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China's ethnic socialism

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
October 2, 2020

The leaders of the People's Republic of China have always suppressed dissent. What is new is President Xi Jinping's brutal oppression of ethnic minorities, says Alexander Görlach.

China - Dabancheng - Umerziehungslager
Image: Reuters/T. Peter

It has recently been reported that China is imposing forced labor on thousands of people in Tibet. Since annexing the Buddhist state in 1950, the People's Republic has done almost everything in its power to isolate Tibet and eradicate its cultural autonomy. Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has been forced into exile, has become a symbol of China's repressive actions during his global travels. But over the decades, the rest of the world has reconciled itself with this situation.

Now, however, it can no longer be ignored that the communist leadership under President Xi Jinping, who differs from his predecessors in interpreting Chinese socialism along ethnic lines, has been discriminating and repressing minorities in many parts of the country.

Just a few weeks ago, Beijing introduced a new language policy for schools in Inner Mongolia, whereby instruction in Mongolian will be replaced with lessons in Mandarin in a number of subjects. Many fear that this will massively impact on Mongolian culture.

Read more: Tibet uprising 60 years on: The fight continues

More than a million in camps

However, this is nothing compared to what Beijing is doing in Xinjiang, where over a million people have been locked up in concentration camps on ethnic and religious grounds. According to a variety of reports, people are being brainwashed in the camps, and women are being subjected to forced abortions and sterilization. In consequence, the US government has been deliberating on whether the oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang constitutes genocide.

'Reeducation camp' in Dabanchen
More than a million Uighurs are being held in 'reeducation camps' like this one in XinjiangImage: Reuters/T. Peter

Most of the inhabitants of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet are not Han Chinese, who constitute the majority in China. Until 2012, when Xi Jinping took office, all 56 recognized ethnic groups in China enjoyed equal rights. But Xi, who, if things go very wrong, will be able to let himself be chosen as president for life in 2023, put an end to that equality.

Hong Kong also an ethnic conflict

The inhabitants of Hong Kong, although mostly of Han Chinese descent, speak Cantonese rather than the official state language of Mandarin, and have a very different cultural background from mainland Chinese owing to the region's history. Beijing's zeal in trying to eradicate the autonomy and rights granted to Hong Kong by international treaties can therefore in part be traced back to the ethnic policies of Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders.

Two protesters in Hong Kong with police behind them
Hong Kong has seen several protests at China's growing attempts at dominanceImage: Kin Cheung/AP/picture-alliance

The West did not understand why Beijing could not wait until 2047, when the "one country, two systems" policy would have expired anyway and China would have won. However, for China, this is not a question of rational politics but of ideology, one according to which the Han are considered superior to China's other ethnic groups. The people of Hong Kong, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang are not seen as equal partners, and this explains the Communist Party's inhumane treatment of certain groups, who are nonetheless all citizens of China.

Taiwan is the exception

Taiwan would seem to be a special case. This now democratic state, which emerged from the Chinese civil war, has a population of 23 million, a large majority of whom are Han Chinese. Perhaps Beijing has been reluctant to attack the island state because doing so could be perceived by the military as the revival of just that civil war, which ended 70 years ago.

Autorenbild | Alexander Görlach
Alexander GörlachImage: Hong Kiu Cheng

The real problem that Xi Jinping has with Taiwan is the fact that millions of people are successful and happy there in a free democracy, a form of government that Xi claims is alien to Chinese people because of their cultural heritage. Carrying out a genocide of the Taiwanese is not possible at present — China would have to occupy the island first. Xi has made numerous threats to this effect. Because the US has more or less pledged to guarantee Taiwan's security, although it is not clear whether that includes going to war to do so, the whole conflict situation is still rather up in the air. What is certain, however, is that if the island were to be invaded, Taiwan's democracy and liberal culture would also be eradicated.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping could well become president for lifeImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/Wang Ye

Five genocides

Xi's China is currently involved in five genocides at various stages of completion. For those in free societies, it is chilling to think about this. The current debate about how to deal with China in future does not come a minute too early.

With hindsight, it unfortunately seems that it was wrong to accept China into the ranks of the "civilized world" after the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, despite the apparent success of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. The "one country, two systems" principle is dead, as is the One China policy, which was buried the moment Beijing threatened Taipei with war. China under Xi Jinping no longer represents hope for the world economy but a threat to world peace.

The linguist and theologian Dr. Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also Senior Research Associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies. From 2014 to 2017, he was a fellow and visiting scholar at Harvard University and in 2017-2018 he was a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University and City University of Hong Kong.

Translated from German.

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