The real reason behind China’s repression of ethnic minorities by HIRANO Satoshi

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on April 5, 2022:

API Geoeconomic Briefing


April 5, 2022

The real reason behind China’s repression of ethnic minorities

HIRANO Satoshi
Professor, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, The University of Tokyo





Concerns have been spreading in recent years regarding the human rights situation in China, amid such allegations as forced labor and birth control in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

However, Beijing has denied such criticism from abroad, labeling it “false information,” and is propagating that the region has maintained social stability and has continued to develop as a hub for the Belt and Road initiative.

Why do Beijing and the rest of the world have completely different views concerning China’s ethnic minorities and human rights issues?

The issue represents an important point in considering how China will face the world in the future and how we should handle the relationship between diversity and conformity in human society as a whole.

First of all, we must note that there are a great variety of ethnic minorities in China, and their relations with the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government and the Han Chinese — who form 93% of China’s population — largely differ depending on to what extent they have adapted to the culture of Mandarin and Chinese characters.

Beijing, however, has been trying to create the “Chinese nation” — a unified national community centered on the Han people and the Chinese civilization — in an effort to recover from the deterioration after the Opium War in the mid-19th century and become wealthier and more powerful.

In building the Chinese nation, the top priority is given to including people of all ethnic groups in the country under the name China, and individuals and cultures tend to be melted in.

On the other hand, while pushing for a “homogenous” China, the country identified and confirmed various ethnic groups, complicating the issue of ethnic minorities.

Beijing officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups including the Han, the result of an ethnic classification project conducted since the 1950s.

But why does China feel the need to sort and categorize groups within the Chinese nation and recognize their unique cultural identities?

Unlike the former Soviet Union, which supposedly was a federal state that had given autonomy to various ethnic groups, China adopts a strictly centralized system in which the Communist Party’s control reaches every corner of the country.

This was because the party, while fighting the war of resistance against Japan, thought a federal system would split up the Chinese nation.

Still, the party recognized ethnic groups in line with theories developed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, identifying development stages of each group and leading the groups to conform to socialist values according to the different stages they were at.

Under such a policy, regional ethnic autonomy is practiced in areas where people of ethnic minorities live in concentrated communities so that they can implement central policies at their own pace.

People had been racked by the party’s policy changes regarding local development and socialist construction.

Under the leadership of Mao Zedong in the 1960s and ’70s, amid the Sino-Soviet split and the Sino-Indian War, repeated massive political purges in Inner Mongolia and Tibet led to the persecution of a great many people.

Minority preferences

As China began fully implementing its reform and open-door policy in the 1980s, then-Chinese leader Hu Yaobang adopted a minority preference policy in an about-turn under the belief that Mao’s centralization of power, as well as misguidance by high-ranking Han Chinese officials who were not familiar with the situation of ethnic minorities, oppressed the minority people.

Ethnic schools were quickly built to provide such people with education in their own languages instead of in Mandarin. The government provided preferential university admission to minority students and allowed ethnic minority people living in poor regions to have two or three children, although the country had been pushing a one-child policy at the time.

However, all these policies were primarily aimed at improving the country’s productiveness.

A major trend of economic cooperation following the 1972 normalization of ties between Japan and China and the implementation of policies for ethnic minorities seem like two totally separate issues, but they are fundamentally connected.

Ethnic schools and preferential treatment of minority students were intended to increase the number of Communist Party members and senior officials of the government and companies among ethnic minorities so that they could contribute to uniting and developing the Chinese nation at higher levels.

In this sense, we can’t say Hu’s minority preference policy renewed the relationship between the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities.

And following the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, chances were lost for people to freely discuss how the country should be.

Meanwhile, infrastructure investments, including Japan’s official development assistance and the introduction of foreign capital, had a huge impact on boosting the Chinese economy in the 1990s.

From 2000, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s administration applied the same approach to push forward the western development campaign, redirecting large amounts of foreign direct investment and international economic development funding to the inland regions and areas where ethnic minorities live.

The rapid flow of capital and people from central China into the regions — including a 1.16 million rise in the Han population in the Xinjiang region between 2000 and 2009 — led to ethnic minorities becoming even more subordinate.

The Tibetan independence movement ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the deadly riots in Urumqi in Xinjiang in 2009 came as a result of such a policy.

Since then, the Chinese government has further strengthened its moves to encourage the people of Tibet to criticize the 14th Dalai Lama as an anti-China separatist.

And following the 2001 terror attacks in the United States and the 2009 Urumqi riots, authorities in Beijing started playing up the problem of Islamic terrorists.

Such incidents led to discussions within China’s mainstream society, centered on the Han Chinese, that the measures taken for ethnic minorities under the reform and open-door policy had been a failure.

During the administration of President Hu Jintao, which followed the Jiang administration, ethnic minorities began to be educated mainly in Mandarin, based on the view that while the Chinese nation should be equal within itself, categorizing and offering preferential treatment to each of the various ethnic groups was creating a divide among the Chinese people and reverse discrimination of the Han people. The policy shift triggered a stronger sense of crisis among ethnic minorities.

Xi’s iron-fisted rule

This means signs of suppressive policies regarding ethnic minorities had been apparent even before Xi Jinping came to power as the country’s president.

A bomb attack in Urumqi in 2014, which took place soon after Xi became the leader of the Communist Party and the state, prompted him to re-acknowledge the need to achieve social stability and invoke power to forge the “consciousness of the Chinese national community.”

The “China dream” advocated by Xi and the issue of ethnic minorities are two sides of the same coin.

Xi believes that the happiness and development of every individual in China can be achieved through the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that completely eliminates the suppression of Western countries to become prosperous and powerful.

And as a pretext to oppression, the Chinese government put forth its own concept of human rights, saying it regards the rights to subsistence and development as primary and basic human rights.

It claims that in order to guarantee the right to subsistence and prioritize the pursuit of wealth in a developing country like China, social stability is key, and varying assertions — including those by ethnic minorities — hamper stability and development, thus going against China’s concept of human rights.

China’s approach to all ethnic minorities has shifted to “Sinicization,” making them adhere to Communist Party values and reject all foreign influence, even forcing them to change their religious teachings as well as manners and customs.

The most severe oppressive measures have been taken in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In Xinjiang, artificial intelligence is used to monitor individuals’ behavior to determine whether they are influenced by the so-called “three evil forces” — separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.

People who value ethnic minorities’ cultures and religions, along with senior party or government officials who take a soft stance against such people, are sent to so-called “re-education” camps and are often convicted of various crimes.

China brushes aside foreign criticism over its alleged human rights abuses as “fake rumors” because it believes the country’s development can be encouraged and its human rights are protected only when all the people’s minds match the consciousness of the Chinese national community.

The idea represents less of a disdain for a certain ethnic group but rather an act of violence, a policy with what it calls “good intentions” to ideologically “remake” people into pliable citizens.

In this way, China’s ethnic minority issues are directly linked to challenges in human history concerning the relationship between individuality and conformity.

China’s attempt to forcibly mold the nation has gone so far as to put pressure even on Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have now become civil societies. The idea overlaps with Russia justifying its invasion of Ukraine under the assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” who share a common heritage in Kievan Rus, a historic loose federation of medieval city-states.

Impact on Japan

Such a change in China’s stance is starting to have severe repercussions in Japan.

In the 1930s, Japan invaded other Asian nations under the concept of “Asianism” to counter Western influences, calling for solidarity of the people who shared the same civilization and ethnicity, close neighbors separated only by a narrow strip of water. In other words, Japan believed that the East Asian people who share the culture of using kanji characters should unite as one, even though the East China Sea lies between them.

On the other hand, China is strongly dissatisfied with the fact that Japan, which was supposed to be a close friend, did not fit in with its ideas, invaded it and is now following the United States.

China’s anti-Japan nationalism and love for Japan — with Chinese tourists flooding Japan’s tourist spots like Kyoto and Nara and consuming Japanese culture — have the same origin.

Beijing is sending a message to and pressuring Japan to break away from the U.S., whose economy and systems are deteriorating, claiming that what would be desirable for Japan’s future is to face the success of the Communist Party system and choose the path of development through cooperating profoundly with China.

However, no society or culture can remain unchanged forever, as they become subject to various influences from outside.

Japan and China now have completely different cultures and societies as a result of such changes and influences, and both of them should respect each other’s culture and society.

Continuing to view them as countries that share the same civilization and ethnicity may appear to be one way to build a friendly relationship, but as a matter of fact, it could harm the free and diverse world.

Japan has strived to build a peaceful state for today while expressing deep remorse at its past acts — invading other Asian countries under the goal of creating its so-called Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere among those that shared the same civilization and ethnicity.

Having gone through such an experience, Japan should be the one to condemn China for making the same kind of mistakes at home and abroad, while working to secure its own independence and freedom, as well as world peace.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.