Tibet, Xinjiang, and China’s Strong State Complex
A former judge in the western region of Xinjiang was sacked from his position and expelled from the Communist Party in early June for “being lenient on terrorists suspected of endangering local security and trying to reduce sentences for the terrorists.” A string of violent attacks in major cities in China over the past few years struck the nerve of the entire Chinese population and particularly the current administration. The 2014 Kunming Railway Attack and the one in Tiananmen Square in 2013 pointed to the deteriorating ethnic relations between the ethnic minorities of Tibetans and Uyghurs and the Han majority. In the face of such increasing violence, the present administration further strengthened its control on public order, increasing the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Xinjiang and Tibet. Last year alone it is reported that more than 1,400 people were convicted for harming national security.
While international media agencies and human rights group have been critical toward China’s ethnic policy, the government’s stance on the issue remains unchanged despite international pressure and domestic pushback. The 2015 White Paper on Xinjiang Ethnic Equality and Unity reaffirmed the “development and progress in Xinjiang marks the successful implementation of China’s system of ethnic regional autonomy.” The 2015 White Paper on Tibet describes the region as “in its golden age.” Yet recent years have witnessed heated discussion among Chinese intellectuals, with growing number of policy advisers advocating a second-generation ethnic policy.
The reluctance of the Chinese government in rethinking its approach to ethnic relations in China seems perplexing in the absence of a historical understanding of contemporary Chinese nationalism. The historical mindset that links neiluan (domestic disturbance) with waihuan (external threat or foreign aggression) contributes to the politicization and securitization of the Xinjiang and Tibetan issues, creating an impasse between the Chinese central government and ethnic minority groups over the future of these regions.
Domestic Debate on the CPP’s Ethnic Minority Policy
Since the founding of the PRC, China has adopted the policy of ethnic autonomy, granting institutional autonomy to regions inhabited mainly by ethnic minorities, under which local governments are autonomous when it comes to legislation in the fields like finance, education, and cultural development, among others. The ethnic autonomy policy of China has two salient features that set it apart from the American “melting pot” approach or the USSR’s “hors d’oeuvres”-style. One, an ethnic autonomous region must be politically subordinated to the central government. As the 2005 White Paper on Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China puts it, “the organs of self-government of the autonomous areas are local governments under the leadership of the central government, and they must be subordinated to the centralized and unified leadership of the central government.” Second, regional autonomy must be beneficial to the unity of the country: “the practice of regional autonomy in China should be beneficial to the unification of the country, social stability, and the unity of all ethnic groups.” Thus, though ethnic groups are granted the right to be master of their own land, given the fact that local governments are politically subordinated to the central government and that the meaning of “beneficial to the unification of the country” is decided by the government, the autonomy enjoyed by ethnic autonomous regions from the very beginning is predicated on the central government’s recognition. Read more…