Ethnic discrimination in China

Senior Lecturer of Asian Studies and Politics Dr James Leibold chats to New York Times journalist Ian Johnson about ethnic and religious discrimination in China. Read more in this transcript from the podcast.

Q. When did China begin classifying people according to ethnicity?

A.The distinction of groups by language and culture started in the imperial era. More recent attempts to "scientifically" classify people began with foreign adventurers and naturalists who traveled around southern China during the Republican period, and this gets picked up in the People's Republic of China and mixed with Marxist taxonomies.

It became more sophisticated and institutionalized under the Communists but reflects Qing dynasty policy on ruling through local customs — recognizing ethnic chieftains, co-opting them into the state in exchange for titles and money.

The system that runs today is still based on ethnic patronage. "We'll recognize you as ethnic minorities and, if you'll play by the rules of the game, we'll reward you with certain benefits. But if you resist, the boot awaits." This is what the Qing called combining imperial grace (en) with might (wei), or what we might call a carrot-and-stick approach to ethnic governance.

Q.How is this reflected in your current work?

A.Right now, I'm working on the Communist Party's anti-veiling campaign in Xinjiang with a colleague in the U.S. The party is offering women who take off their veils fully paid trips to Shanghai or Urumqi, as models of deveiling. But those who don't remove their veils lose preferential benefits or are subject to administrative detention.

This en/wei formula has been the consistent approach of the Han [the dominant ethnic group in China] center towards its frontier minorities. What's changed is the sophistication and level of penetration. During the Qing, Beijing was far away, and the empire was governed by around 20,000 officials. Now the party has 86 million members that are able to garrison remote corners of state territory and penetrate deep down into the grass roots.

Q. And we see this in current policy, right?

 A. Recently, the party has pushed a "mass line" campaign aimed at embedding officials in grass-roots communities. The Tibetan mass line campaign was the first one. It started in 2011 and ended in 2013, with 20,000 officials rusticated. The Xinjiang one was initiated in March of this year. It's going to send 200,000 officials down over three years. This year nearly 75,000 party members in teams of five to seven were dispatched, with one-third going into rural villages in southern Xinjiang, where they will stay for a year. They're meant to be the eyes and ears of the party and ensure policy implementation at a local level.

 Q.How do you judge the effectiveness of this kind of policy?

 A.You'd need a good anthropologist to go to these villages and live there and see what's going on. The documents [outlining this policy] talk about detailed security arrangements and that they shouldn't venture out of their barbed-wire compounds unless they have armed police escorts. Not exactly community building, right?

In China, the party launches these campaigns and puts up glossy posters announcing various "strike hard" targets, but often officials go through the motions and try to serve their time or pay off someone to get back to Urumqi. So is this mass line campaign really happening as it's designed to? I wonder. But certainly, compared to the imperial and Republican states, the capacity has increased exponentially.

Q. Do you see the violence linked to these campaigns?

 A.Yes, as a result of these polices, you get pushback. The violence is tied to the penetration of the state. You can leave people alone and they go their own way. But if you push them into a corner, some are going to bite back.

Q. How does the party view the non-Han cadres it has?

 A.In the 1980s, there was a lot of promotion of ethnic cadres. Then under [former President] Jiang Zemin more people entered the party. Now the Communist Party has six million ethnic minority members. But in the eyes of Beijing, many probably haven't been carrying out policy adequately.

For example, there's been a lot of discussion lately about rooting out religious belief among party members. I think there's a growing realization that, while in the 1980s and 1990s there were party representatives in the frontier regions, they weren't carrying out party rules.

Q.Does the government see there's a problem?

 A.No. The biggest problem is the inability to admit mistakes and problems. Xi [President Xi Jinping] just claimed in late September at the Central Ethnic Work Conference that current policies are correct and ethnic relations are basically harmonious. This is consistent with almost every statement issued by the Chinese Communist Party. But across the globe there are ethnic problems and you first have to admit it. Only by admitting shortcomings can you talk about them and seek solutions. But in China you don't get to first base. No one talks about it. But the party does do a good job in putting on the screws.

Q. Will this lead to an explosion?

 A.I don't buy the pressure-cooker theory.


 A. Simply because the numbers are too small and the problem is too remote. Falun Gong [a banned spiritual movement] or house churches are far more serious, because here we are talking about large numbers in the Han core.

Also, the party has thrown heaps of money into buying a kind of acquiescence among a large number of ethnic minorities. Why risk your life? Some who are radicalized or marginalized enough might do it, but most simply get on with their lives — resentful, perhaps, but also resigned to the fact they are part of China.

Although it's difficult to work out for sure, as few are willing to talk. Ethnic issues are so sensitive. It's hard to get people to open up.

Q.Is this what you found during your recent trip to Xinjiang?

 A.Yes. Things are particularly tense in Hotan [a town in southwestern Xinjiang]. It's an odd outpost of Han-built modernity — very industrial and little character. There were about 100 Han dancing in the main public square, protected by soldiers — a lot of them with dogs, too. The soldiers had machine-guns and these truncheons with spike-like endings. To get in there, you have to pass a checkpoint.

It was a weird scene: Han civilians being protected by Han soldiers in a city that is nearly 90 percent Uighur. I took a few photos and the People's Armed Police guys got on their walkie-talkies. When I tried to leave, about five of them surrounded me and took me to a police officer. They couldn't believe I wasn't a journalist. One minute they were telling me how dangerous it was here, and that I should know better. Yet when I said I was there as a tourist, they were like: "Right … OK … of course, we welcome tourists. It's an open city. Welcome to Hotan city!" But they weren't happy I took the photos and wanted to delete them.

Q.They're worried.

A.Yes, but their policies are so reactive. We've had high-profile attacks in Beijing, Kunming and Urumqi since Xi came to power. These have been highly embarrassing. But they don't have a proactive stance, because they don't have a solution. They aren't willing to think outside the box about new approaches that might be more productive. The more I think about it, the more I think it's one of those problems that doesn't seem to have a solution. I hate to sound pessimistic, but that's how it seems with the current regime in place.

This is an excerpt from the New York Times. It was originally published here.

Dr James Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies and Politics in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Image credit: Vin Crosbie