China moving towards outright assimilation of ethnic minorities?

China is to scale back its affirmative action policies for ethnic minorities, which could result in curbs on education opportunities as well as removal of tax benefits and other subsidies for as many as 110 million people. (Photo courtesy: SCMP/ Tessa Chan)

(, Dec05’19) – In the name of equality and the overriding importance of national unity, China is to scale back its affirmative action policies for ethnic minorities, which could result in curbs on education opportunities as well as removal of tax benefits and other subsidies for as many as 110 million people, reported the Dec 5. “All citizens of all ethnic groups are equal before the law,” it quoted President Xi Jinping as having said in a speech in September, when he also called for “national role models” for ethnic unity and progress.

China will expand campaigns that stress national identity over ethnic roots, with police crackdown on ethnic groups that abuse the law also possible, along with tougher anti-corruption measures, the report added.

The report noted that ethnic minority affairs had been at the centre of heated and controversial debates in China for several years, not least because Han Chinese had increasingly complained about what they saw as unfair benefits and subsidies handed out to minorities.

Beijing was stated to have run studies in the past two years to assess the impact and repercussions of the policy changes. The report noted that some provinces had already started to make the shift, especially in education fields.

“[The ethnic minorities] receive bonus points in all national exams for entering high school, colleges, civil service and higher level education. From birth to death, they have so many privileges,” Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Ministry of Commerce, was quoted as saying on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.

But preferential policies for ethnic minorities are, in fact, already being rolled back in a number of regions, the report cited an unnamed Beijing-based researcher specialised in ethnic minority issues as saying. “In college entrance exams, a number of provinces this year scrapped the practice of adding extra marks for students from ethnic minority backgrounds, while other places reduced the additional marks by half,” he was quoted as saying.

“Corruption among officials from ethnic groups in Tibet and Xinjiang has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party because of worries about stability in the regions, but we should now expect more heads to roll among ethnic minority officials,” the Beijing researcher was quoted as saying.

The report quoted James Leibold, an associate professor and researcher into China’s ethnic affairs at La Trobe University in Melbourne, as saying the Chinese president’s speech on Sep 27 was a significant statement that showed how Beijing’s policy towards ethnic groups was shifting.

Citing China’s official Xinhua news agency, the report quoted Xi as having said in that speech, “We must make sure all are treated equally and in accordance to the law, ensure citizens of all ethnic groups enjoy equal rights and perform their duties on an equal footing.”

The speech was “the most formal and comprehensive statement” of his views on ethnic policy published by state media, Leibold has said, adding that it was the first time Xi had elaborated on the policy since the 2014 Central Ethnic Work Forum.

He has noted that China’s approach to ethnic groups under former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao focused on economic development in deprived regions. However, Xi was now stressing intensive educational and cultural propaganda work and Chinese culture as a core foundation of the nation, along with ethnic unity and equality of everyone before the law.

Xi’s move signals an important stepping back from the preferential policy, the cornerstones of China’s regional ethnic autonomy policy, Leibold has noted.

Zhu Weiqun (born 1947), the executive deputy head (Vice Minister) of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 2006 to 2012, had previously called for the abolition of minority status for ethnic minorities. He drew international media attention in Feb 2012 with an article in the party’s Study Times journal in which he said listing ethnic minority status on identity cards, using ethnic names for schools and regions and reserving privileges for ethnic minorities were obstacles to nationalism and cohesion.

Minnie Chan quoted him as saying in the South China Morning Post, “Some of our current educational and administrative policies have unintentionally weakened [ethnic minorities’] sense of nationhood and Chinese nationalism.”

Other media suggested at that time that the Party may be considering an abrupt shift towards overtly assimilationist policies, after more than 60 years of recognising cultural and ethnic difference. That shift may be coming now under Xi.


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