“On Changing China’s Ethnic Policy”

The following is a translation of most of this post (we skipped the last paragraph) from Woeser’s blog (which is currently blocked in China).


After the 7/5 Urumqi incident, Minzu University [i.e. “Ethnicity University”] Associate Professor and head of a Uyghur website Ilham Toxti was placed under house arrest, and soon after more than 400 people from all over the world have signed a petition calling for authorities to return freedom to this man who dedicated himself to promoting inter-ethnic friendship and [also calling for authorities to] end the persecution of Uyghur intellectuals. At the end of August, after having endured tortures both physical and mental, Ilham resumed his work and regained his freedoms. In early November, Ilham gave an animated speech at Minzu University about whether China’s ethnic policy needs to be rethought, saying that China’s ethnic minorities should struggle to safeguard their rights and interests.

There have never been more problems with China’s ethnic policies than there are today. If these problems aren’t faced squarely and resolved, in the future there will be even more grave consequences. There was the Tibet incident last year, the Xinjiang incident this year, what will happen next year? As ethnic quarrels gradually become violent racial conflict, [I] believe there’s no one who would dare to slap their chest and say ‘in the future, this won’t become a major reason for the collapse of China.’ Actually, [this] topic has already attracted wide-ranging contemplation and discussion. What’s worth paying attention to is that on this issue, voices inside and outside the system have reached an unprecedented level of agreement; mainstream scholars and dissenters have never agreed this thoroughly before that the problem is coming from China’s [ethnic minority] autonomous regions and admonished the authorities for giving ethnic minorities too much special treatment and strengthening the factors that lead to disloyalty and “split-ism” in the autonomous regions. [Some even say that] when the system of ethnic self government is abolished, China should adopt the American model, and not bother with artificial distinctions between ethnicities.

Ilham Toxti was harshly critical of this idea, saying that getting rid of ethnic minority self-government was a lousy idea that, if pursued, was sure to run counter to its intended goal and lead to even more trouble. [He says] that at present, the issue is that the autonomous region polices haven’t been truly implemented, so that there have been problems in terms of protecting the culture, language, and religious freedoms of ethnic minorities when compared to regular citizens. Since there’s no real system of ethnic self-government in Xinjiang or Tibet right now, where did the problem of eliminating the autonomous self-government system come from? Uyghurs and Tibetans have a need and a strong desire to protect their culture, language, and religion, and they have the right to enjoy the power of self-government, so what is the excuse or what gives [anyone] the right to eliminate their right to autonomy?

He also said that with regards to regional autonomy, one choice for solving the ethnic problems is choosing the policies favored by [the local] ethnic groups, and as for China’s policy of regional autonomy, what needs to be considered is not whether or not it should exist but how it can be better implemented and developed. The past has shown that the ethnic policy has encountered many complex problems, but the current ethnic theories are not up to speed, so [China] should make a fresh start, as the price for continuing down the current track will be a burden we cannot afford to bear. In terms of theory, we must not only pay close attention to the successes and experiences of other [countries], but also need genuine implementation of each and every ethnic policy, and not just try to treat the symptoms without finding a permanent solution.

Several months ago, independent Chinese scholar Wang Lixiong was being interviewed by the BBC and held that canceling the policy of having autonomous ethnic regions was impractical, because the current ethnic policies have already created some valuble [national] interests, so China has run into a dilemma. There needs to be a coordinated, large-scale shift before the problem of ethnic policy can be decided, but that [kind of large scale change] is incompatible with China’s autocratic political system. Only when there is real freedom and democracy, only when there is a social system that full protects everyone’s rights can the problem of ethnicity be resolved.


This is a topic we’ve discussed on this site quite a bit in one form or another. Do you think Chinese ethnic policy needs a change? Should the system of autonomous self-government be eliminated, or will that just lead to more trouble?