and things in whose name people speak. Those principles and things gain agency through the communicative process (Cooren 2010). Naming practices like East Turkistan and premises like belonging, human rights, and suffering are assigned agency as people make them “say or do things,” thereby acting in their name (Cooren 2010, 9). Communication can move local premises across borders and into a global discourse and vice versa. Migrants are part of this process, which is why displacement, here, refers to the physical dislocation of people as well as the dislocation of meaning.

After having identified place-naming and testimonio as two main practices, I further asked about their key premises and how they motivated transgression. I was also led by the question of the conditions that enable and restrict unruly speech and the reasons why. Eventually, the discussion highlights the competing facets of the Uyghur story, from the perspective of Uyghurs living in Xinjiang, the perspective of Uyghurs in Germany and the United States, and organizations supporting Uyghurs, some of whom have instrumentalized the Uyghur story for their purposes. As indicated before, I use the terms communication and speech synonymously to refer to expressive modes of human relating, including verbal and written, embodied, visual, and digital. I also use the terms testimonio, witnessing, and bearing witness synonymously. The terms witnessing and bearing witness allow me to discuss the process character of testimonio and to conceptualize testimonio as a communicative practice.


Naming place and testimonio oriented me to the displacement of Uyghurs and the production of migrants and diasporas. Diasporas are composed of dislocated people who share the experience of dispossession and transnational imaginaries (e.g., Alonso and Oiarzabal 2010; Arora 2020; Brah 1996; Bernal 2014). Likewise, I use the term migrant as a construct that comes into being through mobility across space and the legal and bureaucratic categorization of this mobility, such as labor migrant, skilled migrant, educational migrant, asylum seeker, or refugee (e.g., Witteborn 2011a; Mezzadra and Neilson 2013; Tazzioli 2020; Zetter 2007). For example, an asylum seeker is a person who is in the claims-process of seeking protection (IOM 2019, 14). A refugee is formally declared a refugee once she or he meets the criteria set out by the Geneva Refugee Convention from 1951 (IOM 2019, 171). This “formal declaration” points to the bureaucratic and legal legitimization of a displaced status and its construction (Zetter 2007). The majority of Uyghurs in Germany were in the process of seeking asylum or were already legitimated refugees. Uyghurs sought asylum in the United States as well but also entered the country as students and labor migrants.

Uyghurs have been embedded in an opaque information environment for at least two decades, and little information has trickled out of China. This has changed since at least 2019. On February 4, 2019, the World Uyghur Association, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Service for Human Rights addressed the UN Human Rights Council to gather facts about alleged internment camps for Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. This request was not new to the council. In September 2018, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, had expressed concerns about reeducation camps for Uyghurs and other minorities in China. Evidence of internment and prison facilities has been circulating since 2018 when the BBC reported on satellite images from April 18, 2018, showing large compound structures outside the small town of Dabancheng, a one-hour drive from Urumqi. Architectural forensics identified those as new prison structures (Sudworth 2018).

Since 2018, the topic of human rights violations against the Uyghurs has gathered political steam. In early 2021, there were daily news and government reports on Xinjiang. A tug of war had started through which governments in North America, Europe, and Australia tried to control the narrative about the Uyghurs and their justification of actions against China. These actions included a declaration by the United States on the last day of the Trump administration in January of 2021 that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, followed by a declaration by the Canadian Parliament in February. Canada’s Parliament voted 266–0 for declaring China’s Uyghur treatment “genocide.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and cabinet members abstained (BBC News 2021a). Multinationals backed out of using Xinjiang-produced cotton by early 2021 (Zengerle 2021) and were banned on e-commerce platforms in China, with brand ambassadors in China distancing themselves from companies like Nike, Adidas, and H&M. In March of 2021, the US and the EU sanctioned Chinese officials who were alleged to be involved in Uyghur human rights abuses, with China retaliating and sanctioning selected EU and US officials in return. On December 23, 2021, US President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law (Blinken 2021).

In the past decade, if information on Uyghurs became public, it was usually about dramatic events that positioned Uyghurs in the tension between freedom fighter and threat to the state. The reports included violent events like the riots in 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang; the attack on October 28, 2013, in Beijing when a car ran over pedestrians in Tiananmen Square; and knife attacks on March 1, 2014, at Kunming Railway Station where thirty-one Han Chinese died and many more were severely injured. The riots in Urumqi in 2009 started after an incident in a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, in the south of China during which two Uyghurs were killed after a dispute between Han and Uyghur migrant workers over the alleged sexual assault of a Han female. During the resulting riots in Urumqi almost two hundred people, most of them Han Chinese, were killed (Wong 2009). The Uyghur death toll, also following detention and imprisonment, remains unclear. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) government blamed exile Uyghurs for instigating and fueling the violence, something which the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) as the main diasporic organization of Uyghurs refuted. In China, Uyghurs were shamed into a discourse of national secession and instability as well as international terrorism linked to politicized Islam (Roberts 2020).

The majority of Uyghurs live in China in Xinjiang province, also officially referred to as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The province is located in the most northwestern corner of China, bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the northern neighbor of Tibet Autonomous Region. The province’s topography is impressive. The Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges, some of the highest in the world, stretch to the southwest on the borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. The Kunlun mountain ranges are to the south, on the border with Tibet, and the TianShan ranges to the north. The Taklamakan desert extends across Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, with oasis towns like Kuqa, Aksu, Kashgar, Yarkand, and Khotan dotted along its edges. The region is ethnically diverse with Kazakhs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Hui (Chinese Muslims), Russians, Han Chinese, and Uyghurs.

According to China’s latest 2020 population census, there are 25,852,345 inhabitants in Xinjiang province, which is an 18.3 percent increase compared to 2010 (Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Toronto 2021). Han Chinese counted for 42.24 percent and Uyghurs for 44.96 percent of the province’s total population. Compared to the last census in 2010, the Han Chinese population increased by more than two million people, which is higher than the increase of the Uyghur population by 1.6 million. There could be at least two reasons: in-migration of Han Chinese and population control of the Uyghurs. Among the 2.174 million Han Chinese, 1.948 million are migrants from other provinces (Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Toronto 2021). Between 2016 and 2019 alone, the population in the province grew by 1.25 million, a third of which was employed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. This corps is a type of military organization that oversees the economy in the province and is regarded as a main contributor to population growth (Leng and Zhou 2021). Furthermore, for minorities in the province, birth and growth rates have been slowing since 2018. Li Xiaoxia from the Xinjiang Development Research Center attributes this change to strict family planning policies (Leng and Zhou 2021).

The largest cities in the province are the capital, Urumqi, with more than three million people; Shihezi (600,000+); Korla (500,000+); Ghulja, Aksu, and Kashgar (each with more than 450,000); and Qumul (more than 400,000). Uyghurs live mostly in rural southern Xinjiang, which is also the poorest part of the province, as well as in Kashgar, Khotan, Aksu, Turpan, and Ghulja. For Han Chinese, this trend is reversed, with population density highest in the affluent north and along main roads and railroads (Toops 2016).

In contrast to today’s largely sedentary reality, Uyghurs had been nomadic steppe peoples before the eighth century, settling in oasis towns from the seventh to ninth centuries in response to the strengthening of a centralized Chinese empire (Barfield 1989; Gladney 2004). Throughout history, Uyghurs have established their own states and khanates (Millward 2007, 377) and gradually converted from Manichaean, Buddhist, and Nestorian Christian beliefs to Islam from the tenth to the sixteenth century. Xinjiang was conquered by the Qing in 1754, and the oasis towns were incorporated into the Chinese empire in 1821 (Gladney 2004). As Millward (2007, xiv) notes, “The history of Xinjiang is the history of many interacting peoples, cultures, and polities, not of a single nation.” This diversity explains why the term Uyghur only came into being in the early twentieth century (Fletcher 1968, 364, note 96; cited in Newby 2007, 16). At the same time, Uyghur scholars maintain that despite the life in separate oasis towns and vibrant interactions between Turkic Muslims, Armenians, Mongols, Jewish people, Manchus, and Han Chinese, there has been a sense of shared identity between people called Uyghur from early times (Millward 2007, xiv; Newby 2007; Rudelson 1997). The province became Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955, with Xinjiang meaning New Frontier. The term contradicts the historical inhabitation of the land by Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks, and many others who dwelled in oasis towns (Rudelson 1997). The young Uyghur man’s declaration from the beginning of this introduction, “It should be Xinjiang,” is insightful here as it emphasizes the dictum of honoring the definition of the region as a space to be discovered and settled.

Several violent and nonviolent uprisings occurred in northern and southern Xinjiang in the 1990s as a result of dissatisfaction with the social, political, and economic conditions for Uyghurs, the dominance of Han Chinese in politics and business, and the banning of Meshrep clubs in Ghulja in 1995, which provided space for socializing during harvesting times (Millward 2007). In particular, tensions started to mount after the 1990 Baren uprising during which Uyghurs attempted to gain control over a township near Kashgar. Roberts (2020) argues that the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York marked the beginning of a rhetorical and political shift in China, with the US-led discourse and War on Terror being conveniently extended to the Uyghurs by the Chinese state. Roberts’s research shows how the Chinese government employed the War on Terror discourse as a tool to convince the public of the imminent threat of religious extremism and separatism in China. The riots in Urumqi in 2009 and attacks by Uyghurs on Han civilians in 2013 and 2014 served as legitimations to further control and weaken the identity of Uyghurs and other majority Muslim populations in the country. Two months after the attacks in New York, the Chinese government released the document “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by ‘Eastern Turkestan’ Organizations and Their Ties with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban” (Roberts 2018, 232). The document provided the rhetorical ground for actively going against diasporic Uyghur organizations as they were alleged to be financed by radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. According to Roberts, the document was surprising to scholars of the region as they had not seen any evidence of networked militant support for Uyghurs outside China. In other words, Uyghurs’ Muslim identity became the figure (Cooren 2010) to evoke the principle of security and to justify the actions by the Chinese state against the Uyghurs.

From a Uyghur perspective, a sense of inequality with Han Chinese can be traced back more than a century and linked to the tumultuous history of the region and several political and military powers trying to gain control, including Uyghurs themselves. The areas on both sides of the border between the Soviet Union and the Ily region in northern Xinjiang have deep economic, educational, cultural, and political links, and rebels gained the support of the Soviets in 1943 to start an uprising against the Kuomintang (Forbes 1986). The Soviets militarily and economically supported the attempted establishment of a second East Turkistan Republic in the three northern districts—Altai, Ili, and Tarbaghatai—to regain control over the region (Forbes 1986).

The discourse on terrorism also served to secure internal economic development in Xinjiang. During the 1990s and well into the 2010s, the province was a key provider of natural gas to build the national economy, which meant integrating Xinjiang and its ethnic minorities firmly into China from an infrastructural perspective. The pressure for the integration of the Uyghurs has increased even more with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI, initiated by the Chinese government in 2013, aims at developing overland and maritime material and digital infrastructures for enhanced economic growth of the region. Xinjiang is a crucial node here, connecting China to Central and South Asia.

The Chinese government has changed its security strategy in Xinjiang for several years now, with face-to-face control of minorities turning into digital surveillance. “In addition to existing policies of securitization and surveillance, authorities escalated the use of mass detention, ideological reeducation, and pressure on Uyghur diaspora networks,” write Chestnut Greitens, Lee, and Yazici (2020). According to the authors, these steps were due to a strengthening perception in China that Uyghurs were about to radicalize and participate in Islamic militant actions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Chen Quanguo, who had worked in Tibet before, became the new party secretary in Xinjiang and was a key figure for implementing the new paradigm of preemptive control through algorithmic surveillance and detention for reeducation (Chestnut Greitens, Lee, and Yazici 2020). The internment facilities were created in early 2017 as “Counter-Extremism Training Schools” and were then renamed as “Education and Transformation Training Centers” (Roberts 2018, 250). Numbers of detainees were estimated to be between 100,000 and 500,000 in 2017–18 (Roberts 2018, 251).2 In an Asia Society podcast, Buzzfeed News correspondent Megha Rajagopalan and investigative journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian (2020), who covers China for the American news platform Axios, stated that 15,683 Xinjiang residents were put into detention camps in one week in June of 2017 alone.

Most of the Uyghurs outside of China live in the neighboring Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In the past, Uyghurs moved to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Central Asian countries as traders, work migrants, or for higher education. Since the 1990s, they also have emigrated to claim asylum. In Turkey, there are approximately 50,000 Uyghurs, in Australia 2,000, and in the US more than 1,000 (Chen 2014). Since 2009, the emigration routes via Central Asia have become more difficult, and Uyghurs left China and moved to Southeast Asia to seek asylum (e.g., Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia) (Soliev 2017).

At the time of the research, the 500 to 700 Uyghurs in Germany lived in and around Munich, partly because it is the seat of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) but also because other Uyghurs had already settled there. The international board of the WUC is composed of Uyghurs from the United States, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Turkey, the Netherlands, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Norway. The organization, with an elected board and president, serves as the switchboard for all Uyghur organizations worldwide. People came to Germany from China in the 1990s in search of political asylum. Many of them originated from the rural parts of Xinjiang, places of natural beauty and cultural conservatism. The majority of people I interviewed came to seek asylum and had either been recognized as refugees already or lived in asylum shelters. Some had white-collar jobs and very few had higher degrees of education.

In the United States, Uyghur demographics were slightly different. Uyghurs had come to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, several from Turkey. As in Germany, they are a rather young migrant community of around 800–1,000 people, according to estimates by the interviewees in the US. The Uyghurs I interviewed, starting in the spring of 2009, were generally better educated than their counterparts in Germany. The majority were college graduates. Some interviewees came to the US to study on a scholarship; around one-third came as refugees. Many of them resided in Virginia, in close proximity to Washington, D.C., and lived a middle-class life with high aspirations for their children. As the political center of the United States and an important place for lobby work, Washington was a suitable place for Uyghur settlement. The seat of several Uyghur diasporic associations is there, including the Uyghur American Association (UAA) and the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), the research advocacy arm of the Uyghur diaspora. As mentioned before, Uyghurs did not only move their bodies, language, families, and hopes. They also moved their communication practices. A formerly transgressive act of naming, like East Turkistan, became normalized in the Uyghur diaspora, in its political advocacy on social media, and during direct political action in public spaces.


Unruly speech is similar in principle across the ideological and political spectrum as it questions dominant ways of being and acting. It differs, however, according to its aims and purposes. Scarred populations around the world demand recognition of their civic and political rights and participation in processes of deliberation and institution-building. Far-right-inspired groups like QAnon in the United States or Querdenker in Germany employ unruly speech to question the foundation of the democratic process and its institutions, while taking advantage of its values like free speech and the right of assembly to make themselves heard. This book situates itself on the side of transgressive speech that affirms the democratic process and opens up spaces of encounter, instead of spaces of hatred and closure.

The book contributes to the migration literature more generally by exploring what happens when unruly communication becomes mobile and gains discursive and material force across geographical and social space. This question is important in the face of economic and cultural globalization, a surge in nationalism and populism, and continuing migratory movements around the world (Mavroudi and Nagel 2016). Transgressive practices point to the myth of the homogeneous cultural group through the discursive and material struggles that its members engage in (Amin 2012; Brah 1996; Hegde 2016). Most importantly, unruly speech and the alliances arising from it are a productive starting point to challenge understandings of transnational migration as a reactive phenomenon (Bojadžijev and Karakayali 2007; Bojadžijev 2012) and to make a case for “the migrant” as a sociopolitical and legal construct. Transnational migration is proactive and best explored in the intersections between those who move and those who remain (e.g., Ahmed [2004] 2014; Sheller and Urry 2006). There are possibilities for social action arising from the intersections. Acknowledging these practices means going beyond traditional push-pull factors to accentuate the mechanisms co-producing migrancy in all its iterations, including the reproduction of gender roles during and after migration. Diasporic advocacy itself can co-constitute the migrant through strategic essentialism (Spivak 1984/85, 2008) and a new orthodoxy in behavioral roles. The resurrection of gendered scripts in Uyghur political work in Germany and the US will illustrate this claim, a development that is at odds with the quest of young Uyghurs in Xinjiang to challenge gender roles. Signifiers like East Turkistan follow the logics of strategic essentialism in the name of social justice. Nevertheless, strategic essentialism received cracks in the diaspora, allowing for different forms of belonging to emerge, from women campaigning for gender equality to creative and artistic expression. In other words, looking at communication processes and practices enables a more nuanced understanding of social bonding mechanisms in contexts of migration, from privileged knowledge migration to politically forced displacement. Moreover, looking at process and practice allows for identifying the moments in which breaches occur and the conditions for the breaches to happen. Eventually, exploring unruly speech shifts attention to discursive communities, held together by shared notions of rights.

A related contribution of the book is to the language and social interaction literature. As argued before, the nature of language is inherently dislocating, enabling people to speak in the name of nations, rules, and groups (Cooren 2010). This process is amplified when people move through space and take their practices with them (Blommaert 2001, 2005), thereby leaving historical traces, which need to be identified. Studies in the social interaction and communication tradition have provided evidence of ways of speaking of mostly sedentary groups, including gendered talk, hate speech, organizational discourse, cultural communication, or defiant political discourse (e.g., Boromisza-Habashi 2013; Coutu 2008; Covarrubias 2002; Katriel 1991, 2021; Philipsen 1992, 1997). Those studies have persuasively argued that the local is created and changed through deeply contextualized ways of relating, acting, and (re)membering. The studies have also illustrated how diverging discursive practices represent and constitute social tensions linked to contentious issues (Boromisza-Habashi 2013; Coutu 2008). Defiant discourse has been associated with activism as a cultural formation. For example, Katriel (2021) illustrated how defiant speech by peace activists in Israel merges global components of activism repertoires with local, cultural ways of speaking. Defiant speech is unruly speech as it tackles the limits of the socially and politically acceptable. This type of speech is a signpost of discontent and has the potential for social change, as the chapter on naming and Xinjiang shows.

In sum, the book emphasizes the spatial character of language and communication and what happens when not only people but their historically traceable practices are on the move. Hence, in addition to space, the book adds a time component to language and interaction research in general and forced migration research in particular. Given the time span of data collection, this project can be regarded as a historical documentation of transgressive speech before Uyghurs’ grievances became known to a larger international audience in the wake of digital surveillance and detention and the trade war between China and the United States. The arguments situate research on technological surveillance and the Uyghurs into a historical context by illustrating embodied surveillance in Xinjiang as a precursor to digital surveillance (Byler 2021b, 2022;3 Roberts 2020). The account of unruly communication presented in this book highlights that restrictions in religious, linguistic, and cultural practice have been part of the Uyghur experience for a long time but have also crossed borders. Institutional and grassroots digital advocacy work are the responses to these restrictions and represent transgressive political acts. As such, the research is in dialogue with the current literature on the digitization and datafication of mobilities, how those construct populations as datafied entities, and the degrees of freedom left for those caught in digital webs of control (e.g., Fog Olwig et al. 2020; Ruppert and Scheel 2021; Shah 2020; Tazzioli 2020).

Last but not least, the book provides insights into the complex social, cultural, and political life in China from the perspective of those who remain and those who leave. Uyghurs are in a position like the characters in a famous scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin as the Lone Prospector and Big Jim have to balance themselves in a hut that sits on a cliff. If they move to one side, the hut falls off the cliff. If they move to the other and leave through the door, they will freeze to death. The film highlights the conditions that create unsolvable dilemmas, as Tom Conley points out in his afterword to Michel de Certeau’s (1997) edited text The Capture of Speech and Other Political Writings. The person has to act to survive, and unruly speech in the forms of coded language and witness accounts is one way of doing so. This type of speech has consequences, however. Even after leaving China, a regular life is difficult for Uyghurs, as for other politicized groups, because moral obligations, fear for family, and survivor’s guilt shape life in exile (Witteborn 2007a).

There are several important historical, anthropological, linguistic, and political studies on the Uyghurs (e.g., Bellér-Hann and Hann 2020; Byler 2021b, 2022; Brophy 2016; Chen 2014; Chen 2019; Clarke 2022; Dautcher 2009; Gladney 2004; Grose 2019; Leibold and Grose 2019; Leibold 2020; Millward 2007, 2021; Roberts 2020; Smith Finley 2019; Thum 2014b; Yuan and Zhu 2021, to name just a few). This book shifts the discussion to communication practices and their potential to create spaces for change. The book connects to previous arguments about intersectional networks of cultures and religions in China that have taken on their own meanings over time. In line with the extant literature, it argues that “‘China’ is a construction, a notion best expressed in Haun Saussy’s description of China as an ‘artwork whose medium is history’” (Saussy 1993, 151; cited in Thum 2014a, 136). The communication angle offers an understanding of the tensions, alignments, and ruptures created by unruly practices beyond an essentialized China perspective. The long-term perspective of this book, from 2006 to 2021, is important for gaining a more contextualized understanding of a subsection of the people living in the country and migrating from there.


Notes on Reflexivity

The following discussion on participants, privacy, and objectivity is detailed because of the politically strained situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the danger that Uyghurs in this study exposed themselves to when being interviewed, and the fact that even empirically grounded studies on the region can be rather contentious. As a researcher interested in the physical and symbolic performance of transgressive speech, I had to understand cultural logics at work. I therefore borrow from the principles of the ethnography of communication (EC), in particular the concepts of grounded ways of communicating and their premises (Philipsen and Coutu 2005). EC studies the cultural organization of everyday life through communicative performance. EC also explores the conditions for communication in a particular place and how they create hierarchies of communicative repertoires (Hymes 1972, 1996). In the tradition of ethnomethodology and Goffman’s work (1959, 1967), EC also looks for moments of rupture and breakdown to see how actors orient to each other. The approach taken here builds on these assumptions and the mechanisms that create mutually intelligible practices that link individual and group through shared premises.


1. The formal name, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), introduced in 1954, could rarely be heard in face-to-face interactions. It was a name on official documents in China, Germany, and the United States. Xinjiang was a more forceful signifier in and outside China and is therefore used in the following chapters.

2. For a detailed account of Uyghur protest and measures taken by the Chinese government to surveil and control Uyghur mobility and life, see Sean Roberts (2018, 2020).

3. Darren Byler’s book Terror Capitalism (2022) was not available in Hong Kong yet when I finalized the manuscript. The book In the Camps (2021b) was available in The Chinese University of Hong Kong library.