Issue: 2022: Vol. 21, No. 2

The Roles of Tianxia and Westphalian Sovereignty in Understanding Relations Between China and Xinjiang

Article Author(s)

Marin Ekstrom

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Marin Ekstrom is a lecturer and researcher based in Tokyo, Japan. She received her M.A. in International Relations from Central European University in 2020. Her research interests include Eurasian integration and language policy and education. 
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The “Xinjiang question” poses one of the most controversial issues for China scholars today. A significant portion of the region’s Turkic Uyghur Muslim population claims that Xinjiang possesses a distinct cultural and ethnic identity from China’s Han Chinese majority and has attempted to create a separate East Turkestan nation-state. Beijing, meanwhile, claims that China and Xinjiang share deep historical and cultural roots, and thus the region forms an integral component of the modern Chinese nation-state.

These debates inevitably raise such questions as to how China and Xinjiang first established contact, what the dynamics were between the two entities, and what implications this historical relationship has in understanding China and Xinjiang today.

Scholars Hung-Jen Wang and Zhiguang Yin strive to answer these questions in their articles “Traditional Empire-Modern State Hybridity: Chinese Tianxia and Westphalian Anarchy” (Wang) and “Clashes of Universalisms: Xinjiang, Tianxia, and Changing World Order in the 19th Century” (Yin). Both researchers identify the mid-19th century as a critical juncture in the development of Sino-Xinjiang relations. Prior to this time period, China’s ruling Qing dynasty designated Xinjiang as a peripheral region. Qing China governed Xinjiang in accordance with the tianxia principle of world order. As long as the region signaled support for the Qing Empire – most vividly demonstrated through the exchange of tribute gifts – the Qing rulers would grant Xinjiang relative autonomy in governing its internal affairs.  However, when imperial European powers threatened to seize Xinjiang and in turn endanger Qing China’s authority, the empire set forth on a new course of action.

In response to threats, the Qing Empire replaced its tianxia-based approach toward Xinjiang with Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty. This Western system organized the world into territorially defined nation-states and called for all subjects of a nation-state to pledge their loyalty to a centralized government. The Qing Empire reflected this philosophical shift by formally declaring Xinjiang as a Chinese province in 1884.

In the modern era, Xinjiang officially has the status of an autonomous region of China, but Wang argues that Beijing’s policies toward the region reflect components of both tianxia and Westphalian sovereignty. The influence of tianxia is evident in terms of how the Chinese state frames Xinjiang’s status as a negotiation that mutually benefits both parties, while Westphalian sovereignty is apparent regarding Beijing’s firm insistence of denying Xinjiang greater independence. Both world order theories have been critical in understanding the historical and present-day intricacies of Xinjiang and China’s relationship, though Beijing’s mass detainment campaign of ethnic Uyghurs in recent years indicates a terrifying shift toward an aggressive manifestation of Westphalian sovereignty.

Historical background: Qing China, Xinjiang, and the shift from tianxia to Westphalian sovereignty

Yin provides in-depth historical background to track how Qing China’s relationship with Xinjiang was impacted by the shift from tianxia world order to Westphalian sovereignty.  He pinpoints 1757 as the earliest and most prominent episode of Sino-Xinjiang interaction in the modern era. In this year, the Qing Empire, the ruling dynasty of China, gained access to Xinjiang after winning a military campaign against the Zhungars, a Mongolian khanate that had controlled the territory (Yin 9).

The Qing Empire established Xinjiang as a frontier area. While the dynasty incorporated Xinjiang into its sphere of influence, it did not designate it as a province of China. The Qing Empire’s restraint toward annexing Xinjiang aligned with the tianxia organizational principle that had served as China’s predominant world-order philosophy for centuries. Rather than focusing on notions of power and coercion, tianxia emphasized shared common values. It served as a system of justice and virtue that strived to promote the collective well-being of humanity (Wang 307). The diversity of peoples who lived under the tianxia system had to prove their allegiance to the Qing Empire and accept the emperor as “the overarching ruler of the empire” (Yin 5). As long as these various groups fulfilled the pledge, they were granted relative sovereignty.  Local leaders could still hold positions of power and influence, and groups were relatively free to express their cultural identities and practices (Yin 5). Ethnic and territorial distinctions were thus less important in the tianxia system so long as subjects upheld their loyalty to the ruling Chinese dynasty.

Another way of examining the tianxia dynamic, particularly in reference to ground-level practices, is to analyze the concept of a “unilateral consensus.” Scholar Yin Jiwu, who first coined the term, defines a unilateral consensus as an arrangement in which “one party or both have a tacit mutual understanding to accept a consensus and a strategy to solve problems” (Wang 302). In this setup, one party has the upper hand in organizing the terms of the deal, which diminishes the bargaining power of the other party. In the context of this case study, the Qing Empire certainly held sway over Xinjiang. Given the Qing Empire’s enormous hold on power, influence, and resources in East Asia, Xinjiang did not have the capacity to refuse incorporation into its sphere of influence. While the Qing Empire compelled Xinjiang to accept its authority, it did not utilize coercion to do so. Furthermore, this arrangement did not comprise a one-sided deal. Both sides offered concessions but received gains in return. Although Xinjiang had to accept its newfound affiliation with the Qing Empire, the region was still granted relative autonomy. The Qing Empire followed suit by absorbing Xinjiang into its domain of influence but also allowed it a significant degree of freedom.

Perhaps the most well-known demonstration of the unilateral consensus was the tribute system. Xinjiang, along with other peripheral regions of the Qing Empire, were obligated to participate in a ritual ceremony in which they exchanged gifts with the Qing Empire (Wang 306). Through the tribute system, Xinjiang used these material displays to symbolically prove its loyalty to the Qing Empire and its adherence to the tianxia system, while the Qing Empire concurrently showcased its commitment to providing for Xinjiang.

The tianxia-based order in Xinjiang operated relatively successfully for about a century. While Qing officials maintained a notable presence in Xinjiang, local elites still held a considerable degree of authority. Furthermore, trade and travel networks between Xinjiang and the Chinese heartland sprang up, promoting economic activity while connecting the Chinese “core” to the Xinjiang “periphery” (Yin 13).

Starting in the mid-19th century, imperial European powers – most notably Great Britain and Russia – began to encroach upon the territory of Xinjiang. The European powers comprised an unprecedented threat to the Qing Empire – or any previous Chinese dynasties, for that matter. While China had long been the dominant player in East Asia, the European empires possessed the size, technology, and material capacities to challenge Chinese hegemony.

The imperial European powers also adhered an entirely different world order system: the idea of Westphalian sovereignty. As opposed to tianxia, Westphalian sovereignty firmly advocated the notion of a territorially delineated entity controlled by a central government. Westphalian sovereignty primarily advanced the interests of the majority cultural group. Minority groups were still granted certain freedoms of expression but were nevertheless considered subjects of the state. Thus, they tended to have less autonomy and freedom compared to the tianxia system, since they were directly governed under a centralized state (Yin 2). Even the colonies ruled by these Westphalian empires, while not officially part of the nation-state, tended to be governed by officials from the imperial centers. The people living in these peripheral areas had to declare themselves subjects of the empire, as well. Compared to tianxia, Westphalian sovereignty was a substantially more rigid system and more heavily depended on concepts of power and identity.

As the Russian and British empires pursued colonial expansion campaigns, they identified the strategic importance of Xinjiang to their already-acquired territories – in the case of Russia, Central Asia, and for Britain, India. Xinjiang represented an opportunity to expand their respective empires, advance their interests into China, and create a buffer zone against separate colonial territorial campaigns (Yin 15-18). The leaders of the Qing Empire recognized that Xinjiang, despite its affiliation with China, was not officially part of the empire, and British and Russian forces could use its ambiguous status to further their interests in East Asia. In the face of intense external competition, Qing Empire authorities realized they could no longer rely on the loose connections forged by tianxia to secure the empire’s interests.

The Qing Empire faced increasing pressure to protect itself by creating a territorially bounded China that championed national unity. Under these circumstances, ideas of Westphalian sovereignty began to replace tianxia as the dominant view for organizing the world. The Qing Empire experienced a shift in its organizational philosophy: “instead of treating regions occupied by different ethnic groups as independent balancing powers… [the regions needed to] establish their recognition toward the central state and form as border defense against the outside invasions” (Yin 23). The Qing Empire increasingly sought to establish its authority over Xinjiang, culminating in adopting it as a province in 1884. Imperial competition from Britain and Russia signified a transformation in Qing China’s worldview from tianxia to Westphalian sovereignty, as well as a fundamental change in China’s relationship toward Xinjiang.

Modern-day Xinjiang and China: Westphalian sovereignty and remnants of tianxia

From Yin’s perspective, Westphalian sovereignty overtook tianxia as China world order philosophy, and this system remains in place to this day. However, Wang argues that while Westphalian sovereignty fundamentally impacted China’s perception of world order, tianxia did not disappear. In fact, he claims elements of tianxia remain in China’s worldview, and that both notions of tianxia and Westphalian sovereignty have shaped Beijing’s policies toward Xinjiang.

The most notable evidence of the lingering impact of tianxia is the unilateral consensus. As stated previously, a unilateral consensus involves one party establishing a set of rules and expecting the other party to commit to them. This scenario does not necessarily imply that the main party imposes its preferences on the secondary party. Both groups are expected to make concessions, but they both gain benefits in return. From Beijing’s point of view, its key terms and conditions unquestionably evoke Westphalian sovereignty. Xinjiang must remain part of China. However, Beijing also states that it offers the region numerous benefits in exchange, a sentiment that echoes tianxia and the tribute system. Beijing claims that Xinjiang should embrace Chinese nationalism, as the region would enjoy the perks of being aligned with a rising superpower. Beijing has offered promises of economic growth and investment in infrastructure development to materially advance life in the region (Wang 312). In addition, Beijing alleges the establishment of the autonomous region, as well as its rhetoric about the centrality of China’s 56 ethnic groups in shaping the modern nation-state, allow Xinjiang to preserve Uyghur cultural practices and maintain a certain level of sovereignty in its regional governance (Wang 312).

However, Uyghur separatist movements indicate that some parties within Xinjiang are not only unwilling to uphold the tianxia tribute bargain, but also outright reject it. Beijing admonishes this perceived lack of loyalty to China as betraying the terms of the tianxia contract. Uyghur separatism seems particularly egregious to Beijing authorities, as they believe Xinjiang stands to gain from the protection and development of a China governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Wang 300). Wang concludes his argument by stating how “co-existing tianxia and [Westphalian sovereignty] thinking can easily lead to confusion in negotiations with Xinjiang, as China tries to use unilateral methods of devolving power and conceding material benefits [tianxia] to encourage Xinjiang to accept a one-China policy [Westphalian sovereignty]” (Wang 326).

From Wang’s vantage point, Beijing’s relationship with Xinjiang is marked by its complexity and cannot be entirely understood through tianxia or Westphalian sovereignty alone. Instead, he argues the dynamics of contemporary Sino-Xinjiang relations can only begin to be comprehended when viewed from the dual perspectives of tianxia and Westphalian sovereignty.


Yin and Wang’s articles offer comprehensive overviews of historical Sino-Xinjiang relations, as well as astute analyses of the tianxia and Westphalian sovereignty world order theories and how they have influenced China’s policies toward Xinjiang. Wang’s claim that both tianxia and Westphalian sovereignty influence China’s policies toward Xinjiang, however, offers a stronger argument for understanding the nuances for most of the modern relationship. Wang’s claim helps regional analysts more comprehensively understand Beijing’s attitude toward Xinjiang. When viewed solely from the standpoint of Westphalian sovereignty, an observer may interpret China’s policies as imposing its culturally “superior” practices onto Xinjiang. However, when analyzing the same issue from the perspective of tianxia, the observer may believe that China has not always tried to necessarily force its preferences on Xinjiang. Rather, in some instances, China has attempted to negotiate with Xinjiang to achieve what it perceives as the most beneficial outcomes for both parties. The lingering influence of tianxia in China’s conduct toward Xinjiang indicates that while the influence of Westphalian sovereignty massively impacted China’s world view, it did not experience a complete break with its past.

While the twin influences of tianxia and Westphalian sovereignty have explained China’s conduct with Xinjiang for most of their historical interactions, Beijing’s most recent course of action in the region has marked a chilling turnaround of its previous stance.

Beijing has come under harsh international scrutiny for its imposition of detainment camps throughout Xinjiang, starting in 2017. An estimated one million Uyghurs have been placed in these facilities, where they have been forced to assimilate to Han Chinese norms by studying Mandarin, proclaiming their loyalty to the CCP, and giving up their adherence to Islamic religious beliefs and cultural traditions (Maizland, 2021). Former detainees have described systemic human rights abuses that have occurred within the camps – including forced labor, sexual abuse, and torture – and international human rights groups have condemned Beijing’s policies as “cultural genocide” (Maizland, 2021).

Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, along with its increasingly harsh crackdown on ethnic minority rights in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and other provinces in China, signify an extreme commitment toward assimilating the nation according to Han Chinese and CCP ideals. This agenda reflects a hyper-aggressive form of Westphalian sovereignty, in the sense that it aims to rigidly consolidate China’s territorial boundaries and homogenize the populace into one hegemonic ethnic group, even at the expense of erasing China’s rich history of cultural diversity. If this disturbing trend continues, the cultural survival of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and China’s other ethnic minorities will not only be endangered, but China may also lose the historical legacy of tianxia and its potential impact on inspiring the order of new global societies.

Works Cited

Maizland, Lindsay. 2021. “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.” Council on Foreign Relations. March 1, 2021. 

Wang, Hung-Jen. 2017. “Traditional Empire–Modern State Hybridity: Chinese tianxia and Westphalian anarchy.” Global Constitutionalism 6, no. 2: 298–326.

Yin, Zhiguang. 2018. “Clashes of Universalisms: Xinjiang, tianxia, and Changing World Order in 19th Century.” University of Exeter. in%20Clashes%20of%20Universalisms%20Xinjiang%20Revised %20-%20ed.pdf?sequence=2