James Leibold on China’s Assimilationist Turn in Xi Jinping’s China

Professor Leibold has research expertise on the politics of ethnicity, race and national identity in modern Chinese history and society, and is currently engaged in research on ethnic policy-making and ethnic conflict in contemporary China with a particular focus on the restive Western frontier and its Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities. He is the author and co-editor of four books and over twenty-five peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and a frequent contributor to the international media on these topics. Professor Leibold is currently the lead Chief Investigator on an Australia Research Council funded project entitled "Urbanising Western China: Nation-building and Social Mobilisation on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier."
Shanil Verjee CMC '21 interviewed Dr. James Leibold on February 25, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. James Leibold.

China has pursued a variety of different approaches to its treatment of ethnic minorities over the years. How do these policies vary over time and under different regimes? Would you say it's accurate that the current approach is assimilationist rather than accommodative? Why has the Chinese government abandoned the accommodative approach characteristic of the 1980s? 

I do think it's an accurate depiction to talk about China's approach, certainly since the founding of the PRC, as swinging between an accommodationist approach and an assimilative approach. If you go back and look at the history of the PRC, you see during the 1950s the implementation of a rather remarkable set of progressive, inclusive, and accommodationist policies with regards to ethnic minorities, including the setting up of autonomous regions, and quite literally, the creation of ethnic languages and scripts for a whole range of groups that continued through until the Cultural Revolution. Then you have a pretty dramatic shift with the destruction of mosques and monasteries that occurred in Tibet and Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution, among other chaos. Han youth in the form of the Red Guards were dispatched to the frontier in order to lead the ethnic minorities in the processes of revolution. After the collapse of Maoism in the 1980s, China witnessed another very liberal period under Hu Yaobang, with the passage of the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, and the institutionalization of a whole range of preferential policies for ethnic minorities, which for example, gave them exemptions to national family planning regulations and extra points on the Gaokao, or the university entrance examination. Finally, we have the current era, which I believe starts to germinate during the 1990s and comes into its own under Xi Jinping’s ‘new era’. Two key turning points are: 1) the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, which leads to a conservative turn across the political spectrum and an obsession with regime stability, and then; 2) the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which leads to calls for a new approach to ethnic policy in order to avoid the same fate of the USSR and other former Communist countries that splintered along their ethnic seams. 

In my research, I'm also interested in the historical antecedents of these different approaches to governing ethnocultural diversity in China. During the imperial period, the Chinese state employed a variety of methods and rationales to manage its ethnic diversity. One of these approaches was referred to as jimi (羈縻) in Chinese, which literally means “loose rein.” Rather than pulling down really hard on a horse’s bit, you give it some slack and allow it to direct itself. There were many times during the imperial period where the Chinese state used this more laissez-faire approach, especially when the state was weak or divided. Yet there is also another tradition, often discussed when the Chinese state was strong and unified, that of laihua (来化), literally “come and be transformed,” which argued that the magnanimous Chinese state and culture would naturally lure the barbarians off the frontier and transform them in its own image. These contradictory approaches are deeply rooted in Chinese history and political culture, and still inform currently policy discussions.

Under Xi Jinping, supporters of the linguistic and cultural assimilation of minorities have been rising in profile within the CCP. What do you think his political motivations were in bringing assimilation to the forefront of Chinese national policy? 

The first thing to note is that Xi Jinping himself doesn't really have much experience with frontier or ethnic issues. He spent his entire career in the interior. Thus, he doesn't bring a lot of policy experience to this issue. But if you look at him as an individual, from what we know about him and his thoughts, he's a staunch nationalist and he's also someone who believes that the Party needs to strengthen its governing mechanisms across the board: the “China dream” – of a rich and strong China – requires the iron-fist rule of the Chinese Communist Party. This phrase “the Party leads all” (dang shi lingdao yiqie de, 党是领导一切的) has really become a key motto under Xi Jinping. Unlike previous Chinese Communist Party leaders, when it comes to the so-called “ethnic question” (minzu wenti, 民族问题), Xi Jinping doesn't believe that economic development alone is sufficient to transform the ethnic frontier and its people, secure Party rule, and achieve the “China dream.” That was the previous approach, that believed if the Chinese state focused on development, sources of tension, difference and instability would gradually disappear over time. 

Rather Xi believes the Party must play an active role in literally “forging” or “casting” (zhulao, 铸牢) the cultural, ideological, and spiritual foundations of national cohesiveness in China. This phrase “forge the communal consciousness of the Chinese nation” (zhulao zhonghua minzu gongtongti yishi, 铸牢中华民族共同体意识) was written into the Party’s Constitution at the 19th Party Congress and is the defining policy formulation—or what is called in Chinese tifa (提法)—of ethnic policy under Xi Jinping. These are a few of the key changes Xi has brought to ethnic policy, but there was also a pretty fierce and highly public debate that occurred before he came to power about how China should approach these issues. Early in his rule, certainly by 2014, he makes it quite clear that he's sympathetic to those who want to move in a new direction in terms of ethnic policy: a more assimilative direction where the Party plays a more interventionalist role in altering ethnic cultures and identities. As a result, if we look at the changes to ethnic policy since 2012, they've been pretty dramatic, particularly for the Chinese political system, which often moves quite slowly. 

China's treatment of the Uighurs specifically has been getting a lot of attention in the media. Your research on China's attempt to ban Muslim veiling in Xinjiang shows that an assimilationist policy tends to encounter enormous resistance and is difficult to execute in practice. How would you assess China's assimilationist approach in Xinjiang so far? 

I think that old adage “where there's pressure, there's resistance” is true here. Over the last couple decades, but in particular since the 2009 brutal ethnic riot in Urumqi, we've seen an unprecedented penetration of the Party-state into once very remote parts of Xinjiang. That was driven by a desire to have visibility and transform those remote locations. The Party-state under Xi realized there are many parts of China where it didn't have fully visibility, particularly from a central (Beijing) perspective, of what was happening on the ground. In addition to increasing its visibility, the Party under Xi also wanted to transform those areas in the name of “poverty alleviation” and “stability maintenance.” The Party’s penetration into these remote villages naturally leads to resistance. Ethnic groups like the Uighurs resist and what we see is this vicious cycle of violence. As the Party penetrates further, you get more resistance. And with more resistance, we see further pressure being brought to bear by Party officials.

In particular, after a series of violent attacks that occurred between 2012-2014, most dramatically the brutal attack on innocent civilians at the Kunming train station in March of 2014, we see Xi Jinping give a clear signal that what was required in Xinjiang was, in his own words, “a period of painful, interventionist treatment.” He essentially gives Chen Quanguo, who became Xinjiang party secretary in late 2016, a blank check to eliminate any sources of unrest. The result is really a remarkable set of policy innovations: the mass extrajudicial detention of possibly a million or more Uighurs and other Turkic speaking Muslim minorities; ubiquitous and highly intrusive forms of surveillance that now blankets the region; the systematic destruction of indigenous culture, language, and religious practices; forced birth control and even sterilization; psychological and even physical torture; and then finally forced labor and restrictions on people's mobility. This is a pretty dramatic and draconian policy response. 

Do you think that eventually the media attention on these policy responses will expand to a point where China will need to make some serious changes? Or do you think that China is powerful enough to avoid having to succumb to any international pressures? 

I think it's difficult, but not impossible, to change China’s behavior. The top Party leaders are highly sensitive and sometimes responsive to criticism. There seems to be this kind of insecure hubris running throughout the minds of Xi and other top Party leaders: insecure in the sense that they're terrified of losing power; but also, overly confident in their ability to snuff out any opposition with an iron-fist. There is a perception that under Hu Jintao the Party had weakened and was in danger of collapsing like the Soviet Union. And thus, under Xi Jinping, the Party has really ramped up its intervention in society, which naturally resulted in resistance. They had a problem in Hong Kong; they eliminated that. They had unrest in Xinjiang; it's now gone. This combination of insecurity and hubris does leave the Party susceptible to a U-turn. But at the same time, a dramatic change of policy in the short term appears highly unlikely, certainly under Xi Jinping. This would require either the overthrow of Xi Jinping – highly unlikely - or his death. But in the longer run, a policy shift is possible. It's really important to remember that's exactly what Deng Xiaoping did during the 1980s after the death of Mao. He reversed course in a rather dramatic way. So it's conceivable that this could happen again. There's certainly a lot of people who are unhappy with Xi's approach and Xi’s rule, both inside China and outside. But right now, the Party does have a lot of powerful assets at its disposal, and it’s willing to use them in silencing dissent. Thus, we will have to wait and see how things play out over the next couple of decades. 

Can you identify an ethnic minority that has been successfully assimilated into the dominant Chinese culture since 1949? If such a case exists, can you explain why? What makes the Uighurs and the Tibetans so resistant to China's assimilationist policies? 

Most of China's 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities have been largely, if not fully assimilated. I prefer the term acculturated, and they've been acculturated in the dominant Han culture and language. Take, for example, the Zhuang. The Zhuang are China's largest ethnic minority group by population. You wouldn't know a Zhuang if you were sitting next to him or her on a bus. He or she speaks Mandarin Chinese; he or she would be wearing what everybody else is wearing. There are certain cultural festivals where they might don clothing that would identify them as an ethnic minority, but that tends to be a performative part of how ethnic cultures are displayed in China today, even in this period of assimilation. It is worth noting that the ethnic groups in Yunnan and other parts of southern China are quite different from the Tibetans and the Uighurs, and to a lesser extent, the Mongolians. But what's the difference? What are the factors that help us to explain the pretty dramatic resistance and crackdown in Xinjiang as opposed to the largely peaceful situation in Yunnan, which has a very large ethnic minority population? I would highlight six factors. 

First, there is the recent history of colonial intrusion. If you look at southern China, in particular Yunnan, you can go back to the Song Dynasty, if not further, and see Sinic culture and rule penetrating down into the south, even its remote parts. Whereas in the case of Tibet, you really only have a strong central government presence in the 20th century. In the case of Xinjiang, it's really only during the late Qing Dynasty, and the same thing with Inner Mongolia. This more recent history of colonial intrusion means there's a very strong historical memory, which is my second point. This historical memory is rooted in the written and spoken languages of these three regions and its long history of autonomous rule. There are songs and written texts that Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs use to keep alive their sense of distinct identity and opposition to Han colonial rule. The third factor is demographic concentration. Tibet's probably the most obvious case, with over 90 percent of the Tibetan Autonomous Region being Tibetan. Xinjiang is pretty evenly balanced at present between the Han and the Uighurs, but if you go back to the 1940s, the Han comprised only five percent of the population, so that's quite a recent phenomenon. In Mongolia, it was only in the dying days of the Qing dynasty that the floodgates were opened to Han migration. Because of its close proximity to Beijing, the Mongols were quickly overwhelmed, with 80 percent of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region now Han. Another factor would be—and this is where we leave Inner Mongolia behind and we look chiefly at Tibet and Xinjiang—their remote and rugged landscape. I do think this remoteness—in the case of Tibet, its high Tibetan plateau, and in the case of Xinjiang, its remote desert oases—does play a role as well, as a buffer or rather an obstacle for Han colonialization. All of these factors are intermingled of course. The last two factors are quite distinct to Tibet and Xinjiang, with a potentially strong counter-ideology to the Chinese state in Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, two belief systems that can offer a counterweight to communism, or even Xi Jinping Thought. The last factor, and this may be particular to Xinjiang itself, is a racial dimension. Most Uighurs cannot pass for Han Chinese. They stick out if they’re in Beijing or Shanghai. That’s certainly not the case with the Zhuang, which is where I started. Even Tibetans are not as racially distinct as Uighurs. I do think that plays a role in some of the racism and stigmatization of Uighurs. 

Beyond a change in leadership, what would it take for the Chinese government to accept diverse cultures within its borders? Would a more democratic China become more accommodative to its ethnic minorities?

I think a more diverse political landscape would certainly help. A loosening of this obsession with ideological control and central Party control would certainly help, or a return to the political and cultural autonomy of the past. The loosening of central ideological power would naturally allow a flourishing of diversity, not only in the ethnic frontier, but also amongst Han communities. It's really important to remember that this ethnic category of “Han” is also contested. Inside of its communities we find different dialects like Fukienese or Cantonese, and cultural traditions. There's a lot of diversity within China, but right now the emphasis is on creating a homogenous set of cultural and ideological norms for everyone. 

I personally think that the solution needs to come from within China. I do think the West and others have a role to play in criticizing and keeping the pressure on China, but at the same time, we're not going to change China; China has to change itself. There are examples within Chinese history of a far more open, cosmopolitan, and tolerant way of dealing with diversity. I point here to the Tang dynasty, one of China's most cosmopolitan and arguably dynamic dynasties, where the Sinic core really opened its arms to the diversity within the Sinosphere but also across the world. This was a period of great cultural exchange across the globe. If you don’t want to go all the way back to the Tang Dynasty, I'm sure most ethnic minorities in China would be happy to return to the 1980s or even the 1950s. It's worth remembering that there are these alternate traditions. 

Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, also presents an alternative model. He was one of the Party's first experts on how to manage ethnic diversity on the frontier, first during the 1950s, and then after he was purged and then reinstated, during the 1980s. He understood that you needed to treat your ethnic communities with respect and dignity as equals. He developed a really close relationship with the Panchen Lama. You can read the letters that they wrote back and forth, and feel a strong sense of mutual respect. Sadly, his son has gone in a different direction, one that is ultimately going to destroy much of China’s rich diversity if it continues over time. 

Shanil Verjee CMC '21Student Journalist

User:DrRandomFactor, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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