The Loose Reins Model: Why the Chinese Leadership Must Rethink Its Minorities Policy

Guards keep watch over Buddhist pilgrims near the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. (Photo courtesy: Greg Baker/AP)
Guards keep watch over Buddhist pilgrims near the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. (Photo courtesy: Greg Baker/AP)

This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2015 edition of Tibetan Review.

Diane WolffDiane Wolff* argues that China’s orthodox communist ideology of ethnic sensitivity and assimilation practiced within the framework of a “tight reins” policy is inherently faulty, that it has failed and reportedly reached a dead end in Tibet, as well as Xinjiang; she suggests that Beijing opt for the historically proven, win-win “loose reins” model of restricting its powers only to national sovereignty issues.


Sixty-four years ago, the People’s Republic of China invaded Eastern Tibet and wrested an agreement for the peaceful liberation of Tibet from the governor of the easternmost province.The year was 1950, five years after the end of World War II. The People’s Republic of China was barely a year old.

Much has been written about Mao Zedong as a utopian thinker, a giant of twentieth-century history who despised bourgeois thinking and bourgeois forms of government, who believed that socialism and communism were superior forms.

Mao had come to power as a revolutionary leader and a theorist of people’s war, but he was not a romantic revolutionary. He was a cold-blooded practitioners of geopolitics.

In public, Mao enunciated the ideological line of communism, using anti-imperialist rhetoric. In private—as shown by newly opened Cold War archives of the PRC—he was a realist. He had the emperor’s syndrome: his strategy drew more on national tradition and history than on communist ideology.

Most importantly, though the communist system of government had replaced the old imperial system that had been governing China for thousands of years, Mao wanted the PRC to occupy the territory that imperial China controlled at its maximum power.

It was a point of national pride. The emperors had been dethroned and the chairman had come to power, but Mao adopted the policy in regard to China being surrounded by its neighbors. The Chinese empire would occupy its traditional borders.

Tibet was a small state, powerless against a big state with an army seasoned in war. The People’s Liberation Army had survived the Long March, and had formed a coalition with the Nationalist Army to expel the Japanese from China during the brutal Japanese occupation of China during World War II.  The PLA had prevailed in the civil war against Chiang Kaishek and the Nationalist Army, ousting their rivals in 1949 and founding the People’s Republic of China.

Historians of China often comment that China had yin and yang periods in its foreign policy. When the central government was strong, China expanded the territory under its control.

When the center was weak, China retreated. The Ming was a period of retreat, when trade focused on the maritime coast, China’s east coast. The last dynasty, the Qing, was a yang period. China expanded westward, into the Muslim lands, the province that today is called Xinjiang.

The traditional foreign policy of China had always focused on the border with Inner Asia, not on the maritime coast.

During the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong, the warrior-emperor, extended control into China’s Far West, and placed a Chinese official, an amban, in Tibet. This was for the purpose of countering foreign influence, for the colonial powers were engaged in The Great Game for supremacy on the continent of Asia. Mao believed that the PRC should have  territory controlled by the Qing.  Fourteen countries border on China, as can be seen from the map. This was the reason China was called the Middle Kingdom.

To the west, China faced the old Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, the so-called “stans.” These are Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.

All of the “stans” were Muslim, all of them had gotten their independence at the breakup of the Soviet Union, and all of them had ties with the Muslims of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. Mao did not want Xinjiang to agitate for independence as it had done during the brief establishment of a republic during World War II.

Mao was all too aware of Russian and British expansion into Asia. He intended to secure his Inner Asian border. When one looks at the map, one can see that the Inner Asian border functions almost as a coastline, a border with the rest of Asia.

This was where China had traditionally exerted its influence, in the old territories that had once been Buddhist during China’s Golden Age, but had long ago been conquered by Islam. This was where China conducted its fabled trade in silk, porcelain and tea.

During the colonial period, the British extended their influence north into the old Himalayan kingdoms surrounding Tibet, Qing China feared British influence in Tibet and so stationed the official known as the amban to protect Chinese interests and identify Tibet as a Chinese “vassal.”

World War II came and went and the Cold War was on. Great Britain was broke after World War II and had to break up its empire in Asia. India went free, but Mao had disputes with India. In fact, he went to war with India over disputed borderlands.  Tibet had the misfortune to be in the cultural sphere of India and to border the Himalayan kingdoms surrounding India to the southwest, kingdoms where the British sought to expand and exert their influence.

Tibet was a border country, a buffer state in the thinking of the colonial period. This meant it was strategic in China’s relationship with India.

Tibet represented China’s “back door.” It had a weak government and it was vulnerable, and that was why Mao wanted Tibet. While denouncing the colonialism of the West in Asia, a criticism well-deserved, Mao indulged in the colonial strategy of creating buffer zones at the perimeters of territory. He did not practice what he preached in his anti-imperialist propaganda.  It was, one might say, hypocritical in the extreme.

A power vacuum cannot exist at the heart of Asia and Mao knew it.

Mao decided that China’s borders would be the southern Himalayas because he feared the encroachment of Russia and India—China had border disputes with both. The new rulers of China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, wished to close China’s back door from foreign encroachment.

The position of the PRC in Tibet was a contradiction commented on by the Politburo member, Hu Yaobang, when Hu visited Tibet in the 1980s. “This looks like colonialism,” is what Hu said. And it was. And it is.

There was one difference between the People’s Republic of China and the imperial system of the past. The Chinese emperors of history never tried to create the new Tibetan person. They did not desire social engineering.

The Chinese theory of minority peoples derives from the Soviet experience. Both ethnic sensitivity and assimilation are correct in terms of orthodox communist ideology. The PRC has see-sawed between ethnic sensitivity and assimilation in Tibet for the past sixty years. Both approaches have failed because the theory is flawed.

At the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, the young Chinese revolultionaries looked to the Soviet Union as mentor and guide. This relationship was later to deteriorate as Stalin showed the greatest disrespect for Mao as the junior partner in revolution.

The nationalities theory adopted by the PRC at its beginning was invented by Josef Stalin when he was Commissar of Nationalities early in his career. In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s policies resulted in human rights abuses. The nomads of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were considered backward. After all, the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag are an image of the worker and the peasant. The nomads were a vestige of the backward past. Communism was thought to be scientific.

Stalin meant to rectify the backwardness of the horsemen of the steppes, the men whose forebears had invented the saddle and the stirrup, and whose ancestors had been renowned as the greatest cavalry warriors in history.

He took their tents away and settled them in apartment buildings–this type of dwelling was considered “modern.” He ended the reason for the nomad lifestyle, the herding of horses, by ordering that the horses be sent to sausage factories. Nomads were to be employed in factories or farms.

The horses were the beautiful Akhal-Tekes, the famed Horse of Heaven, the ancestors of modern thoroughbreds. They were prized by Chinese emperors.  For centuries, officers of the Chinese imperial armies had traded vigorously with the nomads, offering tea in exchange for horses for imperial herds.

Rather than allowing their horses to be sent to the sausage factories, the nomads released into the desert. The Akhal-Teke is a desert breed. The horses had a chance of survival if they were not turned into meals.

Communism was supposed to be scientific and progressive. Soviet minority theory stated that ethnic identity was a product of bourgeois society. With its origins in Marx’s theory of labor, the central idea of Soviet minority theory was that with the triumph of socialism, ethnic differences would fade away. Workers would identify with the international proletariat.

This was the bill of goods that the Soviets sold to the early Chinese revolutionaries, who were desperately seeking to unify and modernize the vast territory of China. The PRC adopted the theory and institutionalized it. It has persisted in Tibet and Xinjiang down to the present-day with disastrous consequences.

The twentieth century has taught that ethnicity is a far more enduring human trait than class. Witness the former Yugoslavia. After seventy years of Communist rule, Yugoslavia broke up along ethnic lines. The theory has been dumped on the ash-heap of history.

Sixty years of re-education and the state has been unable to persuade the Tibetans, nor the Turkish and tribal minorities of Xinjiang to become something other than their traditions dictate. It is as though the state has aligned itself against human nature.

It is true that there are generational differences. Young people want blue jeans and pop music, they do not want to live in monasteries and mosques.

It is true that the old system had injustices that had to be rectified. The Dalai Lama himself has stated this.

But it is also true that the system that replaced it also has gross injustices.

This is a study in solution. As the problem of ethnicity persists, it expresses itself in protest in both Tibet and Xinjiang. The worse protests broke out in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008,  an embarrassment to the PRC at the moment of its global coming out party. It is in no one’s interest, not the Chinese, not the Tibetans and not the various Muslim Turkish ethnicities of Xinjiang.

Tibet has been conceived of as a multi-ethnic province of China, but the PRC’s unequal treatment of Tibetans has placed its center of protest in the monasteries, the only public space available for resistance to the top down regime. The ongoing protests cannot be snuffed out by assimilation.

The idea of creating in Tibet a majority Han Chinese population has been built on the idea of destroying Tibetan culture, expressed and contained in the Buddhist religion. The early Chinese presence in Tibet wished to snuff out the religion as a relic of the past, as backward. In Marxist terms, Tibetan Buddhism was an antiquated con game, an opiate of the people, the reactionary system of population control used by a parasitic landowning class oppressing the people and preventing them from embracing a progressive future.

The policy of the PRC has been to raise the standard of living in Tibet. The government’s investment of billions of yuan in Tibet has caused the leadership to resent the ungratefulness of the beneficiaries of economic progress. It is true that socialism has brought material benefits to Tibet, but it has also brought mismanagement of the environment and destruction of a great cultural heritage.

Having tried ethnic sensitivity, having seen the riots that resulted, China has adopted the Asian solution, that of putting social stability above individual rights. The system is in force top down, even though it has failed. The Chinese leadership has made a study of the reforms made in the Soviet Union and has analyzed the reason for the implosion of the Soviet Union. China does not want to share that fate. The leadership has made a decision to put economic liberalization before political reform, in the interests of survival and stability.

This is a momentous time in South Asian history. There are two hot wars in Asia, that in Afghanistan and the one in Kashmir. Pakistan is a failed state. Bangladesh is a disaster area.

It is rumored that in Beijing, behind the plum-colored walls of the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership does not know what to do about Tibet.

With the American involvement in Afghanistan winding down, China is emerging as a rising power on the Asian continent

It is in the U. S. interest for China to emerge as the stabilizing force in the Central and South Asian region. This would be preferable to the rise of Iran in the region.

China’s failed minorities policy in Tibet will be a hindrance to that goal. The policy is a public relations nightmare in the global media community. The Chinese do not need or want the headache.

What exactly are the Chinese interests and how can they be served.With modern weapons, the security of China’s southwestern border is no longer an issue. The borders can be protected. This is the one and only geopolitical goal that the Chinese gain from the “tight reins” policy in Tibet.

It is time for a regional solution.  The use of the “loose reins” model could be the way forward.

At the time of the invasion of Tibet, what the Chinese refer to as the peaceful liberation of Tibet, China did not yet have the atomic bomb—in a nuclear age, the principal reason for the invasion of Tibet has evaporated. The concept of the country as a buffer zone protecting China from encroachment on the continent of Asia is obsolete.

The CIA estimates that if nuclear war breaks out anywhere in the world, the likelihood is that it will break out between India and Pakistan. With three nuclear powers in the region, China could emerge as a balancing force between India and Pakistan, much as it has in North Asia, serving as an interlocutor with North Korea.

A review of nationalities policy might revive a historical model, one applied successfully for over a century by Chinggis Khan. Call it the “loose reins” model of the Mongol Empire.

The greatest warlord in Asia required the paying of taxes and service in the army and public works labor. He placed a Mongol military governor in the region. He used local forms of taxation and administration. He built roads and maintained security.

He never attempted social engineering, creating a new Tibetan. He maintained the peace, promoted trade and left the nationalities to their ethnicity and religion. Freedom of religion was the hallmark of the empire.

It was a “render unto Caesar” solution. The locals knew best how to deal with local climate conditions, and in the high Himalaya, with the problem of the glaciers melting, glaciers that feed the five greatest rivers in Asia and provide the watershed for millions of people, the idea of local control, the protection of one of the world’s most diverse and fragile ecosystems, might be left to the locals.

A regional solution offers hope. Tibet could become a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a common market organization that could counter-balance the proliferation of the trade in illegal arms, heroin trafficking and the export of jihadism in the region. (China is already an observer.)

The old lamaist system is gone. With a change of policy dictated by the simple longevity of the PRC, with a new minorities model, what would come is a new governmental form, one that could be tolerated within the Chinese system. Recent events in Hong Kong, where the promise of one country, two systems was tested, should be a red flag to the Chinese leadership.

The thorniest issue is what to do about the Dalai Lama. Even Chairman Mao believed that the Dalai Lama was the key to bringing Tibet into the empire. It was his original intent to leave the Dalai Lama in place. History got in the way.

This is not the place to discuss events which are a sore point. A new language has to be invented to get past the present impasse in thinking. A new set of governmental forms and solutions, with flexibility, have to be invented to contain the present situation.

Fortunately the historical model exists. It lasted for a hundred years and it was successful. That is the “loose reins” model. Fortunately it provides a solution to the most difficult problem, that of the government in exile.

The Dalai Lama should be repatriated as a religious figure. To Tibetans, he is an expression of their culture, rather than a political leader.

The way to the future would be to allow the Dalai Lama to repatriate as a private citizen and take up residence, as he says it is his intention, in a monastery.

The greatest fear of the Chinese leadership is that of the empire breaking apart, because the empire has broken apart in Chinese history, more than once. The idea of social stability is paramount to the leadership, but present policies are leading to increasing unrest, in Tibet and also in Xinjiang. (China’s far western province has been, until the recent transfer of Han populations, a Muslim majority province. The religions are different in these two provinces, but the problem is the same. What to do about a minority population.)

The “loose reins” model could also apply to Xinjiang. This would rid China of the headache of maintaining the gulag system and enforcing infringement of the law for the practice of religion in both cases.

This solution has the added advantage of a compromise, eliminating calls for total independence, those who genuinely advocate “splittism”, from some Tibetans in exile.

The “loose reins” solution will solve the public relations problem that China’s ongoing abuse of human rights creates. The Chinese define human rights as economic rights rather than individual rights, and so there is a disconnect with the arguments presented by the human rights community in the West.

Still, the protests, the security measures caught on film—the arrival of security police, the PAP, bearing truncheons and wearing black plastic face guards, the beatings, the arrests—cause a response of revulsion in the global community.

The Chinese leadership knows that the protests are seen as a negative and they are an embarrassment. The thin-skinned responses and the paranoid admonishments not to interfere in Chinese internal affairs, the reminders of the Century of Humiliation, are excuses that dim with time. The immolations and the protests continue. The gulag is a fact. It is as though China is saying, “We have the right to use abusive policies because we were wronged.” This is a stance unbecoming to an emerging power.

If the minority policy employed for generations does not work, no amount of blaming and guilt-mongering over past wrongs by colonial powers will address the root cause of the problem. The problem will persist. The unrest, the protests, the attacks and the immolations will go on and will continue to be an embarrassment.

Added to that is the real crisis of water management in Asia. Five of the great rivers of Asia have their source in the Himalayas. The potential for ecological disaster is great and must be managed now.

The PRC’s politburo’s relaxing of central planning in Tibet and devolving of control to a regional model would parallel the successful creation of the Special Economic Zones on the Chinese coast. The departure from Leninist theory on finance for the Special Economic Zones would have a parallel in the departure on the theory of nationalities for what could be termed a Special Ethnic, Trade and Ecological Zone (SETEZ).

Tibet, with its tradition of non-violence, is the perfect regional leader. Once the human rights questions are resolved by the new autonomy, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as private capital, would have the way cleared for participation in the Tibetan economy. This could then be diversified, in a sustainable fashion, along lines that would enable Tibet to export outward into the region, instead of internally, back to China.

Will the present Chinese leadership reconsider the hard line and realize that with the elimination of the old minority policy inherited from the USSR, a win-win solution in Tibet is possible? A faulty intellectual basis is the underpinning of the institutionalization of this policy.

The Fifth Generation of Chinese leadership—the equivalent in China of the Gorbachev generation in former Soviet Union– came to power in 2012. This generation of leaders has the chance to change the situation for the better, for it is clear that no good result can come of the present situation.

The “loose reins” model is an Asian solution to an Asian problem. It does not rely upon playing to domestic audiences for political gain. In fact, the materialistic generations that have emerged during China’s economic miracle have turned to Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism for spiritual sustenance.

It is an ironic fact of history: previous Chinese emperors, from the Mongol Khans to the Ming and the Qing emperors, practiced the Buddhist religion, at least in public, though sometimes in private, in what was clearly not a threat to the state.

The real threat to the dynastic system came from the failure to modernize. The real source of a potential threat to the stability of the PRC is the failure to end a minorities theory that is antique and upon analysis is a joke. It was Russian in origin and has failed in China.

Would not Tibet be better as a center for banking and trade and ecological and religious tourism, than as a garrison for the ungrateful? The pacificism of Buddhist culture would be a brilliant counter to the culture of death and jihadism exported by the militant Islam that has overrun the region. That is realism.

* Diane Wolff is the author of Tibet Unconquered: An Epic Struggle for Freedom, published by Palgrave MacMillan. She is also the author of two books on Chinese culture, one an award-winning book on Chinese calligraphy. She is widely published and has reviewed works on Chinese history and Tibetan literature, as well as software for Chinese language-learning.
She can be reached at


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