China’s Minority Problem — And Ours

China's 60th anniversary this week also marks 60 years of a volatile relationship with its own minority populations. Now, if the region is to stay stable, China must undo the damage Mao did.


On October 1, the People’s Republic of China will mark its 60th anniversary with the largest military parade in its history. The ruling Communist Party is not commemorating 60 years of ideological stability and continuity, however, but a period of speedy change and dramatic reversals.  

Most of the major ideas that animate Beijing today are the opposite of those found in Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book: Communism as guiding economic doctrine is out. Getting rich is glorious. Western decadence is not threatening, but useful as an engine of China’s export economy. And instead of railing against the established powers of the developed world, China now wants to join them.  

Still, there is one way in which China’s governance philosophy and architecture remain largely unchanged from what Mao Zedong envisioned in the 1950s: minority affairs. And recent bloody riots in Xinjiang and Tibet are a wake-up call that the system is fraying badly. Today Beijing should be encouraging a dialogue about the sources of growing discontent, not placing further bans on local media and minority religious observance, as it is doing now. Rising unrest in China’s western borderlands is an ominous sign, not just for Beijing but for all of Asia.    

Mao foresaw the challenge of managing minority concerns in western China, but the solution he cooked up was no great leap forward. During China’s civil war in the 1940s, he lured China’s ethnic minorities — Tibetans, Uighurs, and Hui Muslims, among others — into fighting for the Red Army with promises of independence if he prevailed. But once the war ended, Mao retreated from talk of "independence" to talk of "autonomy," borrowing an experimental concept from his northern neighbor, Joseph Stalin.  

Today, China’s main minority regions, including Xinjiang and Tibet, are technically known as "autonomous regions." These regions, where historically the population has been ethnically and culturally distinct from China’s Han majority, have been given the semblance of local stewardship. But decisions are still made centrally, with the assumption that Beijing knows best — similar to the Soviet system of local satraps who took their orders from Moscow. As Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington, says, "The phrase ‘autonomous regions’ rings a little hollow." 

With the USSR, of course, the system worked until it didn’t: When Mikhail Gorbachev finally took the lid off, it revealed the extent to which Soviet policies had deepened regional and ethnic divisions — failing at the goal of forging a shared national identity. There’s no sign that China will see a happier outcome. "In the long term, this is not a very stable arrangement for China," says the Hudson Institute’s Richard Weitz. 

It’s also not a stable arrangement for any country with a security interest in Central Asia — which is to say, much of the world. As Weitz explains: "China’s two most sensitive ethnic areas are also its two most significant regions for geopolitical reasons: Xinjiang is a Muslim region, and it’s very important as China’s gateway to Central Asia. And Tibet is a buffer zone for China’s tense relationship with India." 

Territorial disintegration is the last thing Beijing wants. The leadership is forever wary of the cyclical nature of Chinese history: a millennia-long drama in which political dynasties have risen and amassed territory, until emperors lose the "mandate from heaven" and tumble precipitously — while the map of China fractures into shards like a shattered vase.  

Yet, despite this looming risk, the key principle underlying China’s minority policy — the idea that the Communist Party and the country’s political elite are capable of judging for minorities what is in their best interests — hasn’t changed since Mao. Examining that assumption could lead to deeper systemic questioning, which Beijing dearly wants to avoid. 

"A fundamental tenet of China’s governing philosophy is that the Communist Party leaders are supposed to represent the interests of the country as a whole, without distinction," says Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana University. "The idea that there could be legitimate sectarian interests, which may have different or even conflicting objectives, is one that the Communist Party does not want to touch."  

Unfortunately, Beijing may not have the option of plugging its ears to minority dissatisfaction for much longer.  

In particular, the influx of Han settlers into China’s ethnically diverse western regions is creating a volatile dynamic not present in China’s eastern megacities, where the population is more homogenous. Western urbanization has thrust new groups together, but not made new neighbors into friends. Mutual distrust is the norm, and there are racially charged insult matches in Internet chat rooms and in the streets. Han Chinese claim the minorities are living better than before, with access to new roads, hospitals, and other infrastructure — which is true. Minorities meanwhile claim that recent Han arrivals are living much better than they are, while inequality is growing fast — also true. (According to the Asian Development Bank, Xinjinag exhibits the greatest level of inequality of any region in China.)    

In Urumqi and Lhasa, where the two most bloody riots in China’s recent history have occurred in the past 18 months, one of the most striking features is the absolute separateness with which the minority populations and the recent Han arrivals coexist — and the obvious economic disparity. A common reference point for the situation is the American South prior to the Civil Rights movement. "In some of these large western cities, the situation looks a lot like the American segregated South — people living alongside each other in radically different conditions, not really communicating," says Charles Freeman, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Tensions are easy to kindle."

Moreover, the political system is not set up to protect minorities from abuse. By law, the governor of these autonomous regions must be a member of the relevant minority group. But the person who fills that position is selected by the political establishment — and so owes his career and primary allegiance to the powers that be. As Bovington observes, "Most minority officials rise by association with powerful Han counterparts; they are clearly selected for their early appreciation of the Communist Party." It’s little surprise that minority cadres produced by this system have not become champions for minority interests, but risk-averse politicians. 

(Beijing has even taken it upon itself to appoint a loyal Tibetan to be the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, which of course fails entirely to satisfy the religious preconditions of the position. As one Tibetan monk at a monastery in Yunnan told me, "Of course he’s a fake. How can the government know what is in his heart? You can’t ‘hire’ a lama.") 

With no effective watchdog for minority interests, policies that might, in theory, advance minority interests instead get mangled in the execution — bungled affirmative action hiring schemes, boondoggle "minority-themed" construction projects, street signs in Uighur script that are illegible to Uighurs.


Overzealous Han security forces frequently take advantage of the lax oversight to bully ethnic minorities. As one Uighur told me after our visit to a village mosque in southwest Xinjiang was interrupted by an unannounced inspection by two Han police officers (my Uighur friend, intimidated, insisted we leave in a hurry), "I don’t like police. They are always rude and rough." 

Another Uighur, a schoolteacher in Kashgar, told me: "Our schools need to improve, and we need government support. But bribery skims off the top of any money devoted to minorities. Let’s say Hu Jintao says that 10 million renminbi should be given to us. Then, at every layer, the leader takes some, and then the next leader takes some. So in the end we get only 1 million. No one watches the money or makes sure we get our due." 

With economic disparity and discrimination on the rise in the autonomous regions, ethnic relations are becoming increasingly combustible. The inability of Beijing’s policies to address these issues, as Thompson puts it, "is a governance problem. What kinds of bottom-up mechanisms exist for minorities to express themselves or exercise checks and balance? The answer is very few. … Right now, violence is one of the few options." Beijing should be hoping that its ethnic minorities find other means of expressing their concerns. A peaceful movement for equality could be monumentally beneficial, both for minorities and for all of China. "To have a harmonious society, in my view, China should have a civil rights movement," said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center.    

But a movement needs leaders, and at the moment Beijing is doing its best to handicap or discredit any leaders who might be chosen by minorities to represent their own interests, such as the Dalai Lama or Rebiya Kadeer. "I do not see signs of a civil right movement emerging," says Li, "of leaders emerging who will think this way." The problem lies with the system, which is aimed at training a small class of minority elites to be loyal to the party, not cultivating voices who express a new point of view.  

It’s not a happy predicament — either for minorities or the stability-obsessed government in Beijing. Hu Jintao may not relish the prospect of allowing the emergence of China’s Martin Luther King Jr. But, given that ethnic tensions are only likely to grow worse under the current system, he might soon be facing something more explosive — a reckoning with China’s Malcolm X. 

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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