By: Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han
Ethnic Mongolians, including students and parents, in China’s Inner Mongolia region have been in recent weeks venting their anger in rare public protests against a new bilingual education policy introduced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that they say is endangering the Mongolian language. The new policy started with the “language and literature” curriculum on 1 September 2020. If the proposed plan goes ahead as per schedule, from 2022 students in Inner Mongolia will be taking classes in language, history and politics solely in Chinese, on the basis of the Chinese state-compiled textbooks. Protesters are worried that the new policy will eventually diminish Mongolian culture and language in Inner Mongolia. This is yet another instance of attempts by the Chinese state to assimilate all ethnic minorities into a unified “Chinese nation.”
Although nearly 80 per cent of the population in Inner Mongolia is Han Chinese, Inner Mongolia is also the home to 4.2 million ethnic Mongols, nearly 70% of China’s total ethnic Mongol population. The latest move by the CCP to ‘Hanize’ (significate or sinocize) Inner Mongolia is part of the drive by the state to unify the entire country ethnically and ensure that China has a single language and culture. The latest efforts of the CCP in Inner Mongolia are best reflected in a April 2019 Report of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) titled “Sinification of China” written by Jyrkio Kallio. The report begins with the assertion, “The Communist Party of China is obsessed with national unity. According to the traditional and still largely prevailing understanding of history in China, without unity, there would be chaos, as was always the case during periods of disunity.” In a nutshell, this is precisely what China is trying to do with ethnic minorities in Tibet, Xinjiang and now Inner Mongolia.
The world is aware of what China has been doing with its ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, i.e. Uyghurs, who are forbidden to practice their faith and are sent to re-education camps for the slightest violation of rules laid down by the State. These rules were made with the clear intent to persecute the Uyghurs. A recent White Paper issued by the State Council of China which aims to defend the vocational training programme, instead reveals the negative and coercive nature of the re-education camps established by China. The White Paper notes the regional government in Xinjiang provided vocational training to an average of 1.29 million urban and rural workers every year from 2014 to 2019. Of those workers, about 451,400 are from southern Xinjiang – an area it said had struggled with extreme poverty, poor access to education and a lack of job skills because the residents were influenced by “extremist thoughts”. The focus on creating a single, unified nation, stems from historical antecedents. To this end, a perusal of the FIIA briefing paper highlights some important issues which are worth reflecting on.
The concept of Chinese nation was coined by Liang Qichao in 1902 and once the Republic of China was established in 1912, it recognised five nationalities, namely: Han, Hui (Muslim), Mongols, Manchus and Tibetans. When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was formed in 1949, inspired by the Soviet model, the nation was said to be comprised of fifty-six nationalities. According to the preamble of the Chinese constitution “People’s Republic of China is a unitary multi-national state built up jointly by the people of all its nationalities”. What has occurred is that over a period of time, the phrase “Chinese people” (Zhongguo renmin) has been converted to “Chinese nation”, a phrase used by President Xi Jinping to advance his vision of a unified nation of the Chinese peoples. That this phrase was included in the Chinese constitution in 2018 was partly due to the need for the CCP to enshrine Xi’s thoughts in the constitution, which coincidentally also meant inclusion of a reference to the Belt and Road Initiative in the statute.
There are two reasons, one linguistic and the other historiographical, which create challenges to the concept of Chinese nation. First, the Chinese word minzu stands for both nationality (ethnic) and nation. How do the Chinese solve this contradiction? One scholar noted that the Chinese nation was “unified but pluralistic”. The historical narrative of China as perceived by the CCP is that of the country always having been a single, unified nation. The reality in fact is quite different when it comes to regions/provinces like Xinjiang, which literally means “new frontier”. The politicisation of history, creates new complications because the Chinese themselves use the term Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Why identify the region by its largest ethnic minority when the objective is to unify the region with the rest of China?
It is this politicization which makes China reject the Central Asian (Turkic) roots and linkages of the Uyghurs and inform us that they “came into being in the long process of migration and ethnic integration”. This ideological rationale becomes more complicated when dealing with the Han narrative in China. The dominance of the Han ethnicity gives it a natural historical and political colour. However, the PRC set about Hanizing the entire nation soon after the founding of the Republic in 1949. This is true of many ethnic minority regions, including Tibet and Xinjiang. That this process continues to dominate the political discourse is a continuation of the CCP’s efforts to ‘unify’ the “Chinese nation”. This is also a consequence of treating the Han as a majority and all other ethnicities as “minorities”. In 1939, Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung, had made the development of the nation analogous to the development of the Han. More recently, Prof. Ye Zicheng refers to the Chinese as Huaxia, which includes only the Han peoples.
The development of the Chinese nation has with as its objective the assimilation of the ethnic minorities. The logic used by Chinese scholars to justify this process is to state that the minorities have historically remained on the periphery and therefore, require to be unify with the Chinese nation. That is why “China needs to intensify education on identity based on citizenship. This in turn needs to be supported by the creation and promotion of joint memories of history and joint forms of culture”. The goal of sinicization (in most cases interchangeable with “sinification”) of the minorities is also being pursued with the signification of religion. This was introduced by President Xi in 2015. The aim is to ensure that all ethnic minorities will back the CCP in its endeavours to unify the nation.
Therefore, it is no surprise that CCP has been targeting the Uyghurs with the clear intent of suppressing their religion, identity and cultural connect to the Turkic peoples. Even during the Qing dynasty, the Chinese Emperors tried to convert the Uyghurs to Confucianism, but failed. This time around, the CCP would like to ensure that no stone is left unturned in this regard. Pertinently, Article 3 of the Chinese Constitution states that “Autonomous agencies in ethnic autonomous areas shall apply the principle of democratic centralism.” However, recent instances of the demolition of mosques, re-education of Uyghurs in camps, preventing Muslims from practising their religion and similar steps in this direction makes it clear that “[a]ny misalignment or resistance, especially on the part of restive groups like the Uyghurs and Tibetans, is…a direct challenge to Xi Jinping’s rule and the realization of his ‘China Dream’”. To ensure that such misalignment does not occur, the Chinese State will try and ensure that all ethnic minorities fall in line even at the cost of wiping out their very identity and existence. Little wonder than that China could well be on the road to committing a genocide.
. Jyrkyi Kallio, ‘The Sinification of China: How the minorities in China are being merged into one nation’, FIIA Briefing Paper, April 2019/260, accessed on 25/09/2020 at
. Linda Lew, Xinjiang: ‘China’s White Paper may point to forced labour claims, experts say’, South China Morning Post, 18 September 2020, accessed at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3102155/xinjiang-chinas-white-paper-may-point-forced-labour-claims.
. The preamble to the Chinese Constitution available on the website of the National People’s Congress states that “(The) People’s Republic of China is a unitary multi-national state built up jointly by the people of all its nationalities”. Accessed on 25/09/2020 at: http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/constitution2019/201911/1f65146fb6104dd3a2793875d19b5b29.shtml
. FIIA Briefing Paper, f. no. 1, op.cit. p. 4.
.FIIA Briefing Paper, f. no. 1, op. cit. p. 5.
. Leibold, James, “The Spectre of Insecurity: The CCP’s mass internment strategy in Xinjiang”, China Leadership Monitor, 1 March 2019, https://www.prcleader. org/leibold.