From September 28 to 29, China’s Central Committee held a two-day conference on ethnic affairs, during which Chinese leadership promised to stimulate “leapfrog development” in China’s ethnic regions. “Ethnic minorities and ethnic regions have witnessed significant progress since the founding of the new China, but certain ethnic regions still face considerable problems, such as poverty, and are still leagues away from the common goal of the comprehensive construction of a well-off society,” a statement issued after the meeting proclaimed.
The Chinese government is grappling with ethnic issues, especially in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Discontent among the native Uyghur population has led to riots and even terrorist attacks; over 300 people have died in such incidents since the beginning of the year. As tensions rise, the central government has turned more of its attention to coping with ethnic issues.
The conference this weekend was a sign of the new push — according to CCTV, this week’s Ethnic Affairs Work Conference was the first since 2005. As a further sign of its importance, the discussion was attended by six of the seven members of China’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang (the only absent PBSC member, Zhang Gaoli, is currently traveling abroad). The conference made it clear that ethnic issues are a major priority for all Party members; according to the statement, each cadre is expected to set aside time to discuss ethnic issues as part of his or her regular duties.
The statement emphasized that the “theory and direction” of the Party’s ethnic policies are “correct,” but at the same time listed numerous areas where there is room for improvement. For instance, the conference called for “perfecting” the autonomy of ethnic regions, which would include Xinjiang as well as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. The main goal for governance in these regions continues to be boosting economic development, which China believes will cure the vast majority of ethnic discontent.
There were three major tasks listed as important for realizing economic development in ethnic minority regions: boosting employment and education; making use of natural resources while also protecting the environment; and opening up border regions through increased trade and better infrastructure. The statement also called for implementing China’s general urbanization push in ethnic minority regions. Beijing hopes that urbanization will boost economic development in China’s poorer inland regions, many of which are home to substantial minority populations. To the Central Committee, solving the “ethnic issue” goes hand-in-hand with completing China’s economic transition to a consumption-based model with a large, urban middle class.
While the meeting stressed the importance of “material” problems in tackling ethnic issues, it also had a blueprint for solving “spiritual” issues. The conference report called on Party cadres to “clearly oppose every type of wrong thought and ideas.” Cadres should encourage the development of a “common spiritual family” shared by all ethnic groups and word to foster awareness of a common Chinese identity
The statement reiterated the oft-used formulation of the People’s Republic of China as a “big family” that incorporates all of China’s ethnic groups. It emphasized the need to embrace the identity of the PRC as a multi-ethnic country. As a means to this goal, the statement urged each ethnic group to identify itself with “the great motherland” and with Chinese culture. At the same time, however, the Central Committee warned leaders to “oppose Han nationalism” that celebrates a narrow, ethnically-linked definition of Chinese identity.
Beijing’s strategy for solving the “spiritual issues” of ethnic minorities appears to be a renewed patriotic education campaign. Classes must “plant the seed of loving China deep within each child’s heart,” the statement ordered. Leaders were also encouraged to pay special attention to “minority representative scholars and intellectuals,” presumably to make sure these public figures are correctly embracing Beijing’s values of ethnic unity and shared Chinese identity. The dark side of this policy was abundantly clear last week, when Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison in part for “fanning ethnic hatred” on his website.
There’s little new in the statement from the Ethnic Affairs Work Conference, but the presentation of these policies as part of a document approved by China’s Central Committee in an official meeting gives a major push to Beijing’s ethnic policies. Expect to see increased investment in China’s minority regions, particular the border zones of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Monglia, and Guangxi. At the same time, China seems poised for a deeper round of patriotic education aimed particularly at minority groups.