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)

Project website:

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.


Workshop “Remote Ethnography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”

Würzburg, June 19 – 22, 2023

Workshop Report

Since 2017, on-the-ground field work in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s Northwest has become effectively impossible for international researchers. This has been due to the Chinese government’s well-documented mass-internment campaign against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim and Turkic-speaking minorities who call the region home. Due to this lack of field access, it has become all the more urgent to devise ways of assessing the evolving situation in the XUAR from afar. The goal of this project is to tackle this challenge by finding novel ways of acquiring data, combining different research approaches and training a new generation of Xinjiang scholars in these innovative methods. The EU-funded project “Remote Ethnography XUAR”, which began in January 2023, is led by anthropologist Rune Steenberg (Palacký University Olomouc) in collaboration with the sinologists Vanessa Frangville (Université libre de Bruxelles) and Björn Alpermann (JMU Würzburg). In June 2023 the project held its first methods training workshop hosted by JMU Würzburg. Over four days some thirty scholars and experts from various disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, political science, sociology, history, media studies etc.) coming from Europe, North America and Asia, gathered in Würzburg to study and discuss three main research strategies: (i) policy analysis based on sources available via the internet, (ii) critical remote sensing, and (iii) digital ethnography. Particular attention was devoted to ways of combining various research traditions in a holistic manner and to source constructive criticism.

Internet-based policy analysis has demonstrated its potential to uncover systematic human rights violations in the case of Xinjiang. Although the Chinese government has become more careful in its online presence, there is still a surprisingly large number of official documents, statistics, social media reports and other digital sources available online. Workshop participants learned how to approach these materials in a way to allow for comparison across levels of the Chinese political system, and between different localities and policy fields. While much of this material is not new in Xinjiang studies, finding and interpreting data sources that are scattered over the internet requires a certain set of techniques that were intensively discussed.

Remote sensing, on the other hand, has yet to be more systematically employed in the field of Xinjiang studies. This is why the workshop devoted more time to this innovative approach, starting with basics (data availability & accessibility, software etc.) before moving on to critical remote sensing and the question of how human rights studies can benefit from remote sensing. One of the recurrent themes on this topic was how to avoid the potential pitfalls of (over-)reliance on visual or remote sensing data in general, including ethical questions inherent in such research endeavors. Experts presenting on these issues emphasized that remote sensing data needs to be brought into a dialog with other sources, not just for “ground-truthing” by triangulation, but also for contextualization and adequate interpretation of findings.

Digital ethnography provides one way of doing this. It encompasses a long-term and holistic immersion with a virtual field, e.g. specific social media. During the course of the workshop an expert demonstrated a number of field devices that can be used to gather meaningful ethnographic data online. The presentation also stressed various issues regarding how to navigate research ethics in this complex domain.

These training sessions by experts were accompanied by several project presentations. Participants shared their experiences with various innovative methodologies and discussed their on-going work on Xinjiang. The workshop was well-received internationally and not all applicants could be accommodated. The organizers are therefore happy to announce that a follow-up event will be held in late 2023.

  • Discussion round "Zur Situation der Uigur*innen in China" with an introductory talk by Björn Alpermann, including members from the Uyghur diaspora. Amnesty International, Frankfurt 16.05.2024. More details:
  • "‘Ethnic Blending’ (minzu jiaorong): The Chinese Communist Party’s Vision for the Future of Ethnic Relations".  East Asian Futures Online Colloquium, April 25 2024.
  • "Die aktuelle Lage in der Provinz Xinjiang", public lecture by Prof. Dr. Björn Alpermann. Evangelisches Forum Kassel, January 16 2024.
  • "Xinjiang in the Spotlight of Emerging Supply Chain Legislation: Moral and Legal Implications for German Companies in the Region", public lecture by Dr. Alexander Kriebitz (TU Munich). JMU Würzburg, November 15 2023.
  • "Nikah -- An Islamic wedding" by Mukaddas Mijit; film screening and public discussion with the director, Vanessa Frangville and Rune Steenberg. JMU Würzburg, June 20 2023.
  • Discussion round "Gegen die Menschlichkeit -- Unterdrückung der Uiguren in China" with Björn Alpermann among others. Dresden (20.02.2023). Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr. Recording available via Youtube.