China’s Ethnic Policy Under Xi Jinping

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 20

Wang Zhengwei has been an active voice in China's ethnic policy establishment, and now holds three key national leadership positions with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the United Front Work Department. (Image: Chinese Internet)

Since assuming power in November 2012, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary General Xi Jinping has sought to put his imprimatur on the contentious realm of ethnic policy. As with other agenda items, Xi has sought to concentrate power around his own person, believing this to be the only way to push forward reform against vested interest groups, including in the realm of inter-ethnic relations. Yet the minzu (民族) or “ethnic” lobby is a powerful and deeply entrenched part of the political machine in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

State-run media frequently lauds Xi for his intimate knowledge and personal interest in the nearly 120 million Chinese citizens who belong to an ethnic minority, and especially the troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. His inspection tours of minority regions are front-page news, as are his important speeches on ethnic work. Most recently, his image and words featured prominently at the official celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the 60th anniversary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinhua, September 8; Xinhua, October 1).

Yet, Xi Jinping’s intervention has failed to end the long-running and deeply acrimonious debate over the future direction of ethnic policies in the PRC. Xi lacks both the authority and the political capital to push ethnic policy in the more assimilationist direction he desires. Rather, he is hamstrung by the liberal legacy of his father Xi Zhongxun and the continued influence of former Secretary General Hu Jintao, two powerful sources of support for the ethnic lobby and its defense of ethnic pluralism. The end result is policy paralysis, leaving local officials to interpret the contradictory messages emanating from Beijing while increasing the importance of stability maintenance (维稳) work as the only agreed method for dealing with a complex set of ethnic contradictions.

The Ethnic Policy Debate

Since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, ethnic policy has been in a state of constant flux, swinging (often dramatically) between the accommodation and protection of ethnic differences and centralizing, integrationist tendencies. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided yet another jolt. Nationalists warned the liberal policies ushered in by former party secretary Hu Yaobang during the 1980s placed China in a precarious position not that dissimilar to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Peking University Professor Ma Rong has long argued that China shares the same preconditions for national fracturing as the Soviet Union, while the influential policy scholar and Tsinghua University Professor Hu Angang has called for a “second generation of ethnic policies” on the eve of Xi Jinping’s elevation as party secretary (see China Brief, July 6, 2012). Current policies, these would-be reformers argue, place too much emphasis on ethnic identities while creating institutional barriers (administrative autonomy, ethnic classification, ethnic-based preferences) that hinder the natural fusion of different groups and the forging of a strong, shared national identity. In short, Ma, Hu and other reformers advocate a minzu-blind politic, one that would naturalize and eventually eliminate policymaking based on ethnic differences.

Opponents like Minzu University Professor Yang Shengmin argue any rethink of ethnic theory and policy would lead to “ideological chaos” (思想混乱) and political and social upheaval (CUAES, February 23, 2012; Phoenix News, March 30, 2014). Open the minzu box, they assert, and you will unleash a Pandora-like set of contradictions that will undermine the cooperation, solidarity, and trust central to solving social problems in a multiethnic country such as China. The sheer size of the minzu establishment ensures vocal opposition to any shift in the status quo, with a complex network of “ethnic and religious affairs committees” (民宗委) employing millions of officials at every level of the bureaucracy, while overseeing the distribution of billions of dollars in state revenue each year.

There are reasons to believe that Xi Jinping is highly sympathetic to the integrationist agenda. He has consistently stressed the importance of national unity in the context of his “China dream,” while remaining largely silent on the place of ethnic autonomy, languages and cultures. He has resurrected and promoted the “four identifications” (四个认同), which stresses the affinity of minorities with the motherland, the Chinese nation/race, Chinese culture and the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, while promoting a sense of collective belonging through Mandarin–language instruction and patriotic education in frontier regions. [1] Xi has also stressed the “equality of everyone before the law” (法律面前人人平等), rather than the group-differentiated rights enshrined in the Chinese Constitution (People’s Daily, November 21, 2014; Xinhua, August 28).

The controversial theme of “ethnic mingling” (民族交融) is now one of the “guiding principles” (提法) of ethnic work under Xi Jinping’s government. Rather than promoting ethnic diversity, the Party Center stresses residential integration, joint schooling, and increased interethnic migration and mobility. The concept of ethnic mingling is closely associated with another leading ethnic policy reformer, the former Executive Director of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), Zhu Weiqun, who believes mingling is an inevitable social and historical trend that cannot be resisted (China Brief, June 19, 2014).

Xi’s Failed Intervention

At the Central Ethnic Work Forum in September 2014, Xi Jinping sought to “consolidate thinking” and draw the ethnic policy debate to a close (see China Brief, November 7, 2014). In his speech, he called for confidence in the CCP’s current approach and the need to “unflinchingly walk the correct road of China’s unique solution to the ethnic question.” Xi was critical of those, like Ma Rong and Hu Angang, who praise foreign models, such as an idealized version of the American “melting pot,” and rather dramatically pleaded: “There are people who say that we do not need the system of regional ethnic autonomy, and we should implement the same system as we have in other provinces. This view is incorrect, and politically pernicious. I want to again state clearly to everyone, we must stop suggesting that the system of ethnic autonomy should be abolished!” (China Ethnic Daily, November 15, 2014). Yet, in his speech, Xi also made reference to the four identifications and the centrality of ethnic mingling, leaving some to believe that he still desires to move ethnic policy in a new direction.

Xi Jinping’s mediation did little to end the debate. In fact, under his leadership, the divisions within the ethnic policy community have sharpened, becoming more public and personal. Both sides have declared victory in the media, highlighting those parts of Xi’s undisclosed speech that support their viewpoint. Ma Rong, for example, wrote a long essay arguing the meeting signaled “an important readjustment” in thinking, shattering the “dual structure” that divides Chinese society into two unequal halves: the Han majority and the ethnic minorities. [2] In reply, his academic rival Hao Shiyuan countered with his own article, asserting that Xi’s speech reaffirmed the centrality of ethnic autonomy and current policies, and must put an end to the confused and erroneous viewpoints that have reigned in recent years. [3]

Wang Zhengwei, director of the powerful State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC) (and himself a member of the Hui minority), issued his own summary of the meeting, claiming Xi’s speech amounted to “the final word” on the ethnic policy debate (Qiushi, October 16, 2014). Yet, a month later, one of his deputies at the SEAC, the Tibetan official Danzhu’angben, provided far more extensive excerpts from Xi’s speech, making it clear that the new Party boss favors some gradual adjustments to concrete policies like family planning and educational preferences for minorities, as well as an end to the creation of new ethnic groups and autonomous regions. “Fifty-six minzu is fifty-six minzu,” Danzhu’angben quotes Xi, “we do not want to divide any further” (China Ethnic Daily, November 15, 2014).

Hu Jintao’s Continued Influence

Despite the growing clamor for ethnic policy reform, the minzu establishment remains a powerful interest group, and it has a formidable ally in the former Secretary General Hu Jintao. Many of Hu’s people remain in key positions of authority when it comes to ethnic policy, and according to Willy Lam, Hu’s Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction (tuanpai, 团派) “is the only party clique that can pose some kind of challenge to Xi and his powerful allies.” [4]

Despite persistent rumors that an ally of Xi Jinping would replace Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian, he remains in his post in spite of recent violence and reputed ties to the purged former security chief Zhou Yongkang (Duowei, September 27). Tibet has long been a stronghold of Hu Jintao, where he served as party secretary between 1988 and 1992. Following his promotion to the Politburo, a succession of Hu allies has ruled over Tibet. In fact, frontier regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia have served as important proving grounds for tuanpai officials, including the leading candidate to replace Xi Jinping at the 20th Party Congress in 2022, Hu Chunhua, who spent nearly twenty years in Tibet and eventually served as deputy party secretary of Tibet from 2003 to 2006, before becoming the party secretary of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in 2009.

The stocks of another Hu Jintao ally, SEAC director Wang Zhengwei are also on the rise. In April of this year, he was appointed Deputy Head of the United Front Work Department. Wang now holds three key national leadership positions with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the United Front Work Department. He is widely tipped to enter the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress and might even take over the leadership of the UFWD (Dagongbao, April 15). If this occurs, he will be the first leader since Li Weihan (1949–1954) to simultaneously hold the top Party and State posts related to ethnic policy, and the first ethnic minority to do so.

The new institutional powerbase of the ethnic policy reformers is the far less powerful Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of the CPPCC, where Zhu Weiqun is the director after retiring from the UFWD. Far from receding into the background, Zhu has become increasing strident on the need for ethnic reform. In May 2015, for example, a dialogue between himself and the Tibetan writer Alai went viral due to its unusually frank criticism of the current approach to ethnic issues (Phoenix News, May 31). Yet, he will be forced to retire at the 19th Party Congress, and at present, there does not seem to be anyone with sufficient political clout to take up his cause on retirement.

The Father’s Long Shadow

Xi Jinping’s desire to break down the ethnic policy establishment is not only stymied by his political predecessor but also by his father’s extensive legacy of ethnic policy work. The elder Xi was known as a leading expert on minority issues, serving first in the Northwest during the 1940s and 1950s and then in Beijing as Vice-Premier in charge of ethnic, religious and united front work during the 1980s. Xi Zhongxun consistently warned against “leftist deviation” in ethnic work, and stressed the need for careful consideration of minority cultures, languages and identities when implementing national policies. During the 1980s, he worked closely with Hu Yaobang to readjust ethnic policies after the Cultural Revolution, resulting in the passage of the 1984 Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy and a raft of new minority preferences that the ethnic policy reformers rail against today (Phoenix News, October 21, 2014).

Xi senior was particularly close to the 10th Panchen Lama, and was also said to have kept a watch that the 14th Dalai Lama gave him, in 1954. On the sudden death of the Panchen Lama in 1989, Xi Zhongxun published a long memorial essay in the People’s Daily praising the patriotism and devotion of his “close friend,” while lamenting leftist errors in Tibet policy in the past. After the death of Mao Zedong, Xi Zhongxun worked closely with the Panchen Lama to implement a series of significant policy reforms in Tibet and other ethnic regions, creating today’s ethnic establishment.

Unlike his father, Xi Jinping has had little direct experience with ethnic issues, spending his entire career in coastal provinces like Hebei, Fujian and Zhejiang. A 5,000-character section of his 1992 book Casting Off Poverty (摆脱贫困) is held up as his primary contribution to ethnic work (CPC News, November 2, 2014). In fact, there is not a single essay on ethnic policy in Xi Jinping’s most recent book, On Governance (谈治国理政), with only two fleeting references in the entire book. In sharp contrast, Xi Zhongxun’s contribution to ethnic and religious work was highlighted in the essays, books and even TV series commemorating the centenary of his birth in 2013. “Ethnic work was an indissoluble thread throughout Comrade Xi Zhongxun’s life,” Wang Zhengwei wrote, “where he made a major contribution to solving our country’s ethnic problems” (China Ethnic Daily, October 15, 2013).

In short, any move by Xi Jinping to scale back ethnic minority rights and autonomy would be viewed as a direct repudiation of his father’s legacy, something he is frequently reminded of through the citation of his father’s speeches by those who seek to defend the status quo.

Conclusion: Security Reigns Supreme

With the lack of consensus at the top, local officials are left without clear guidance as how to balance ethnic autonomy with interethnic mingling. Unsure how to proceed, most stress the importance of stability above all else, employing their considerable security and social welfare funds to inhibit ethnic contradictions. In fact, policy paralysis and continued ethnic unrest actually lends a freer hand to security officials while the underlying sources of interethnic tension go unaddressed.

As chairman of the newly created National Security Commission, Xi Jinping has considerable influence over the security agenda, with its forces emerging as one of his most important power bases. In his speeches thus far, Xi has consistently stressed the importance of stability maintenance—a common theme over the last two decades but one that has come to define Xi’s approach to ethnic problems.

In the name of combatting the “three evils” (separatism, extremism and terrorism), security officials have not only garrisoned frontier regions like Xinjiang and Tibet but are increasingly adopting similar methods of militarized policing across the country. Yet, the securitization of Chinese society fails to address any of the core issues at stake in the ethnic policy debate.

In sum, while the security apparatuses have proven themselves largely effective in snuffing out the spate of Tibetan self-immolations and Uyghur-linked terror attacks, ethnic antagonism has sharpened in parts of Chinese society as they are pushed deeper underground by the now ubiquitous social monitoring. Without efforts to deal with these underlining tensions, any stable and harmonious pluralism will continue to elude Chinese policymakers.

James Leibold is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia. He is the author of Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable? (Honolulu: East West Center, 2013).


1. In fact, at the 6th Tibetan Work Forum, Xi added a fifth identification, the Chinese Communist Party, thereby making the term his own (see People’s Daily, August 26).

2. Ma Rong, “旗帜不变,稳住阵脚,调整思想, 务实改革:对中央民族工作会议的解读” (Fixing the flag, holding one’s ground, readjusting one’s thinking, and pragmatically reforming: Deciphering the Central Ethnic Work Conference), 民族社会学研究通讯, 172 (2014): pp. 1–10.

3. Hao Shiyuan, “民族区域自治:中央民族工作会议讲了什么?” (Regional ethnic autonomy: What was said at the Central Ethnic Work Conference?), 中央民族大学学报, 219 (2015): pp. 5–12.

4. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression? (London: Routledge, 2015): p. 5.