A 1952 poster of Mao Zedong
China’s mass detention of Uyghur Muslims – the largest of a religio-ethnic group since the second world war – is not the inevitable or predictable outcome of Chinese communist policies towards ethnic minorities. I’ve spent the past 20 years studying ethnicity in China and, when viewing the present situation in Xinjiang through the prism of history, one thing becomes clear: this is not what was “supposed” to happen.
In the early 1950s the Chinese Communist party (CCP) was holding on to revolutionary victory by its fingernails. The postwar economy was in shambles, and the outbreak of the Korean war brought a nuclear hegemon to its doorstep, in the form of the United States. Not the moment most regimes would choose to enlarge their to-do lists.
The CCP did, however, committing to officially recognising more minority peoples than any other Chinese regime in history. While Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists had begrudgingly accepted the official existence of five groups in the 1930s and 40s, the Communists recognised 55 in all (plus the Han majority), many with populations under 10,000.
A remarkable amount of time and capital was dedicated to the celebration and bolstering of these groups. Perhaps the largest social survey in human history sent thousands of researchers into minority communities, filling libraries with their reports. Linguists created writing systems for minorities who did not already have them. The scale of the People’s Republic of China’s investment in groups it designated as “minorities” has been staggering.
Here’s the irony: the Chinese communists don’t believe that “ethnic identity” truly exists – not in the long run. Rooted in Marxism-Leninism, the party maintains (at least, it did) that class is the only fundamental dimension of human identity. Other collective identities, such as nationality, religion and ethnicity are long-lasting but ultimately ephemeral fictions, constructed by those at the top of the economic pyramid to distract the poor from seeking comradeship with fellow proletarians.
Why would the party invest in something it doesn’t think exists? To neutralise it.
While other countries have used denialism as a tactic to combat perceived threats of internal ethnic diversity – insisting on the singularity and indivisibility of one’s nation by recognising as few minorities as possible, or perhaps none at all – the Chinese communist game plan was the opposite: to recognise ethnic diversity into irrelevance. To shepherd it into extinction.
By embracing so many ethnic identities the goal has been to preempt threats of local nationalism; to ensure that the country’s minority nationalities never aspire to national self-determination or nation states. After all, if the state was recognising and championing minority groups, what legitimate reason would anyone have to break off and form their own political entity?
A slow-acting process of disintegration was supposed to unfold, less a fiery melting pot than a leisurely slow cooker. Identities once important enough to declare independence over, even to die for, were supposed to matter less and less in one’s daily life. The goal was technically not assimilationist. A hundred years from now – even 200 or 500 – there should still be Tibetans, Uyghur, Miao, and so on. But these monikers should not matter, except on festive occasions.
The plan has been remarkably effective. For some minority groups, such as Manchu and Zhuang, it is not uncommon for individuals to speak nothing but flawless Mandarin. Meanwhile, the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou – once sites to some of the bloodiest ethnic violence in world history – have been transformed into “colourful” and “harmonious” lands of diverse cultures ready to welcome authenticity-seeking tourists.
This plan is not benign or nonviolent, let’s be clear. The occupation of Tibet in 1951, the suppression of the 1958 Amdo rebellion, and many other episodes demonstrate the bloody extent to which the state has gone and will go to maintain control. Ethnic violence was widespread during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, moreover, as Maoist fanatics defaced mosques, dynamited Tibetan temples, and attacked those wearing ethnic clothing – vestiges of the “old China” they sought to destroy.
As violent as these moments were, however, they were episodic and short-lived. Each time, the state snapped back to the earlier playbook of celebration and neutralisation.
What happened? How did mass detention, the systematic destruction of mosques, and imprisonment for showing signs of Muslim religiosity become state policy in Xinjiang? Three reasons, primarily: growing inequality, the forces unleashed by China’s experiment with capitalism, and the rise of ethnic scapegoating, fuelled by rampant Han Chinese resentment.
The Chinese Communist party’s ethno-political game plan has always depended on the gulf between rich and poor growing smaller, not larger. Within the Han Chinese majority, as many basic aspects of the “Chinese dream” fall out of reach – as even graduates of prestigious universities huddle in cramped apartments in outskirts of cities they can’t afford to live in, for instance – resentment and intolerance has increased.
It’s not uncommon to find people taking aim, online, at affirmative action policies and the celebration of minorities. While the party has long policed Han nationalism – or “chauvinism” as it still calls it – the sheer scale of this angry Han Chinese malaise is beyond anything Beijing ever planned for.
Meanwhile, when minority regions continue to fall behind the coastal Han provinces, and when lucrative local jobs go to internal Han migrants, a tiny subset find their way back to the always present, destabilising potentials of ethnic identity: separatism, national self-determination, transnationalism, and other things that keep party members up at night.
Even for those without any separatist ambitions – by far the majority of minorities – capitalist forces have turned ethnic identity into a form of commodity: a product that, in some locales, is their only “cash crop”. Capitalism has made ethnic identity both more volatile and more resistant to the party’s hoped-for disintegration.
This is the forest fuel, collecting over many years of drought, that caught fire in the 21st century. September 11, the 2009 protests that turned into riots in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, and the 2014 Kunming rail station attack: these events provided the justification for Beijing’s brutal clampdown on Muslim Uyghurs in the name of its “People’s war on terror”. They triggered a weakening, perhaps an abandonment, of ethnic policies that served the party for half a century, and which it spent a fortune building.
Will things snap back, as they did before? It’s doubtful. The about-face in CCP ethno-politics seems to be melding with other, powerful forces. China’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure gamble – the “belt and road” initiative – marches straight through the north-west, where Xinjiang is.
Climate migrants will need many places to go when sea water begins to fill the populous Pearl river delta, among other regions. Meanwhile, the “one country, two systems” approach to Hong Kong is de facto dead, and the PRC looks eerily close to contemplating military invasion of Taiwan. Should the party abandon the “56 nationalities of China” model, it would be just one more longstanding policy jettisoned in an already drastic list.
So again, the situation in Xinjiang was not “supposed” to happen. It may well augur the end of China’s ethnic diversity policies. As for what could replace them, the current prospects seem grim.
Thomas S Mullaney is professor of Chinese history at Stanford University