Sinologie in Würzburg

Remote Ethnography of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

New EU-funded project in collaboration with Rune Steenberg (Palacký University, Olomouc), Vanessa Frangeville, Université libre de Bruxelles) and Björn Alpermann (JMU Würzburg) started in January 2023. (HORIZON-WIDERA-2021-ACCESS-03-01 PROJECT 101079460)

Six years after the explosion of mass incarceration of minoritised people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), a general picture of the atrocities has been established in global media, policy circles and beyond. Yet, due to various constraints this picture remains imprecise, while the intense debate about Xinjiang is at times coloured by geo-political biases. Journalists, activists, political think thanks and NGOs all contributed to exposing the situation from their own vantage points and with particular emphases. While their contributions are highly valuable, it is the task for the academic community to apply rigorous scientific methodologies aimed at truth finding beyond all else. Furthermore, due to data limitations much of the reporting and the understanding of the ongoing crisis in XUAR draws on information from 2018-2020, or fails to distinguish between the situation then and now, uncritically mixing elements of different temporal and epistemological value.

This project addresses these lacunae by aiming to become a hub for state-of-the-art truth finding focussed research on XUAR. It institutes a web-site, a colloquium and an archive for material on the region, protected by different layers of security in an onion-like structure.

The project researchers, several of whom have conducted long-term fieldwork and other types of research in the region and/or on Uyghurs in previous years (especially 2010-2018) acknowledge that access is now extremely limited and most types of fieldwork ethically highly questionable under the given circumstances. Therefore, like in an increasing number of areas around the world affected by geo-political tensions and increased surveillance, securitisation and militancy, our project puts focus on methods of remote research, including online research, textual and image analyses, critical remote sensing techniques and interviews in diaspora and with people exiting China from the region. Besides collecting, storing, critically examining and updating information from XUAR, it is also a goal of the project to contribute to the development of remote research methods. We view remote research not as a substitute for but as a complementary approach to on-the-ground research, all having their own different advantages that can be used to balance out their respective weaknesses.

To do this, we have developed our own approach which we call Remote Ethnography. This does not mean attempting to use classical ethnographic methods from afar. The idea is based on ethnography in anthropology being a holistic approach that includes a wide range of different topics, material, observations and experiences that are brought together within an open analytical frame, the aim of which is to understand and include as many different perspectives and types of material as possible. The information and material is read within its socio-cultural context and related, checked and triangulated across the wide range of insights that each element provides. Instead of focussing on a narrow set of data, we aim to contextualise them properly or to triangulate them with others thus producing a more holistic understanding of Xinjiang’s predicaments of high academic quality.

Our project, Remote Ethnography of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region seeks to draw a picture of how the situation and environment in XUAR developed after access to the region was so severely limited in 2017, building on the insights we gained both before and after in the field and through remote or archival means. It seeks to follow, observe, archive and comment on the ongoing developments and day-to-day changes and transformations in XUAR. This will entail the construction of a multi-level monitoring and archiving practice useful inside and outside of the scholarly community for many years to come. The project is in the process of building a team of researchers exchanging material and insights on a weekly basis within a growing and increasingly interconnected critical scholarly community. The project is committed to cooperating with media, policy makers and civil society to raise both awareness and the quality and factuality of reporting and discourse on XUAR.


  • Discussion round "Gegen die Menschlichkeit -- Unterdrückung der Uiguren in China" with Björn Alpermann among others. Dreseden (20.02.2023). Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr. Recording available via Youtube.