Xinjiang Time by Vivian Le
We tend to think of time zones as practical tools, but they aren’t always — some become intertwined with power, politics, and freedom. In most larger countries, time zones break land masses up into different areas, but not so with China, which has but one broadly spanning time zone despite being about the same width as the United States. In theory, one would expect there to be around five Chinese time zones. In fact, at one point China did have that many, but until 1949.
With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, everything changed. After a long civil war, the Communist party prevailed and the new leadership felt that a single time zone would help unify the nation. The new Beijing Time was considered simple, efficient, egalitarian.
But not everyone in China adheres to this wide-reaching single time zone. In Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in the northwest, there are around 12 million Uyghurs — an ethnic minority native to the region. Uyghurs are culturally very different from the Han majority that makes up over 90% of China. For decades, the Chinese government has been worried about separatism in the region, which has led to some very severe, state-sponsored suppression of Uyghur life, including an ongoing genocide. Among the cultural differences between people in the region is a pair of attitudes around time zones. For decades, the Uyghur have operated around Xinjiang “local time,” not Beijing time (two hours off).
Beijing time was and still is the official time zone in Xinjiang — train stations, government offices, and the like have long run on Beijing’s clock. If you were to ask a Han person what time it was they would tell you in Beijing time. But local time is, in fact, much closer to what most would consider normal or obvious, tracing the solar day. And while technically Han residents still adhered to Beijing time in principle, few do in practice — mostly, they live and work during normal daylight hours. For practical everyday purposes, language helps people tell the difference, too — someone saying the time in Mandarin is probably referring to Beijing time, for example. At least in the past, there was a kind of code-switching that happened when someone is speaking Uyghur instead. There was also arguably an element of dissent here — Uyghurs resisting openly could get in trouble, but using a different time is more subtle. Setting one’s watch to local time thus becomes a small act of defiance.
Meanwhile, times have changed — the situation for the Uyghurs has officially escalated to the point of being a recognized genocide. And among many other human rights violations, a large population of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in what has been officially called “vocational education and training centers” but are effectively reeducation camps. Amidst all of this, changing one’s watch is of course harder than ever — the state tracks phones, and setting one’s zone to local time would be known by the government. While that might not be illegal per se, it could attract attention.
There are, however, many things that can be interpreted as a “sign of separatism” like wearing a headscarf, having a beard, having WhatsApp installed on your phone — even simply speaking to someone who lives abroad has gotten people in trouble with the government. Self-censorship has become an unfortunately necessary norm. So “time” is just one example of how these intimate parts of Uyghur culture are being suppressed. Having one time zone across China may promote national unity, but of course, it also means suppressing the things that don’t fit. And from the beginning, it was very obvious who wouldn’t fit into a system centered on Beijing time. That single, centralized time becomes a reminder of who and what is at the center of China.