Written by David Tobin.

The ethnically targeted violence of July 2009 in Ürümchi overshadowed the lead-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Uyghurs and Han were both victims and perpetrators and official figures claimed 197 people were killed (See here, here and here). The violence suggested that ethnic relations remain an important issue in people’s daily lives in Xinjiang and for the capacity of the party-state to provide “stability”. July 2009 brought to the fore concerns that China’s ethnic minority polices need rethinking in part because they are constructed without significant input from ethnic minorities themselves. The events of July 2009 lead the then Guangdong Party Committee Secretary and now 3rd ranked Vice Premier, Wang Yang, to suggest that China needs to re-adjust its ethnic minority policies or there will be further “difficulties”. These comments sparked a debate in Beijing’s elite universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua, and the Chinese Academy of Social sciences (for instance, here and here). Chinese scholars of ethnicity put forward their competing perspectives on the future of ethnic minority policies and the relationship between ethnicity and nation in China. James Leibold has shown that radical policy change in the short-term is highly unlikely but calls for reform have now become the mainstream among officials and public intellectuals.

The events at Tiananmen on October 28th 2013 will again stimulate discussion of China’s ethnic minority policies in the lead up to the 3rd Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee. In many senses the 2012 debate centered on whether to emphasise the plurality or the unity in Fei Xiaotong’s famous conceptualisation of the “plurality and unity” of the Chinese nation. The debate was ostensibly between proponents of the “first generation” of ethnic minority policies who wish to maintain China as a multi-ethnic state of 56 different minzu groups and the “second generation” who seek to transform China into a mono-ethnic race-state (guozu). We simply do not know what happened on October 28th at Tiananmen, but these events have been officially explained in the same way as July 2009. With no verifiable evidence provided, Chinese media outlets are instructed to frame the issue through “the Three Evils” of “separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism”. Dong Manyuan of the China Institute of International Studies is one of the few Chinese scholars to have spoken out thus far and he immediately blamed “the Three Evils”. His comment that policy is “correct” suggests that more introspection and open debate are necessary if we are seriously attempting to understand the future of ethnicity in contemporary China.

The “first generation” of the inter-generational debate have argued that a shared national identity will naturally emerge with economic development. Scholars such as Wang Xi’en and Hao Shiyuan of the “first generation” explicitly rely on the scientific inevitability of Marxist dialectics to chart the future of ethnicity in China. Wang (2012) and Hao (2012) both argue that Chinese Marxism and economic development will naturally produce a unified nation over time. For these thinkers, ethnic (meaning Minzu) differentiation and the regional autonomy system for ethnic minorities are central to China’s tradition as a socialist nation. However, these policies are framed as temporary measures to deal with remaining historical leftovers of discrimination from feudalism. These thinkers argue that development will naturally resolve the “ethnic question” (minzu wenti). According to their reading of Marxist dialectics, ethnicity will wither away so that all ethnic cultures will naturally evolve into national Chinese culture before merging into a global class consciousness. This stream of thought resolves the tension between ethnicity and nationhood through the Party-state’s Leninist discourse on cultural evolution: culture can be normatively measured because stages of cultural development are superstructural to economic development.

Political economist Hu Angang and social anthropologist Ma Rong of the “second generation” suggest that a shared national identity can be produced through conscious human design. This self-dubbed “second generation” argue that the party-state must actively promote “fusion” (jiaorong). The “second generation” support “fusion” into a mono-cultural race-state (guozu) through monolingual education policies and the abandonment of formal minzu differentiation, including the regional autonomy system. Ma Rong (here and here) argues that it is culture and not ethnicity which define social distinction in China. Ma claims that the distinction between “civilisation” and “barbarians” in ancient China is the basis on which the nation ought to be ordered and that the “ethnic” category (minzu) was merely a temporary policy measure copied from the Soviet Union. For Ma Rong, the barbarian/civilisation distinction is not between different civilisations but between “highly developed and less developed ‘civilizations’ with similar roots but at different stages of advancement”.  This draws from theories of cultural evolution like the “1st generation” but it normatively frames Han Chinese culture as the apex of civilisation. Modernisation and Han culture are thought of as the same thing, thus, “barbarians” can become developed by learning Chinese culture (jiaohua).

Political economist Hu Angang, argues that since the 2010 Xinjiang Work Forum, ethnic minority policies have moved from managing a multi-ethnic society and the use of minzu categories to one of fusion (jiaorong) and actively producing a race-state (guozu). Hu Angang tells us that to bring the “dream” of building a rich and strong China (fumin qiangguo) to fruition requires the development of “ethnic regions”. Hu’s central concern is how to make China strong at the international level. He suggests that all “great powers” (da guo), namely the USA, have used a “melting pot” model and all collapsed empires (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) used a “salad bowl” model. Hence, China must now focus ethnic minority policies, education, and language policies on producing shared identification into a race-state to achieve the China dream. Hu follows the party’s announcements from the 2010 Xinjiang work forum to propose “great leap development” (kuayueshi fazhan). “Great leap development” will supposedly enable Xinjiang to leapfrog over the stages of development set out in Marxist theory. Human agency will allow Xinjiang to leap across stages of development in the way proposed by Mao Zedong during the great leap forward period. The official slogan “contact, communication, fusion” (jiaowang, jiaoliu, jiaorong) tends to suggest this will be a long-term historical process along the lines of the arguments of “1st generation”. However, Hu Angang uses this to suggest that this is not only part of the “direction of history” progressing towards the “great renewal” of the Chinese nation but that the direction of history towards guozu can be accelerated by state policy. Hu Angang’s dream is for China to surpass the US to become a “new type of superpower” but his dream first requires minorities to abandon self-identification through ethnicity.

Xinjiang’s position in China is articulated through internal boundaries which mark the region as economically and culturally inferior to the East of China. Both generations agree that ‘fusion’ is needed to make China wealthier and more powerful. The “first generation” thinks this should left to the anonymous inevitability of Marxist dialectics where the “second generation” believe they can socially engineer a shared Chinese identity. The difference between the two approaches is a difference not over whether materialist accounts explain identity or if fusion is a desired end state. The debate is over how to achieve that end state, either through the ‘natural’ means of socialist development (‘cultural evolution’) or through human design and planned state policy. The two “generations” do offer different policy recommendations (eg bilingual vs monolingual education). Yet, the reason the debate stimulates so much commentary is that they offer different visions of the Chinese nation: multi-ethnic VS mono-ethnic. Hao Shiyuan of the “1st generation” has even gone so far as to challenge Hu Angang by suggesting that it was not ethnic minority identities that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union but the nationalist chauvinism of the majority (da minzu zhuyi). This amounts to accusing Hu Angang of being a Han chauvinist and indicates a real schism amongst Chinese scholars over the present and future of China. The debate reveals tensions in contemporary China between competing ideas of nationhood: China as an inclusive multi-ethnic state where different ethnic groups live in harmony and China as a Han nation with a singular model of national belonging.

The day after the Tiananmen incident, one Uyghur student on twitter asked “why is everything we do terrorism?”. He reminded his Han nationalist debating partners that a Han Chinese man set off a bomb in Beijing Capital International Airport with no calls of “terrorism”. Discontent among Han is framed as a less severe threat and is rightly seen within its social and individual context. However, Uyghur discontent can be de-legitimised and presented as a national security threat by activating the discourse of “the Three Evils”. The authors of China’s ethnic minority policies in the inter-generational debate frame a common Chinese national identity as a prerequisite to China’s international strength. Ethnic minority identities are frequently framed by the CCP and Chinese intellectuals as a source of backwardness and insecurity for the Chinese nation. This is the “patriotic worrying” Gloria Davies referred to in Worrying About China: the critical reflexivity of intellectuals is constrained by the need to contextualise academic discussion of the subject not in terms of how to deconstruct and understand a problem but how authors can help to construct China as a perfect civilisation. This sets enormous limitations on how to discuss practical problems and solutions when they have to be framed in terms that are unreflexive and focus on perfecting something which may need rethinking. One obvious way to broaden the debate on ethnic minority policies in Xinjiang and to enable it to respond more effectively to the implications of policy on the ground would be to include hitherto unheard Uyghur perspectives on the subject. However, there is so much worrying about ethnicity in China that Uyghur scholars who attempt to contribute to these debates can be be treated as a national security threat.

David Tobin is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow. He blogs at Reasonably Raging and tweets @ReasonablyRagin.


  1. When reading Dr Tobin’s comment on the difference in treatment of terrorist acts committed by Uyghurs and Han Chinese I had to think of the situation in the United States. This is what Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan had to say about the recent fatal shooting at the airport in LA: “This Chicago Tribune story amalgamated from its sources and wire services on the LAX shooter is interesting for its language. Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, is charged with “murder” and called a “suspected shooter.” The article speaks of his desire to kill TSA employees, i.e. Federal personnel. That is, he conspired against the Federal government. We know from other reports that Ciancia bought into a far rightwing conspiracy theory that US elites are delivering the country into a “New World Order” or world government. (For Ciancia’s ideology, see Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center). But this piece does not mention ideology. Nor is his ethnicity even brought up. Ultimately, Ciancia is depicted as a quiet and troubled loner, probably mentally unbalanced, and his right wing political commitments and conspiracy theories are not even mentioned. That put-upon “whites” in an America becoming majority multi-ethnic and multi-cultural have developed an extremist ideology centering on their betrayal at the hands of a government subordinating itself to a world dominated by non-whites is not deemed worthy of being part of the analysis. It is worth considering this language because we know how he would have been treated in the press had he been Arab or Muslim. His ideology and what he had faith in would have taken precedence over his being a conspiracy theorist or mentally unbalanced. Likely the word “terrorist” would have appeared in the article” (http://www.juancole.com/2013/11/terrorist-mention-wingnut.html). If we follow Dr Cole’s argument we see a very interesting parallel how terrorist acts are being portrayed in China and the United States. Despite the different political systems there seems to be a convergence in terms of the media reporting on terrorist acts. Each time the nature of the coverage seems to largely depend on the ethnic background of the suspected terrorist. I am glad there are some academics like Dr Tobin and Dr Cole who help the general public understand why such media reporting should be considered serious misrepresentations based on willful omissions. I will recommend this excellent blog to my students as a preparation for my lecture-seminar on ethnic relations in China.

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