Toward A Second Generation of Ethnic Policies?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 13

China is Debating Whether Institutions Like this University Should Exist

The recent self-immolations in Lhasa remind us that China has its fair share of ethnic problems. Chinese government officials continue to blame “outside forces” for inciting ethnic divisions, insisting that “sixty years of experiences have proved that China’s ethnic policies are correct and effective” [1]. Yet for most in China these incidents reflect a fundamental failure of policy. Intellectuals, netizens, generals, dissidents and even property tycoons now call for a major rethink of ethnic policies. Individuals across ethnic and ideological divides are openly debating this once sensitive and secretive topic. Few in the West however seem to be listening.  The ping-pong propaganda on ethnic policy between the CCP and its overseas critics obscure those that seek to change the rules of the game, ushering in a new sort of ethnic politics with far-ranging implications for Chinese society.

For nearly a decade, Professor Ma Rong of Peking University has championed the cause of ethnic policy reform, warning that systemic divisions among China’s 56 “nationalities” (minzu) and its system of territorial-based autonomous units (minzu quyu zizhi zhidu) could see China follow the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into national disintegration [2]. Only a fiery melting pot of national integration, Ma Rong contends, can stem this tide of division.

Over the last decade, a series of bloody ethnic riots have rocked the nation and with each incident Ma Rong’s influence seems to grow. In addition to countless smaller, less publicized incidents in Guangdong, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan and elsewhere, China has seen Han-Hui communal violence which left nearly 150 people dead in Zhongmou county, central Henan province in 2004; violent clashes in downtown Lhasa spread to other Tibetan areas in 2008 and resulted in scores of deaths and hundreds more injured; a brutal anti-Han riot saw nearly 200 (some claim 1,000) slaughtered in the streets of the Xinjiang capital of Ürümqi in 2009 and unleashed vigilante attacks on Uyghurs and a string of hypodermic syringe attacks on Han.

Policy U-turn?

In 2011, Standing Committee member and United Front coordinator Jia Qinglin cryptically called for a “new chapter” in the CCP’s long-standing efforts to solve the “nationalities question” (minzu wenti), one better suited to this “new historical stage” (Qiushi, January 1). Earlier this year, one of the party’s leading spokesmen on ethnic affairs, the United Front Department’s outgoing executive director Zhu Weiqun, made a rare admission of serious problems in the Party’s ethnic and religion work, and suggested a range of concrete reforms (Study Times, February 13). Yet, the most explicit call for change, and potentially the most influential, has come from futurologist and policy guru Hu Angang, who late last year appealed for a “second generation of ethnic policies”: one that would attenuate “minzu identity” (minzu rentong) and strengthen a single, shared “national identity” (guozu rentong) [3].

Hu Angang is the founding director of Tsinghua University’s Center for China Studies, one of China’s most influential think tanks. Cheng Li of Brookings has described Hu as one of the most visionary and high profile thinkers on China’s rise and its associated problems. The party-state already has adopted no fewer than seven major policy reforms proposed by Hu, suggesting his ideas on ethnic policy reform will receive a serious hearing [4].

In an article originally published in Xinjiang Normal University’s academic journal—but since republished in Party magazines and across the Sinophone Internet—Hu Angang and his colleague at Tsinghua University, Hu Lianhe, speak of a major, new “policy orientation” (fangzhen). The Tibet and Xinjiang Work Forums convened by the Party’s Central Committee in 2010, they contend, signaled a new focus on “ethnic contact, exchange and blending.”

The two Hus warn of the twin dangers of “regional ethnic elites” and “regional ethnic interest,” arguing that the failure to reign in narrow ethnic consciousness in frontier regions like Tibet and Xinjiang has increased the threat of ethnic separatism. Meanwhile, with its double standards, the West criticizes China for violating minority human rights while pursuing its own policies of ethnic fusion at home.

For the two Tsinghua professors, the choice confronting China is stark: continue to abide by the former Soviet Union’s “hors d’oeuvres style” (da pingpan moshi) ethnic policies and share its fate, or join the global norm by shifting to a “melting pot formula,” which has proven successful in the United States, India, Brazil and other large countries. Inside the melting pot, cultural pluralism is tolerated and groups are permitted to maintain their cultural traditions, yet the absence of group-differentiated institutions, laws or privileges encourages natural ethnic mingling and a shared sense of civic belonging. In order to forge China’s own melting pot, the two Hus outline a raft of bold policy initiatives, covering the political, economic, cultural and social arenas.

Politically – Eliminate group-differentiated rights and obligations to ensure the equality of all citizens. This should include nation-wide reform to territorial administrative divisions in order to increase market efficiencies, remove barriers and create a better balance in terms of size, population and ethnic mix. Preferential state-aid should be doled out based on relative impoverishment rather than ethnic status, and ethnic markers should be removed from ID cards, school and job applications, and other official documents.

EconomicallyIncrease economic interaction and ties between ethnic minority regions and the rest of the country. The frontier regions have been the “greatest beneficiaries” of China’s economic reforms in terms of GDP growth and improved social welfare, but more is now required to remove institutional barriers to the free flow of goods, capital, labor and information—resulting in increased competition, entrepreneurial initiatives and creative forces, and reduced inefficiencies and regional gaps.

Culturally – Sharpen the focus on integrating different ethnic traditions into a collective civic culture and identity. This requires increased use of the national written and spoken language; guarding against religious extremism; greater attention on civic ceremonies that foster identification with the nation; among other propaganda and media work in this direction.

SociallyEnhance the flow of peoples across administrative boundaries in keeping with the current wave of globalization, informatization (xinxihua) and modernization. The mechanical nature of China’s ethnic classification system leaves little room for talented foreigners who wish to naturalize and become Chinese citizens. Facilitating foreign immigration will not only benefit China’s modernization but also break the presumed link between Han and Chinese culture, rendering China a more inclusive, dynamic and robust society. Finally, new methods are required to increase ethnic mobility, co-residence and inter-marriage while promoting Mandarin, bilingual and mix-ethnic schooling.

Hold the Party (Line)

This call for reform has clear support in certain segments of the party state and the broader society. Yet, change is unlikely ahead of the 18th Party Congress later this year, especially given the current focus on party unity in the wake of the Bo Xilai incident. Vested interest runs deep in the current system with massive state and party bureaucracies in charge of minority education, culture, political representation and, perhaps most importantly, security. "These officials,” Tibetan blogger Woeser notes, “are all eating minzu rice. If ethnic policies are adjusted or changed, this will have a big impact on their interests, and thus they will attempt to block any adjustment to ethnic policies” (VOA [Chinese], July 31, 2009).

In the first half of 2012, ethnic institutions, like the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, convened forums to criticize the call for a second generation of policy. These gatherings endorsed current policies as correct, labelling the reform agenda as “rash and imprudent.” While a bit of “perfecting” is required from time to time (namely, in the form of increased state subsidies for autonomous regions), participants generally thought past experiences have proven the current approach is best suited to China’s unique national conditions.

At one such forum, Hui Scholar Ma Ping of the Ningxia Social Science Academy reportedly stated “Now is not the time in China to ‘eliminate cultural differences, weaken ethnic consciousness, and promote ethnic fusion.’ This kind of ‘ethnic blending theory’ could quite possibly lead to ideological confusion and social unrest, and actually work against or even harm efforts to strengthen the cohesive force of the Chinese nation. State and ethnic consciousness are not innately antagonistic and can be harmonized” (Zhongguo minzu bao, April 13). Huang Zhu, the former personal secretary of key policy architect Li Weihan, cited Marx and Lenin in arguing that ethnic differences are a long-term condition and will only disappear after class divisions wither away. Regional ethnic autonomy and minority preferential policies, he argued, are the best way to assist the ethnic minorities with their step-by-step development while protecting their equal rights (Zhongguo minzu bao, January 13).

Most of the heavy academic lifting has fallen to the highly respected and well-placed Mongolian scholar Hao Shiyuan. As Deputy Secretary General of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and former Director of its Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Hao speaks with the full weight of the minzu system behind him. Over the course of two months, Hao wrote a series of four critiques that exceeded 50,000 characters [5]. Citing everyone from Lenin and Stalin to Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao, Hao stressed the importance of substantive rather than formal equality, arguing that these reforms would violate the constitutional provision for “genuine equality.” Much of his critique was spent picking apart the two Hus’ rather selective reading of international experiences and their lessons for China. Hao quite effectively demonstrates some of the persistent ethnic problems that plague the United States, India and Brazil, while presenting extensive evidence discounting the ethnic factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As it stands, the debate is far from over. In fact, there are reasons to expect that it will intensify among the next generation of CCP leaders with seven new members slated to join the Standing Committee, and at least one of these, Wang Yang, on the public record calling for a re-adjustment to ethnic policy (VOA [Chinese], July 31, 2009). Some sort of policy shift cannot be ruled out over the long term.

Lifting the Lid

What would this mean for China and its ethnic minorities? What impact would any policy reversal have? As Barry Sautman has convincingly argued, the scaling back of minority rights would create substantial unease and resistance among minority constituencies [6]. The implications for Tibet and Xinjiang are particularly worrying, as even a small-scale adjustment to policy here would likely increase, rather then decrease, inter-ethnic conflict over the short term.

Yet there is little evidence that most Chinese would welcome the range of initiatives Sautman and others in the West suggest for strengthening and enhancing minzu-based rights and autonomy. Some have even suggested Western-style multiculturalism is inherently alien to Chinese culture, helping to explain the tenuous position of minority rights at present [7].

The sequestering of ethnic cultures and peoples under the planned economy kept a reasonable lid on inter-ethnic enmity. The box however is now wide open. Each round of market reforms has unleashed new social cleavages and ethnic contradictions that the current system seems incapable of containing.

Most Chinese liberals argue that a more decentralized, democratic polity would promote ethnic tolerance, social cohesion and national stability. There is enthusiasm here for a return to the Republican period, and some sort of ethnic-blind local autonomy or deliberative politic (BBC Chinese Service, July 20, 2009; Lianhe Zaobao, July 21, 2009). Others like leading public intellectual Qin Hui go even further, advocating federalism or another form of ethnic-based devolution [8]. Federalism, however, has long been dismissed as unviable (the memories of warlordism and imperialism run deep) and democracy has failed to eliminate ethnic tensions in the West. Without careful top-down, state-led intervention and management, ethnic contradictions could easily spin out of control in China—or so the argument goes.

There is no magic wand. Balancing national cohesion and cultural pluralism is a near universal problem for modern nation-states. The fundamental ethnic arithmetic further complicates this process in China as 100 million ethnic minorities stand little chance of “autonomy” inside a freewheeling marketplace dominated by 1.2 billion Han. The equation looks even darker for the 10 million or so Uyghur and Tibetan residents of the once remote borderlands.

Critics of the current system agree that a new sort of calculus is required. One that frees ethnic identity from its current minzu straightjacket, and breaks the assumed link between “Chinese” and “Han.” There is arguably more diversity within the Han (linguistic, ethno-cultural, spatial, etc.) than between the Han and most minorities. Are not the Cantonese and the Shanghainese also ethnic parts of the same Chinese whole? Might the Uyghurs and Tibetans find more room to maneuver in a society were identity is hybrid, dynamic and self-ascribed, and everyone is simply labeled a Chinese citizen?

At present, with federalism and a “high degree of autonomy” unrealistic, the options are limited. Those calling for a rethink of the minzu system in China might offer viable alternatives for many of China’s ethnic minorities. While their proposals remain contentious and probably misunderstood outside China, they merit carefully study, especially if China hopes to foster the sort of inclusive and tolerant “cosmopolitan nationalism” (da minzu zhuyi) that Liang Qichao envisioned over one hundred years ago.


  1. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Ethnic Policy and Common Prosperity and Development of All Ethnic Groups,” Government White Paper, State Council, September 27, 2009,
  2. Ma Rong, “21 Shijie De Zhongguo Shifou Cunzai Guojia Fenlie De Fengxian? [Is There a Risk That China Could Fracture in the 21st Century?],” Lingdaozhe 38 and 39 (2011).
  3. Hu Angang and Lianhe Hu, “Dierdai Minzu Zhengce: Cuijin Minzu Jiaorong Yiti He Fanrong [Second Generation Minzu Policies: Promoting Organic Ethnic Blending and Prosperity],” Xinjiang Shifan Daxue Xuebao (Zhexue Shehui Kexue Bao) Vol. 32, No. 5, 2011, pp. 1–13.
  4. Cheng Li, “Introduction: A Champion for Chinese Optimism and Exceptionalism,” in Hu Angang, China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower, Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011, xv–xl.
  5. Hao Shiyuan’s essays and other articles both for and against a second generation of ethnic policies have been collected together on a special webpage as a part of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission’s daily newspaper Zhongguo Minzu Bao, see
  6. Barry Sautman, “Scaling Back Minority Rights: The Debate About China’s Ethnic Policies,” Stanford Journal of International Law, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2010, pp. 51-120.
  7. He Baogang, “Minority Rights with Chinese Characteristics,” in Multiculturalism in Asia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 56–79.
  8. Wang Yiyou, “Qin Hui, Wen Tiejun Wang Hui Sanren Duihua [A Dialogue Between Qin Hui, Wen Tiejun and Wang Hui],” Douban, January 26, 2008,