Tensions between the majority Han community and ethnic minorities in China are nothing new. In fact, integrating China’s ethnic minorities into the mainstream is an endeavour of the Chinese Communist Party that continues till this day. Needless to say, the process has been marred with several ups and downs.
While on the one hand few can deny that ethnic minorities have materially benefited from China’s meteoric economic rise over the last three decades, on the other hand the ethnic minorities themselves continue to fear an erosion of their culture, language and ways of life. Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols – groups that are most vocal about their perceived sense of cultural disenfranchisement – still find Beijing’s terms of integration unpalatable.
The latest iteration of these ethnic tensions manifested in the autonomous province of Inner Mongolia in September when Beijing began implementing a new education policy that would see the replacement of the Mongolian language with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction in schools.
Mongolian will be relegated to just a language subject. The move saw huge protests in Inner Mongolia with thousands of students and their parents undertaking a regionwide civil disobedience campaign – high school students staged walkouts while many parents pulled their students from schools.
But Chinese security officials soon moved in to quell the protests with reports emerging of thousands of arrests and detentions – subsequently many have also been released. But Beijing is determined to continue with the language policy and is reportedly recruiting hundreds of teachers from elsewhere in China to relocate to Inner Mongolia and teach Mandarin.
The language policy mirrors those that were implemented in Xinjiang and Tibet in 2017 and 2018 respectively. So clearly there are concerted efforts to promote Mandarin education among ethic minority regions. Efforts that have been stepped up under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Why this obsession with integration? After all, China’s Constitution does provide considerable autonomy to ethnic minority communities to maintain their culture and ways of life. Yet, China’s leaders have come around to the view that some form of assimilation is necessary.
This is informed by the fact that China’s ethnic minority areas account for nearly two-thirds of the country’s landmass. For Beijing, this is too big a geography to be inhabited by people who identify with their ethnicities first and the Chinese state second. But I believe there is another reason that has gained salience under Xi’s leadership.
As I have written before, China’s current belligerence on the foreign policy front is actually a cover for tremendous socio-economic changes taking place inside that country. Beijing is trying to effect a new social contract with the Chinese people and get them to accept lower growth rates and the Chinese Communist Party’s centralised reassertion over all levers of Chinese society and economy.
Reading between the lines, the matter is about reasserting the authority and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party as the sole centre of power in China. For those looking at China from the outside, the authority of the Chinese Communist Party seems permanent and absolute. However, this isn’t exactly the case and the party has had to make major ideological and policy shifts from time to time to retain its hold on power, prevent internal struggles and avoid splits.
Deng Xiaoping made such a shift in the late-1970s with his bid to open up China economically and usher in prosperity. That reinforced the party’s legitimacy but it also led to the 1989 students’ uprising and the Tiananmen incident. In response to the latter the party under Jiang Zemin launched a massive patriotic education campaign to anchor the market reforms and ensure that Tiananmen-like protests never break out again.
However, market reforms continued to transform Chinese society with the Chinese people getting richer and getting international exposure like never before. This again engendered a new set of power centres within the party-state system, new potent intra-party rivalries and even talk of alternatives to the current form of party leadership.
Coming back to China of today, Xi truly believes he is saving the Chinese Communist Party by centralising power and eradicating factions. But this isn’t an easy task and there are many ways in which he could be undermined from within. And this is precisely why he is using nationalism and aggressive foreign policy as a cover to restructure Chinese economy, society and the party, and rally all sections to his point of view.
But this strategy also comes with a risk. In becoming aggressive, China is also engendering a pushback against itself from a significant section of the international community. It is already locked in a power tussle with the US, Asean is increasingly stiffening its resolve against it in the South China Sea, and then there is the Quad comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India that is designed to be a countervailing force to Chinese designs.
And in order to defend itself from this pushback, Beijing is trying to shore up its traditional underbelly – the ethnic minority areas. For, Beijing fears that resentment in these areas can be exploited by external forces. Hence the renewed efforts to Sinicize and tightly assimilate these areas with the Chinese mainstream. Plus, if the grand Belt and Road Initiative is to be successful, China’s vast western areas can’t be restive — or hold alternative opinions to Beijing as per the party.
But the more Beijing forces assimilation, the more likely that resentment among ethnic minorities will be driven underground. And that is not good for China’s overall security. But saddled with the imperative of saving the party at all costs, China’s leaders believe there is no alternative – there are no democratic options here. Which means tensions between the ethnic minorities and Han Chinese will continue and show up in different ways even after Beijing’s assimilation efforts.