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posted Mar 30, 2012, 6:27 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Gabriel Lafitte

Zhu Weiqun, of the CCP United Front, has boldly proposed abolishing all reference to nationality on the identity cards all Chinese citizens must carry, and frequently produce for inspection. This latest step towards erasing Tibetan identity as a category with legal meaning, did not come from nowhere. It has a lineage and is best understood in the context of a steady, deliberate, two-sided strategy that has been implemented over the past 20 years.

China has been moving steadily towards downplaying, forgetting, even erasing ethnic difference, as a key policy originating during the reign of Jiang Zemin, who “accurately read the complex international and domestic situations following the end of the cold war and clearly identified the developments in China’s ethnic situation.” (Jia Qinglin) The cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union which CCP leaders read as having collapsed because of ethnic nationalism. Thus China should do all it could to de-emphasise concepts such as ethnic autonomy, self-determination, with special rights and responsibilities legally guaranteed for the shaoshu minzu, the legally classified and defined ethnic minority nationalities.

This secret decision was taken a decade after the Soviet collapse, and circulated widely within the Party, but remained in public a secret. It was a major turning point, turning away from minzu defined as fixed, unchanging nationalities with collective rights, to a redefinition of minzu simply as ethnic groups, whose questions of identity are purely personal questions, in private life, no longer matters for the public realm.

When Jiang Zemin announced xibu da kaifa (opening up the west) in 1999, shortly before officially retiring, it was the culmination of a decade of careful rethinking of Chinese policy towards minority peoples. Minglang Zhou, of Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, has carefully traced the evolution of ethnic policy throughout the 1990s, as China sought to learn lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union which, in Chinese official eyes, was largely due to minority ethnicities breaking the Soviet Union apart. It was China’s leading anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong, who first formulated the shift, summed up in the sloganjiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti, meaning “speed up economic development, while downplaying the national question.” (Zhou Minglang in, China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949–present, edited by Tom Bernstein and Hua-yu Li , Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 492)

Fei Xiaotong, having observed and written about minorities for decades, saw the time was right to shift away from the fiction that China is a collection of 56 nationalities, with the Han (90 per cent of China’s population) being just one. In his 1989 speech at Chinese University of Hong Kong, he did not propose abandoning this cherished formula, but instead added to it another layer. In addition to the 56 nominally equal ethnicities China is also “a national entity that has developed from a common emotion and desire for a shared destiny of opportunities and successes.” (Minglang Zhou 491) This is a higher identity, beyond the particularities of specific minority cultures, a bond of sedimented sentiment that stretches back into the past, and enables all of China to share a common destiny stretching far into the future. Unquestionably, the Han played the core role, of integrating all disparate elements into one Chinese nation, and will play the core role of leading all of China to its greater destiny. Fei called thisduoyan yiti, “one nation with diversity.”

That was the year of the Tiananmen massacre, followed shortly by the collapse of Soviet power. In 1990 the State Nationalities Affairs Commission, the supreme official organ for governing minorities, sponsored a symposium on this new formula and commissioned several expert studies. Within months Jiang Zemin announced official adoption of this new formula, in a speech to local leaders in Xinjiang. Jiang made the new stance easy to memorise by announcing it as the “three cannots.” The Han cannot do without the minorities, the minorities cannot do without the Han, and the minorities cannot do without each other. There is little doubt as to who elder brother is, and who is junior. (Minglang Zhou 491)

This coincided with intensive think tank studies of the imploding Soviet bloc, which took time to reach consensus as to the lessons to be learned, and what to do to avoid China making similar mistakes. These discussions were run not by the State Nationalities Affairs Commission but by the Communist Party’s mass organ for controlling minorities, the United Front Work Department. Increasingly, they focused on the 1984 Law on Minority Regional Autonomy, as giving too much scope for minorities to make too many claims, assertions of rights, and demands for financial support.This, they concluded, opened the way for Soviet-style dissolution of the unitary state.

Each province and autonomous region has its own people’s congress, nominally able to pass its own laws, which could, for example, stipulate a minimum quota of minority ethnicity officials to fill official posts. “Some autonomous regions wanted more economic power, and some wanted more political power, while many desired both. These demands for economic and political power seriously challenged the central government’s authority. Drawing on lessons from the Soviet failure, the PRC realised that these problems must be satisfactorily resolved before they could spin out of control. CCP leaders concluded that the central government should not relinquish political power and should not allow minority dominance of local party apparatuses, or even of the local legislatures in autonomous regions.” (Zhou 494)

This culminated, in 2001, in the enactment of two laws, the revised Law on Autonomy, and the National Commonly Used Language and Script Law. In keeping with the new approach, of speeding up development and downplaying ethnicity, “the revised Law on Autonomy gives local governments more power or responsibility in social and economic development, but takes away some political powers.” (Zhou 494) Autonomous Regions no longer have the power to fix minimum quotas for their own ethnicity employment in their own government. Both the 2001 laws “downplayed the role of minority languages and cultures while promoting Putonghua (Mandarin) as the super language in a structured linguistic order.For example, the teaching of Chinese is now required to start in the early or later years in elementary schools. Minority officials are now required to learn to use both standard oral Chinese and standard written Chinese. These measures may be considered as a representation of the demotion of ‘nationalities’ to ‘ethnic groups’ in the new model of ‘one nation with diversity’, where Putonghua as the common language is to dominate.” (Zhou 495)

China did little to publicise this redefinition of the key term minzu, which had long signified a people, a nation, a distinct ethnicity with collective rights; perhaps even, early in the Communist Party’s long life, the right to self-determination and perhaps even national independence. “In Beijing in 1997, the State Commission on Nationalities Affairs held a forum on whether ‘minzu’ should be officially translated into ‘nation/nationality’ or ‘ethnic group’. The participating experts unanimously agreed on the term ‘ethnic group’ for ‘minzu’ because the new English term can better represent the spirit of China’s new orientation. The replacement of the Soviet model with the new Chinese model has had direct impact on China’s minorities policy.” (Zhou 492) The State Nationalities Commission has become the State Ethnic Afffairs Commission.

So the 2012 “suggestion” by Zhu Weiqun of the United Front that nationality be removed from official identity cards, is simply an official acknowledgement of a change that has been under way since 1999. This formalises the erasure of nationality. Everyone is now, officially, simply a citizen of China, everyone is a member of the zhonghua minzu, the Chinese nation, a category that supersedes the separate minzu (ethnic nationalities) that were so formally classified in the 1950s, creating the 56 official minzu copying the Soviet model.

This has many consequences. Ethnicity is no longer a question of collective rights that can be claimed by an ethnicity as a group. Ethnicity is now a purely personal decision to be somewhat different to the Han majority, in private life. Identity is a purely personal question, and has nothing to do with legal rights, especially collective rights such as self-determination, collective autonomy, or special legal status.

China is following a common Western model, in which each individual may choose to identify (or not) with a particular ethnic group, and that is their individual right. But everyone has a primary loyalty to their nation-state, which transcends their private ethnicity. The state may even encourage such displays of its multiculturalism, tolerance and support for maintaining outward signs of difference. You can call yourself a Latvian Australian, or a Tibetan Australian or a Vietnamese Australian, and no one questions where your loyalty really lies, because you are an Australian, first and foremost.

So now China is starting to refer to itself as a “multiethnic state” for the first time. The insightful Mongolian writer Uradyn Bulag has written about all this in much greater depth, and has noted that the concept of what is a nationality changes significantly, not just the name that the Chinese give it. This is all connected to the controversy created by Fei Xiaotong’s proposal of a “zhonghua minzu” or Chinese super-ethnicity which includes all the sub-groups. There’s a new movement starting to refer to China as multi-cultural, too.
Zhu Weiqun , deputy head of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, in the party’s Study Times in February 2012 called on the central government to seize the opportunity and set up political and educational systems to better promote “national cohesion”.

Zhu, who in is charge of Tibetan affairs, said listing ethnic minority or Han Chinese status on identity cards, using ethnic labels in the titles of schools and autonomous regions, and reserving privileges for members of ethnic minorities were obstacles to promoting such cohesion.

“Some of our current educational and administrative policies have unintentionally weakened [the minority people's] sense of nationhood and Chinese nationalism,” he said. “For example, the ethnic consciousness of students studying in [minority] schools was easily stimulated after some ethnic incidents occurred.” He suggested that the central government should expand mixed schooling, with both Han Chinese and ethnic minority children studying Han Chinese culture.

Zhu said the central government’s preferential policies “should not put too much emphasis” on targeting people from ethnic minorities but all people from remote and impoverished areas to ease tensions between minorities and Han Chinese.

Zhu’s assimilationist line has attracted much critique from both Tibetan and Chinese analysts and netizens. Since China continues to be ruled by men, rather than laws that apply to everyone, including even the leaders, many interpretations have focused on China’s personalistic politics. Thus Zhu Weiqun, knowing that Hu Jintao may be retiring from overtly running China but will in practice remain in charge of ethnic politics, and will remain a hardliner, is seeking Hu Jintao’s ongoing patronage. In this reading of inner-party factions, Zhu Weiqun has been adept at climbing the ladder, after an inauspicious early career working for China’s Xinhua newsagency in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, as the wheels were falling off European communism. A report by a former colleague posted online reminds us that Zhu was at the wheel when the car he drove crashed, and the wife of the Chinese ambassador was killed. Zhu was charged and convicted by Yugoslav authorities, but never served his sentence, instead being sent back to fraternal socialist China. The party has been calling in its dues ever since, in a pattern of recruiting people it can be sure are absolutely reliable, because the party knows it has a hold over them. Zhu Weiqun is thus a figure who can be used to run new ideas up the flagpole and test the wind. Those ideas may then become official ideas, unless howled down.

Uradyn Bulag says: “Ethnicity is now increasingly discussed in terms of multiculturalism, rather than within a framework of contemporary quasi-colonial relations. Even the notion of ‘internal colonialism’ has been retracted by some on the ground that, inter alia, the criteria of exploitation do not fit the state’s affirmative action to ethnic minorities. All this suggests the need to problematize the violent nature of the classificatory concepts.” (Bulag in Cultural Studies journal 2000)


Ethnicity is just one of the many problems facing China. Central leaders today are more worried about the social unrest arising for sharply increasing inequality, the growing gap between rich and poor. Even though the communist revolution, with its violent persecution of the rich and educated, gave class warfare a bad name; nonetheless class antagonisms do exist, and are becoming more acute.

From the perspective of central leaders, class conflict and ethnic conflict are two of the top dangers facing China, but little can be done about class conflict as long as China is ruled by corrupt cadres enriching themselves, while repressing the masses.

We cannot understand the drive, at the highest level, to dissolve ethnic identity, without looking at the bigger picture, of an apprehensive leadership fearful that chaos could erupt, wrecking China’s path to wealth and national strength, either from ethnic nationalist tensions, or from class antagonisms.


From the perspective of central leaders, the problems of the Tibetans, and other nonHan nationalities, from now on are all economic problems, with economic solutions. Development is the answer to everything. This fits exactly with the key slogan coined in the 1990s, jiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti, meaning “speed up economic development, while downplaying the national question.” The public first half of this slogan, jiakuai jingji fazhan, is now supreme, speeding up economic development, especially in areas that are deemed poor or backward, or close to the borders, thus including nationalities such as the Tibetans, without ever again saying that their problems are anything to do with Tibetan identity. The secret second half of the 1999 slogan, danhua minzu wenti, downplaying the national question, has now been in operation for the past 13 years, and is judged to have succeeded sufficiently to now make the secret public, by officially removing ethnicity as a category, not only on individual identity cards, but also removing the basic purpose of institutions such as colleges, universities, research institutes dedicated to minority nationalities. That is the assimilationist proposal of the United Front’s Zhu Weiqun, a bold public step after 13 secret years.


Initial reactions to Zhu Weiqun’s “suggestion” included dismay from the small community of observers who subscribe to the fiction that the official designation of minority nationality identity is a policy of positive discrimination, awarding special rights and payments to minorities to raise them to the standard of the Han. So they criticise this as a backward step. Barry Sautman, a Hong Kong based educationist who believes China’s rule over Tibet is benevolent, is quite upset that China might now abandon this positive discrimination in favour of minorities by abandoning the wholeshaoshu minzu (minority nationality) classificatory regime.

There may be Tibetans staffing the special minority nationality schools scattered across central China, or minority institutes of higher education, who likewise fear these changes will now mean they have to open their classrooms to any Han Chinese who wishes to enrol. If the assimilationist agenda is to proceed, their entire purpose is questionable. Well established and well connected institutions such as the China Tibetology Research Institute will probably be able to defend themselves, as playing a vital role. They have friends outside China, and within.

These highly visible institutions of positive discrimination will be in danger of losing their funding, unless they reduce themselves to multicultural institutes of folk customs. But will the invisible daily experience of negative discrimination disappear? Will Han Chinese stop treating Tibetans with racist contempt? Will the erasure of Tibetanness from identity cards mean that Tibetans can now book hotel rooms in Chinese cities? Today, one glance at the identity card is enough for the hotel reception desk to declare all rooms are full. Will tomorrow’s reception clerk now welcome Tibetans? Of course not, especially if that Tibetan wears the most flagrantly “terrorist” of Tibetan dress, the red robes of a monk.

But China’s leaders think they now have a formula that works. Money will continue to pour into Tibetan areas, to develop urban infrastructure and build “comfortable housing” in rural areas too, even if those houses are often so far from the customary winter house that it means an end to the traditional nomadic lifeworld. The “Tibetan problem” will simply become part of the national effort to manage the class war. Development is always the answer. China’s leaders promise to provide subsidised urban housing for Chinese no longer able to afford an apartment, because rich speculators have driven the price of housing out of reach. Likewise, government sponsored housing is to be the answer to the Tibetan problem.

China’s leaders believe they now have a bird with two wings, accelerating economic development and downplaying the national question. To Tibetans, who classically depict the two wings of the bird as compassion and deep insight into the nature of all reality, this will seem another self-defeating, assimilationist delusion.


Zhu Weiqun’s “suggestion” comes from a hardliner who seeks to undo the solidification of ethnic identity that occurred in China in the 1950s, by following the Soviet model. In the USSR the Soviet model, of rigidly fixed, essentialised ethnic identities, operated for 70 years, and unintentionally invigorated separate ethnic identities in mirror-image opposition to the dominant Russian nationalism. China is right that the Soviet model unwittingly strengthened ethnic nationalism, and this had a lot to do with the ultimate collapse of the USSR, although it is not the fundamental cause of the difficulties Soviet leaders experienced in their last decade.

The Soviet model has now been in operation in China for almost 60 years, even if it has been “downplayed” in recent years. Has 60 years of this model had the same effect in China, as 70 years had in the Soviet Union? In other words, is it already too late for China to reverse direction, and now adopt openly assimilationist policies that attempt to erase ethnicity, at least from the public sphere?

Again, the evidence suggests strongly that six decades of the Soviet model only strengthened Tibetan identity, revalidated Tibetan culture, history, values, language and solidarity. While other nationalities inside China may have made many compromises with the dominant Han, for the Tibetans (and the Uighur), 60 years of Soviet-styled nationality policy has had the same effect that it had on the Latvians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Georgians, Azerbaijani etc.

It is too late for China to reverse direction, and now assimilate Tibet and the Tibetan people by legally removing the fiction of a separate, autonomous status, with special rights as well as responsibilities that arise from that ethnic national status. It is too late.

China’s essentialisation of ethnic identity had had the opposite effect of what was intended, in Tibet. Instead of controlling and limiting Tibetan identity, it has strengthened, above all else, the reverence of Tibetans for HH the Dalai Lama, and forkudrak traditional aristocratic high culture generally, and there is greater solidarity among Tibetans than ever before in Tibetan history. This is largely due to the constant pressure from outside, from Chinese racist chauvinism and contempt. China’s use of the Soviet model has been counter-productive, and the current ferment in Tibet, the unending chain of immolations, sacrificing all for ongoing Tibetan rights to Tibetan identity and culture, is the clearest evidence of the depth of China’s failure.

No amount of economic development is likely to resolve this. In fact, the deepening inequality between rich and poor in China is of deep concern throughout China. Authors are publishing books saying China has failed, because money is everything and culture has become corrupted. When money is all, people even forget to have basic care and concern for each other, these Chinese authors say. Even official reports like the 2012 Blue Book of Chinese Society, published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, show in great detailed the deep dissatisfaction with the insistence of central leaders that development is the answer to all problems. Everywhere, people see that the benefits of development are monopolised by the rich, and unhappiness grows as fast as the growth of the economy.

If Chinese people yearn for more in life than wealth accumulation, so too do Tibetans, and erasing Tibetan nationality from identity cards does not end the nationalities question.

Republished in TPR with permission of the author.  Originally published at:

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