Life on the frontier: ANU academic wins prestigious E Gene Smith Prize for research on Western China

26 March 2018

ANU anthropologist and research fellow, Dr Tom Cliff, has been awarded the E Gene Smith Prize for his book ‘Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang’.

‘Oil and Water’ draws on Dr Cliff’s ethnographic research in the Xinjiang region of Western China. It explores the complex dynamics among Han Chinese settlers, whose uneasy existence is a defining feature of life on the frontier.

Many scholars have devoted themselves to the study of ethnography in Western China, but most have tended to focus on the cultural and economic marginalisation of the native Uyghur population, and their resistance to Chinese state-driven impositions.

Dr Cliff is the first to write a book about the experience of Han settlers themselves.

The Chinese Communist Party began encouraging mass Han migration into the West of the country in the 1950s. Soldiers and workers were sent to Xinjiang to occupy and ‘civilise’ the region.

Today, according to Cliff’s fieldwork, many Han settlers still see themselves as ‘constructors’ tasked with integrating Xinjiang into the rest of China. Their dominance of the mainstream economy further estranges the Uyghur population, many of whom view Han settlement as colonisation.

More recently, the situation has taken a turn for the worse. Cliff notes that the current Xinjiang leadership’s highly-repressive treatment of the Uyghur population make parallels with North Korea “sickeningly plausible”.

Offered annually by the Michigan-based Association for Asian Studies, the E Gene Smith Prize honours “outstanding scholarship” on Inner Asia. The Association’s China and Inner Asia Committee (CIAC) praised the depth of research and imaginative storytelling in Cliff’s book:


“In this imaginative work, Tom Cliff focuses on the Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang rather than the much-studied Uyghur population.  …


In highly-readable and well-chosen vignettes, Cliff provides tangible evidence of [Han Xinjiang people’s] aspirations, disparities in income, and prejudices about the non-Han. His vivid descriptions of a variety of individuals not only illustrate his main themes but confirm his ability to gain the confidence of his informants through both his discretion and his empathy. His own well-crafted photographs contribute immeasurably to this absorbing and readable book.”

CIAC, 2018.

The Committee also awarded Dr Cliff US$1000. He will donate this prize money to the Mary Geraets East Timor Fund’, a charity that builds educational capacity in Timor-Leste.

Oil and Water combines oral history, photography, and ethnography to sketch a portrait of the region and its inhabitants. The book’s focus on local perspectives illuminates not only the complex socio-political dynamics among Han settlers, but also their collective and mutually-dependent relationship with the Central Government. Cliff emphasises that Han groups in Xinjiang are driven by their own personal goals as much as by policy drafted in Beijing.

The recognition of Cliff’s research is particularly significant today, given China’s ambitious development plans.

In 2013, China announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project that will run through the Western provinces and into Eurasia.

“There are a range of competing analyses on the BRI,” says Dr Cliff. “Is it about Chinese military-economic power projection, or something more benign? Should Western liberal democracies engage or disengage?” he adds.

Regardless, he says, “the pundits agree that Xinjiang is its most important node.”

As China continues to look westwards for its development, a nuanced exploration of Xinjiang’s regional dynamics is important now more than ever.

Dr Tom Cliff is an Australian Research Council DECRA Research Fellow at the School of Culture, History, and Language at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. ‘Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang’ was published in 2016 by University of Chicago Press.

By CAP student correspondent Dorothy Mason.





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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team