China Power

Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex

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China Power

Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex

China’s refusal to change its ethnic policy reflects a historical mindset.

Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex
Credit: Chinese soldiers image via Hung Chung Chih /

A former judge in the western region of Xinjiang was sacked from his position and expelled from the Communist Party in early June for “being lenient on terrorists suspected of endangering local security and trying to reduce sentences for the terrorists.” A string of violent attacks in major cities in China over the past few years struck the nerve of the entire Chinese population and particularly the current administration. The 2014 Kunming Railway Attack and the one in Tiananmen Square in 2013 pointed to the deteriorating ethnic relations between the ethnic minorities of Tibetans and Uyghurs and the Han majority. In the face of such increasing violence, the present administration further strengthened its control on public order, increasing the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Xinjiang and Tibet. Last year alone it is reported that more than 1,400 people were convicted for harming national security.

While international media agencies and human rights group have been critical toward China’s ethnic policy, the government’s stance on the issue remains unchanged despite international pressure and domestic pushback. The 2015 White Paper on Xinjiang Ethnic Equality and Unity reaffirmed the “development and progress in Xinjiang marks the successful implementation of China’s system of ethnic regional autonomy.” The 2015 White Paper on Tibet describes the region as “in its golden age.” Yet recent years have witnessed heated discussion among Chinese intellectuals, with growing number of policy advisers advocating a second-generation ethnic policy.

The reluctance of the Chinese government in rethinking its approach to ethnic relations in China seems perplexing in the absence of a historical understanding of contemporary Chinese nationalism. The historical mindset that links neiluan (domestic disturbance) with waihuan (external threat or foreign aggression) contributes to the politicization and securitization of the Xinjiang and Tibetan issues, creating an impasse between the Chinese central government and ethnic minority groups over the future of these regions.

Domestic Debate on the CPP’s Ethnic Minority Policy

Since the founding of the PRC, China has adopted the policy of ethnic autonomy, granting institutional autonomy to regions inhabited mainly by ethnic minorities, under which local governments are autonomous when it comes to legislation in the fields like finance, education, and cultural development, among others. The ethnic autonomy policy of China has two salient features that set it apart from the American “melting pot” approach or the USSR’s “hors d’oeuvres”-style. One, an ethnic autonomous region must be politically subordinated to the central government. As the 2005 White Paper on Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China puts it, “the organs of self-government of the autonomous areas are local governments under the leadership of the central government, and they must be subordinated to the centralized and unified leadership of the central government.” Second, regional autonomy must be beneficial to the unity of the country: “the practice of regional autonomy in China should be beneficial to the unification of the country, social stability, and the unity of all ethnic groups.” Thus, though ethnic groups are granted the right to be master of their own land, given the fact that local governments are politically subordinated to the central government and that the meaning of “beneficial to the unification of the country” is decided by the government, the autonomy enjoyed by ethnic autonomous regions from the very beginning is predicated on the central government’s recognition.

Despite the government’s unrelenting insistence on the “correctness” of its ethnic policy, there are signs that a vibrant debate on China’s ethnic minority policy has been going on for several years. In 2012, the executive director of the United Front Work Department, who is in charge of overseeing ethnic policy, Zhu Weiqun, surprisingly admitted that “there are some serious problems with the current approach to ethnic relations in China.” Zhu argued that the current focus on state-guided development will not solve ethnic problems and called for more emphasis on “voluntary, self-initiating ethnic mingling and fusion.” A school of thought calling for  “a second generation of ethnic policy” has sprouted up in recent years, spearheaded by Hu Angang, founding director of Tsinghua University’s Center for China Studies, an influential policy consultant for the central government. Hu suggests abolishing ethnic identification on the Chinese ID card so as to deemphasize ethnic identity and reemphasize national identity.

The source of change in government thinking on ethnic minority policy comes from the heated discussion among Chinese intellectuals on this issue. Yang Shengmin, the dean of the School of Ethnology and Sociology in Minzu University, writes in the China’s Ethnic Groups Magazine that “attributing all riots in Xinjiang to the influence of Western forces is misinformed; the root of separatism in Xinjiang lies in the adoption of a misguided development model in Xinjiang.” The investment from inland cities to boost local development in Xinjiang was heavy on resource exploitation, Yang explained, and thus completely destroyed the agricultural economy that a majority of the Uyghur population relies on: “Xinjiang’s problem is not a problem of underdevelopment, but a problem of unequal developmental opportunities.” Ma Rong from Peking University and Wang Hua from Tsinghua University have proposed similar arguments, suggesting that the ethnic problems are a result of rapid modernization and secularization in Tibet and Xinjiang and in order to address unequal development opportunities, assistance should be provided to “under-developed regions instead of regions of a particular ethnic minority.”

Yet despite heated debates and high sentiments arguing for adjustment, little change is seen in China’s ethnic minority policy. As Ma points out, the Chinese government tends to politicize the ethnic issue, “categorizing all everyday grievances as evidence of Xinjiang or Tibetan separatism and attributing all social problems which are the result of policy failure to Western intervention.” A reading of Chinese government think tank publications reveals how entrenched this “politicization” mindset is. Jia Chunyang from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations argues that “around 2000, the U.S. media engaged in successive movements of idolizing Rebiya Kadeer and the U.S. has been active in looking for a new figurehead for the East Turkestan force.”

It is believed that Tibet and Xinjiang are cards that the U.S. plays in containing the rise of China. The Chinese government has said at various occasions that the Tibet problem is instigated by U.S. collusion with Tibetan separatist forces: “under the guise of promoting democracy, human rights, and religious freedom, the U.S. government attempted to break Tibet away from China.” Thus, ethnic problems in Tibet and Xinjiang have never been seen solely as domestic problems but ones intricately linked to foreign forces. The concern that compromising on Tibet and Xinjiang issues would result in the U.S. gaining greater advantage in the strategic competition restrains China from seeking a genuine solution to resolve the impasse.

The Politicization and Securitization of Ethnic Issues

Protests in Tibet and Xinjiang are usually inspired by land grabs, environmental damage, and deprivation of religious beliefs, which are by-products of the CPC’s modernization projects in local regions. In the face of clear evidence that everyday grievances in Tibet and Xinjiang run high, many Chinese intellectuals acknowledge the fact that the current ethnic policy is problematic, whereas the government, however, still stresses the “correctness of our ethnic policy” in every year’s white paper.

The reluctance of the Chinese government to change its politicization and securitization approach is perplexing in the absence of a historical review of contemporary Chinese nationalism. As Professor Zheng Yongnian argues in the book Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity and International Relations, “the Chinese have used the term neiluan, waihuan (civil chaos and foreign aggression) to refer to the severity of the crisis that China as a nation-state encounters.” From the incipient stage of contemporary Chinese nationalism, internal instability coincided with external threats. It is widely believed in China that the weak and incapable Qing court made it possible for foreign imperial powers to encroach on China and for domestic opposition groups like the Boxers to challenge the court. A weak state is regarded as the cause of rising domestic instability and external threats. Following this logic, Sun Yat-sen proposed to establish a modern nation-state to empower the ruoxiao guojia (weak state) in order to stand up to imperial powers.

With this historic context in mind, it is not surprising to see the Chinese government’s continuous insistence that domestic separatist forces are linked to international forces. Neiluan — the violence in Xinjiang and Tibet — is seen to threaten the survival of China because it will invite waihuan. Though this time China would not be carved up by imperialists, it may lose its relative power in the international order. The strong state complex is again evident in the Chinese government’s approach to local unrest. Instead of inviting the local people to participate in the design of developmental projects and incorporating their religious beliefs in modernization efforts, the central state takes charge of all. President Xi Jinping, during his inspection tour in Xinjiang, called for strengthening the role of the Xinjiang Production Construction Corps, saying “more efforts are needed to build the XPCC into a stabilizer of the country’s border areas, a melting pot that integrates various ethnic groups and a model region that showcases advanced productivity and culture.” The Xinjiang Production Construction Corps has been the main agent of the central government in the region, sometimes performing the role of an “imperializing agent” in introducing developmentalism in conjunction with exploitation of local resources.

The recent case of the Xinjiang judge punished for his leniency on terrorism shows that the Chinese government has indeed refused to change its ethnic policy to incorporate local minorities more effectively. It is likely that in the near future this mindset of a strong state as the ultimate solution will persist in Chinese government’s dealing with Xinjiang and Tibetan separatism. The Qing dynasty has indeed left its legacy.

Jing Yu is a graduate student of the Department of International Relations at New York University, with a research focus on nationalism in East Asia.  She is currently working as an intern at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan Campus.