The Minorities: Civilised Yet?

by David Brophy

One hundred years since the fall of the Qing dynasty, which redefined the Inner Asian borderlands as integral parts of the Chinese nation, the Communist Party still struggles to resolve China’s ‘ethnic question’.

In February 2013, Tibet passed the gruesome milestone of the hundredth self-immolation. The count continues to rise. In April, violence broke out again in Xinjiang: a clash between Uyghur neighbourhood committee workers and suspected ‘mobsters’ left twenty-one dead. And in usually calm Inner Mongolia, Mongols now regularly hit the streets in protest against commercially driven land seizures and forced relocation.

The top levels of government have responded on the one hand by calling for a faster rate of investment in borderland economies to raise them to parity with the interior and, on the other, to attack forms of economic and religious life they deem to be obstructing China’s trajectory of modernisation. The growing desperation of minority protests suggests that there is a palpable sense that only a brief window for action remains before China’s development priorities swamp local aspirations.

Despite the confident veneer of Politburo pronouncements, ongoing problems in minority regions have prompted deep questioning of the direction of China’s nationalities policy. In early 2012, Tsinghua University scholars Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe provided a focus for the debate by calling for a ‘Second Generation Nationalities Policy’.

The two Hus voiced the concerns of many Han Chinese today: that autonomous administrative structures and constitutional privileges (youhui zhengce 优惠政策) for ethnic minorities amount to a system of reverse discrimination against the Han majority. They argued that it was time to replace these structures and privileges with a consistent set of rights and obligations for all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity.

For much of 2012, rethinking China’s approach to its ethnic minorities became a hot topic in academic discussions as well as on policy websites and scholarly blogs. Following a series of semi-official rebuttals of the new approach in the same forums, enthusiasm for the debate noticeably cooled in the first half of 2013. A tally would show that most contributors to the discussion were wary, if not outright critical of the direction suggested by the two Hus. But popular discontent with China’s affirmative action is widespread and support for revising, or abolishing, the system of ethnic autonomy seems likely to grow.

The proposals are radical. Yet they do not necessarily entail a major break with Chinese Marxist–Leninist tradition. The gradual withering away of national boundaries is part of the predicted path to socialist utopia: the workers have no country, as Marx put it. The current rigid system of ethnic categories prevents any possibility of such ‘national’ or ethnic blending (minzu ronghe 民族融合), and could therefore be deemed non-Marxist. The Maoist canon postponed the obliteration of national or ethnic identity to a distant point on the socialist horizon; for some, that time has arrived.

A Uyghur blacksmith, 18 September 2012. Photo: Eric Lafforgue

A Uyghur blacksmith, 18 September 2012.
Photo: Eric Lafforgue

The People’s Republic has always been reluctant to frame the ethnic question in terms other than a historical legacy. The revolution, officially represented as the combined struggle of all fifty-five of China’s officially designated ethnic minorities (shaoshu minzu 少数民族) together with the Han majority, is credited with having resolved the ‘nationalities question’. Concessions to China’s ethnic minorities, such as the system of ethnic autonomy, were presented in a more positive light as policies aimed at developing the nation’s backward regions and their (usually non-Han) inhabitants. Viewed in this way, national autonomy in Xinjiang or Tibet has a use-by date: when the necessary cultural and economic advancement has been achieved. In other words, when the minorities are sufficiently civilised, autonomy will have achieved its goal and can be abolished.

As scholars in both China and the West have long known, creating a taxonomy of ethnic groups based on the Stalinist model often involved the state and its scholars imposing artificial designations on the population. ‘Second generation’ theorists hold that by institutionalising these groups traditionally as minzu (‘nationality’ 民族), with political rights attached, the Chinese state created a rod for its own back. They prefer the term ‘ethnic group’ (zuqun 族群), and speak in terms of ‘watering down’ (danhua 淡化) and ‘depoliticising’ (quzhengzhihua 去政治化) ethnic identity.

The ‘second generation’ thinkers on nationalities policy (they would prefer the term ‘ethnic’ policy) find some common ground with Western theorists of multiculturalism and civic nationalism. The 1960s’ American notion of a ‘melting pot’ offers a catchphrase for those proposing to break down the barriers between ethnic groups and increase the degree of national blending.

What they find most attractive is the sense that immigrant nations such as America and Australia have successfully inculcated a loyalty to the state that transcends ethnic identity. A recent essay by Chinese scholars surveys the history of ethnic policy in Australia — its authors most impressed by the fact that ‘state affiliation is always in the primary position; ethnic affiliation is always second’.

In reality, the term ‘Australian’ is far from culturally neutral, and not yet inclusive enough to serve as the primary point of identification for all members of Australian society. The term ‘Chinese’ is even more problematic, for it is not an abstract notion of common Chinese citizenship, but implies membership in the Zhonghua minzu 中华民族 — a term with strong and specific historical and cultural connotations.

Dong Yong, Deputy Head of Ürümchi’s Ethnic Minority Cadre Training Institute from August 2012, wrote a commentary in 2012 in the Global Times entitled ‘Increase the Use of the Broad Designation “Zhonghua minzu” ’ (Duoyong ‘Zhonghua minzu’ de da chengwei 多用‘中华民族’的大称谓). Urbanisation and population movements, Dong argued, have made Han Chinese an ethnic minority throughout China’s minority regions. In such a situation, the term ‘ethnic minority’ ceases to make any sense. Lauding the American policies for their success in promoting ‘citizen consciousness’ (guomin yishi 国民意识), he suggests that the term Zhong-hua minzu be applied more widely in administration and education in minority regions.

As much as discussion of Western multiculturalism serves as a vehicle for criticising and rethinking China’s own ethnic policies, it rarely offers concrete prescriptions for change.

Valerii Tishkov, sociologist. Source: Russian Council

Valerii Tishkov, sociologist.
Source: Russian Council

A more useful model for China might be found in neighbouring Russia. Russia today is a federation that still includes autonomous ethnic republics and oblasts held in varying degrees of submission to Putin’s centralising grip. Arguably, this more closely resembles China and its system of ethnic autonomy than did the former Soviet Union.

During the 1990s, Russian officials took a number of steps to dismantle the Soviet framework of nationality and national autonomy, blaming it for inhibiting integration and the development of a pan-Russian patriotism. A leading theorist behind these moves was the sociologist Valerii Tishkov. His work has been translated and published in Chinese, and is often cited by minzu specialists such as the Peking University sociologist Ma Rong. Tishkov served as an advisor to Boris Yeltsin; in recent years his work has influenced Vladimir Putin’s push for an all-encompassing ‘Russianness’ with which Russia’s non-Slavic peoples can identify.

Relying on the linguistic distinction between Russkii (ethnically Russian) and Rossiiskii (pertaining to the Russian state), Tishkov asks citizens of Russia to think of themselves as ‘Rossian’ first (not Russian), and Tatar or Ukrainian only second. Very much akin to the Chinese dream of realising a unified Zhonghua minzu, Tishkov’s goal of an all-encompassing Rossian identity expresses a kind of universality that is unlikely to appeal to any nationalities fearful of assimilation.

As in China today, in the Russia of the 1990s these reforms were promoted as steps towards social liberalisation: the notorious ‘nationality’ category in the Russian passport, after all, was an innovation of Josef Stalin. Yet when it was removed from the passport, leading voices among non-Russian groups such as the Tatars criticised it as a step towards assimilation.

Such is the dilemma faced by China’s ‘second-generation’ theorists. With trust between Han and non-Han a rare commodity, dissolving structures of national autonomy in the name of greater social mobility and cultural cross-fertilisation is almost certainly to be perceived as a threat to already endangered minority languages and cultures, as well as the last remaining spheres of non-Han authority in minority regions.

Critical minority voices are muted in scholarly journals and official forums, but find an outlet on personal websites. The Mongolian Altanbolag has written on his blog that the call for a ‘second-generation nationality policy’ means one of two things: either that China will allow freedom of speech for all viewpoints on its nationality policy; or, more likely in his view, that a selective airing of views critical of current policy will lay the groundwork for a racist and exterminationist turn in China’s ethnic policy.

His piece is alarmist, perhaps, but indicative of the suspicion that will greet any major shift in China’s ethnic policy. For this reason, while endorsing the goal of unifying the Zhonghua minzu, many officials have sounded a warning against ‘forcing’ the integration process. As Huang Zhu – a veteran researcher in the United Front Department and State Ethnic Affairs commission – has pointed out, the last time that criticisms of the system of autonomous regions and constitutional concessions for ethnic minorities were aired was during a period the Party would prefer to forget — the Cultural Revolution.