So much for the 'happy family of nationalities'? China's minority problem
Illustration: Naomi Worth

On 13th June, as the United Kingdom began to slowly awaken from the coronavirus lockdown, the BBC hosted an interview with the 14th Dalai Lama. Light-hearted as ever, His Holiness discussed the importance of compassion, the environment, and education with his interlocutor. In a few short lines, the BBC also notes why the “leader of Tibetan Buddhism” in fact does not reside in Tibet. Exiled in 1959, he now leads a peaceful opposition to Chinese rule, a leadership resulting in a fierce reaction from the PRC’s party-state to all and any appearances he makes on the international scene, even Mercedes-Benz adverts. Substantially more concerning was the news reported by the Associated Press (AP) the day before this article’s writing; on 2nd July, US federal officials seized $800,000 worth of hair weaves and beauty products imported from China, with strong evidence that such weaves  were made with the human hair of minority Uyghur women incarcerated among approximately 1-1.5 million members of the Xinjiang Muslim group in concentration camps.

Xi Jinping himself has stated, ‘the Chinese nation is a family, building the Chinese dream together.’ The above vignettes are extreme examples of seeming family strife, yet the currently salient international issues of Tibet and Xinjiang form only part of China’s complicated, contested, and at times beneficial relationship with the 55 officially-recognised ethnic minorities, which as of 2010 makes up 8.49% of China’s population. If one wishes to understand China’s minority situation as a system rather than a series of policies directed at certain groups, most famously the “problematic” Uyghurs and Tibetans, it is worth delving into the history underpinning such policies and the relationship of the minority nationalities (shaoshu minzu) to “Chinese” identity.

Back to the USSR

To a substantial degree, the PRC’s current minority policies cannot be separated from that of its estranged and deceased sibling. As the CCP laid claim to China, first in its infant, guerrilla form, and later as a state from 1949 which dominated China, the core texts of its nationality policy derived from Stalin and Lenin. Works such as Stalin’s Marxism and the National and Colonial Question (1913) provided a basis for defining the nation as a group with a common language, territory, mode of production and psychology (often elided with culture). Although Lenin argued in 1903 that communists could not deny the self-evidence of nationalist feeling, fundamentally nationalism is theoretically incompatible with Marxism; battle lines were drawn on class, not national lines. To square this circle, therefore, early USSR (and pre-USSR) Bolshevik intellectuals came up with a variety of creative policy solutions to encourage the withering away of national or ethnic sentiment. A common term for minority ethnic groups, ‘‘National minorities’ in Marxist-Leninist parlance was redefined as ‘minority nationalities.’ This may seem a small modification, but the terminological sleight of hand implies‘minority nationalities were merely a smaller group within a nation, as opposed to placing the ‘national’ in ‘national minorities’ first and thus implying an attendant claim to a nation. Ethnic minorities were to be placed on a developmental scale drawn from historical materialism, pre-capitalist, slave, feudal, capitalist and finally, socialist societies, and were to be intensively developed both politically (institutions of minority government) and economically (socialist industrial production) through a system of territorialised autonomy. The shorthand for this was,“ national in form, socialist in content,” — an ethnic minority would travel its path to socialism through carbon copy “autonomous” governmental organs, be educated in their own languages, governed by minority Party members, and have socialist reforms moderated in light of the “actual conditions” of minority cultures. At the same time, the “content” was to be uniform, and eventually the hope was equalised, educated new minority proletarians would shrug off the “false consciousness” of nationalist sentiment and form a homogenous whole.

Nationality Policies and the Early CCP

The CCP took up this framework but moderated it. Most significantly, after flirting with the idea in 1931, the CCP-in-power rejected the most extreme autonomous aspect to the USSR —  the fact it was a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Instead, the 1954 Constitution noted the PRC was going to be a “unitary, multinational state”, and busily went about classifying and reclassifying the diverse ethnic groups that constituted the then 6% of China’s population, systematising their languages (either transcribing oral ones or inserting appropriately socialist terminology into the older Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and Manchu tongues). Minorities in China had, and have, ethnic autonomous regions, prefectures, and counties, with the right to petition the Central Government to moderate certain laws not in line with their “actual conditions”, nominally bilingual administration and intensive recruitment of minority cadres. There are however to this day no Chinese Autonomous Republics, nor after 1991’s splintering of these republics in the Soviet Union into independent states are they likely to appear in China any time soon.

Nonetheless, the 1950s were a period of conciliatory state behaviour towards its minorities. To take just one example, “Tibet”, albeit defined using imperial Chinese not indigenous Tibetan conceptions of its borders,  was incorporated into the PRC in 1951 after enjoying de facto independence since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Despite this loss of independence, the PRC, led by atheist revolutionary communists who at the time were executing around 2.5 million landlords in Han areas of China, took great pains to accommodate and conciliate those very same minority clerical elites and landlords in Tibet, and the young Dalai Lama. From 1951-9, a tentative coexistence occurred, as Mao Zedong worked exceptionally hard (enjoying for a time a personal correspondence with the Dalai) to stress local officials economically developed the region in cooperation with Tibet’s traditional government. He did not, however, touch the attendant social inequalities which the Party had dramatically obliterated in interior China, notably the practice of serfdom. It is a little-remembered outside of the academy that the Dalai’s impression of China as a modernising, generally tolerant state, with an “elder brother” Han majority truly aiming to reform the country was once so positive that it resulted in his asking to join the Communist Party in 1955.

Such a live-and-let-live was unlikely to last. Although spared for a time, the “democratic reforms” and attendant social trauma of revolutionary transformation was imposed on ethnic minority areas from 1955, including in ethnic-Tibetan regions outside of “Tibet” and its especially protected zone. The resulting rebellion spiralled out of control, and the PRC’s crackdown (which included bombing the most defensible local strongholds, monasteries) poisoned relations with many Tibetans. On 10th March 1959, the Lhasa Uprising resulted in the Dalai Lama fleeing to India and a full-on process of “democratic reforms” beginning in Tibet.

Revolutionary Assimilation

A trend from 1949-2020 has been that China’s systems of minority policies swing, a pendulum of sorts, depending on circumstance.

As an insecure state increasingly cemented its control through the 1950s and early 1960s, ethnic policy in China took a turn. Concerns that ethnic minorities were being given “too much” leeway in terms of autonomy, and that this was proving to be more national in content than national in form, without the socialism, prompted a wave of campaigns against “local nationalism” from 1958, turfing out many of the minority elites and authority figures who had previously been co-opted into the state system. This was then supercharged during the Cultural Revolution. In an atmosphere from 1966-69 (and in many ways until Mao’s death) where a utopia, governed by Mao Zedong Thought and its self-proclaimed prophets, promised the transition to true communism and the obliteration of the “capitalist-roader” and other backsliding attitudes, notions that ethnic minority identities would steadily weaken in favour of a mass proletarian consciousness fell out of fashion. A strongly assimilationist “left” position took over, one which ironically promoted a cultural imperialism that devastated ethnic minority communities. Groups of Red Guards, decreeing Mandarin Chinese the one and only “revolutionary language” persecuted indigenous language expression, remaining state-approved religious associations were destroyed (including 98% of Tibetan monasteries) and acts of intercommunal violence reached proportions which some academics assert to be genocide, notably the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Mongol cadres and herdsmen.

The Cultural Revolution was a scarring experience for all involved, but in minority terms took on a hard edged element of “civilising” rhetoric which in many ways called back to imperial Chinese attitudes towards “barbarians” and their assimilation, not promised modernizing equality. To be “Chinese” when citizenship was defined by class-conscious revolutionary characteristics in effect involved collapsing any and all divergent identities in favour of a unitary whole, and this revolutionary “Chinese” identity, far from a collection of 56 different ethnic cultures, began to look suspiciously “Han.”


Following 1978, and the inauguration of what is broadly termed “the reform era”, China entered a period of cultural revival.

Deng Xiaoping, filling the void left by increasingly discredited Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, settled on a soft nationalism and regional decentralization which enabled a tentative minority recovery, indeed, flourishing. Although the examples used thus far have been relatively negative, it cannot be forgotten that a substantial number of China’s minorities have benefited from modernization. It was common from 1978-2012 for Hui Muslims, China’s “other” large Muslim minority (there are in fact 10 Muslim minorities in total) to participate in the hajj, finding a space of “survival” which involved mosque renovations and the connection of Islam’s Chinese umma to the wider transnational Muslim world. Susan McCarthy meanwhile has written extensively on the Dai. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, this Tai group reforged its links with the Tai-diaspora in Myanmar and Thailand, resituating their place in China’s national story through tourism. Xishuangbanna and areas like it to this day draw millions of Chinese and international tourists, aiming to look at an “authentic” and intensively marketed minority nationality culture. This exercise has been described by Foucauldian power analysts such as Louisa Schein as a sort of “internal orientalism”, as certain groups of ethnic minorities are exoticized, sexualised and usually gendered for a Han audience, yet nonetheless such activities allow certain minorities to push the envelope of the Chinese project, through this asserting their own contribution to “Chinese” identity and trying to bargain their economic value for a more substantial acceptance of their culture and autonomy.

The hope among Chinese policymakers about this, somewhat looser, ethnic orbit was that it would solve China’s ethnic conundrum. If citizens could conceive of themselves as part of the “happy family of nationalities”, and their cultures could be domesticated (or at least, presented as domesticated) to compliance, the Chinese Dream of a unified state would be strengthened, and the threat of foreign powers destabilising China through its ethnic underbelly would be dealt with. The issue however, is that such an opening-up may have worked for some minorities, but not for others. A part of the “internal orientalism” discussed has over the last 30 years entrenched conceptions of certain minorities as safe, but others as far less so. Uyghurs and Tibetans continued to face job discrimination, the denizens of the Land of Snow or the Central Asian steppes easily caricatured as masculine and threatening.

More practically, economic development remained uneven. In both Xinjiang and Tibet, companies routinely prefer importing better-skilled Han labour in complex industry, these Han workers then living effectively segregated lives. International comparison is complex due to incomplete or doctored Chinese statistics, but nonetheless the D-value for Xinjiang and Tibet, that is, the measure of such ethnic segregation, runs at 98.6 for Han-Uyghurs and 88.38 for Han-Tibetans (2015). To contextualise this metric for a Western audience; although the white population of the United States is proportionally lower than the Han Chinese one in China, the far better known social segregation in the United States which form part of its own racialised hierarchy substantially trails these figures. In 2010, the black-white D Value in US cities was 59.1, and 48.5 for Hispanic-whites. 

When the inequality-generated population movements of Han-Chinese was layered over the historic fact that especially in Xinjiang the Chinese state had been promoting colonization by Han Chinese to affect demographics since the 1950s, it is hardly surprising tensions rose, not fell. In 2009, a series of protests in Xinjiang resulted in intercommunal violence which left 197 dead, while a spate of separatist terror attacks picked up, ending in the killing of 35 and the injuring of 143 in a knife attack at Kunming Station in 2014. In Tibet, protests exploded on 10th March 2008 over the detention of monks, and since 2011 state responses, such as forcing monks to trample pictures of the Dalai Lama, have resulted in 156 Tibetans self-immolating in protest.

What then, was to be done at the systemic level, to deal with the incomplete process of minority integration?

Chen Quanguo, Xi Jinping, and second-generation ethnic policies.

From 2011 to the present, with Xi coming to power in 2012, China has embarked on an aggressive posturing domestically and internationally which in many ways marks the end of the reform era. Part of this has involved a new ethnic paradigm. As noted, the reform era worked for some, but not for all, and so in characteristic fashion the CCP subtly changed policies without announcing a change in policy. In 2012, a Hong Kong-based academic Ma Rong published a suggestion for a “second generation of ethnic policies.” Observing the Balkanisation of Yugoslavia and the tendency of Soviet Socialist Republics to become national units, rather than their intended purpose to constitute and then break down Uzbek, Kazakh identities, Ma Rong pointed to the continued aspects of Regional Ethnic Autonomy in China as a ticking time bomb. To avoid the chaos of a Chinese collapse and mass ethnic separatism, all and any ethnic autonomy was to be done away with. China should follow the “melting-pot” United States model, as identities fold into an overarching citizenship, being “an American” or in this case, “being Chinese.” Shiyuan Hao, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences fellow from Beijing, reviewing Xi’s comments on minority work from his accession to 2018, strongly denied such actions, quoting Xi to reaffirm the fact that the autonomy model inherited from Mao remains the cornerstone of China’s ethnic minority work. Of course, this means anything but.

Instead, China’s new solution to its “minority problem” is a nationalist version of the Cultural Revolution’s leftist swing. Attempting to artificially create a “melting pot”, external influences are being clamped down and state-driven homogenisation is growing. The Hui, historically compared to the Uyghurs as China’s tolerated Muslim minority, have seen the demolition of mosques containing minarets in favour of Chinese temple-style architecture, and a clampdown on Arabic. Those who once attended the hajj are now suspect, more than one Hui Muslim finding their way into the Xinjiang camps. Tibetan-language education is being clamped down on, in recent news reopening schools in Ngaba for instance switching to Mandarin-language post-coronavirus instruction.

In both Tibet and Xinjiang, hard-line securitization, to prevent what is euphemistically termed “ethnic mass incidents” has been spearheaded by Chen Quanguo, Party Secretary in Tibet 2011-2016 and in Xinjiang 2016 to the present. This vision involves a police blockhouse upon every corner, a grid-based residence system rolled about across the provinces, and frequent communications blackouts. In Xinjiang, QR codes on Uyghur porches are now routinely used by central authorities to document any and all personal information, potential links and subversive tendencies.

Both above trends dovetail in the current incarceration of around 1-1.5 million Uyghurs in re-education facilities. Involving intensive “de-radicalization”, Uyghurs have been reportedly praised for disavowing their faith entirely, moderate or otherwise, pushed to receive Mandarin-language education, and are urged to cut contact with members of the diaspora living abroad. A recent series of reports, spearheaded by AFP, also appear to indicate substantial coercive female sterilization, even as the state embarked at the 2020 NPC on a more aggressive pro-natalist policy for the Han. That is to say, where the “melting pot” may have gaps, demographic engineering upsetting the population balance could fill them, Han out-reproducing the minority.

It is impossible to generalize surrounding the most extreme aspects of China’s tense attempts to incorporate a diverse population into a “unitary, multinational state”, and it must be remembered after all that many minorities fully see their identities as compatible with that of the PRC, not least the 6.65 million Communist Party members of minority nationality. It must also be acknowledged that Western media in particular has a Xinjiang-Tibet focus- googling “China ethnic minority” will produce a bevy of search results, few of which stray beyond at best the Hui. Nonetheless, the continued salience of such issues is in itself a significant fact; China, for now, has swung its pendulum back towards assimilation, and yet such assimilation requires substantial investment, and comes at a continuing cost to China’s international reputation. In a party-state emphasising order, it appears clear that some minorities acclimate better to order than others.

It remains to be seen as to whether China’s latest effort to secure a “happy family of nationalities” will succeed.