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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Rethinking ethnic policy

June 15, 2012

Ethnic relations, rarely a bed of roses anywhere, have become tinder-dry in China. While outnumbered by the 95% Han majority, non-Han people populate wide areas seen by central authorities as strategically vital and economically promising. Discussion among liberal reformers is switching away from policies of ethnic privilege, and toward ethnic inclusion.

Recently Chinese commentators across the spectrum have begun calling for a rethink of ethnic policies. How has policy failed in their eyes?  What is on their agenda for discussion?

One forum where a ‘battle of opinions’ (点交) is on public display is a new webpage under the supervision of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission.

The central government’s ethnic policy is governed by a complex patchwork of laws and institutions aimed both at preserving the autonomy of each of the 56 recognised ethnic groups, or minzu (民族), and upholding national unity.

The legal equality of each  minzu is enshrined in the Constitution of the PRC, article 4, with the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy outlining specific provisions to protect and promote the cultural, economic and political development of each minority group. These include a series of controversial legal, education, employment, and family planning preferential benefits.

Western commentators have long decried the limitations of this regime of ethnic self-rule, highlighting the continued marginalisation of minorities like the Tibetans and Uighurs. This alleged ‘sham autonomy’ has been closely linked with transmigration policies bringing Han Chinese to ethnic regions. Ironically there is a growing chorus of opposition from Chinese reform advocates. They suggest there is too much focus on ethnic autonomy and not enough on national cohesion

Peking University Professor Ma Rong has warned for more than a decade that the lack of an inclusive, shared national consciousness —one that can literally ‘fuse’ (融合) the Han majority together with the minorities—will see China follow the USSR and Yugoslavia in ethnic disintegration.

Ma Rong has, in recent years, become increasingly strident in his calls for the scaling back of ethnic autonomy and preferential policies, suggesting that the systematic segregation of ethnic groups and institutions in China has rendered the Chinese nation (民族) an empty concept, and that the assimilation, or literally Hanification () of minorities, is an inevitable process of modernisation. Without urgent and renewed emphasis on collective, national identity, it’s hard, Ma Rong argues, to imagine a Uighur or Tibetan president of China, let alone China’s continued peaceful rise.

Late last year a leading public intellectual, Tsinghua University’s Hu Angang, called for a ‘second generation of ethnic policies’: one that would remove barriers to ‘ethnic contact, exchange and blending’.

Repeating Ma Rong’s concerns, Hu Angang and another Tsinghua colleague Hu Lianhe urge the government to adopt an ‘apolitical’ approach to ethnic relations and implement a range of urgent and radical reforms: sweeping changes to territorial administrative divisions; eliminating institutional barriers to the free flow of goods, capital, labour and information; increased ethnic co-residence and intermarriage; and strengthening Mandarin and bilingual education.

Earlier this year Zhu Weiqun, one of the Party’s leading spokesmen on ethnic affairs, made a rare admission of serious problems in the Party’s ethnic and religious work. As a concrete example of what the Party could do to reform policy, he recommended removing ethnic status from identification cards; a freeze on new autonomous units; and universal adoption of Mandarin and ethnically mixed schooling.

Reformers are actively lobbying next generation Party leaders on ethnic policy issues. One of them, politburo member and current Guangdong party chief, Wang Yang, is already on the public record calling for ‘adjustments’ to ethnic policy.

Policy change is unlikely in the short term—more so given tensions ahead of the 18th Party Congress later this year. The opinions of those most affected still have little voice, but, behind closed doors, it appears the consensus among policy-makers is wavering.

By guest contributor James Leibold, La Trobe University Australia. A full version of this brief appears in The Diplomat, 23 May 2012.

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