Skip to main content
opinion

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Even with the world focused on the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Beijing has continued its efforts to quietly tighten its control over ethnic minorities in two other strategic areas.

At a two-day symposium, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for efforts to build a “modern socialist Tibet” where Buddhism would be “guided in adapting to the socialist context and developed in the Chinese context.”

In Inner Mongolia, meanwhile, Beijing launched a phased program on Sept. 1 to replace Mongolian as the language of instruction in schools with Chinese, triggering protests and class boycotts, including at least one reported suicide.

This is a radical shift from Beijing’s decades-old official policy – and it’s a reminder of what can be lost in Chinese nationalism.

Fifty-five ethnic minorities in China make up less than 10 per cent of China’s total population of 1.4 billion, but these ethnicities account for more than 100 million people who are spread over 60 per cent of the country’s territory, including sensitive border areas. The other 90-plus per cent of China’s population belong to the Han ethnicity. To the world at large, to be Chinese is to be Han.

Thanks to historical ties forged while fighting their ultimately successful civil war against the Nationalist government, the Communist Party of China has largely worked to preserve and develop minority languages and cultures. The Mongols, in particular, were helpful to Mao Zedong’s efforts, and as a reward, an Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region was set up by the Communists in northern China in 1947, two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Other “autonomous” regions, prefectures and counties for minority peoples were established in later years. In doing so, the state offered such regions privileged treatment, including not being bound by the one-child policy, so their numbers could increase.

But in recent years, the policy has been reversed.

Despite their proud history – ruling China in the 13th and 14th centuries as part of the Mongol empire, which at one time stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea – their homeland is now divided between the independent country of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, a Chinese province.

Tibet, which had been independent before Communist troops took over in 1950, is a special problem. Buddhism exercises a strong hold over its people, even 70 years later. Indeed, after Mr. Xi called for Buddhism to be “guided” by socialism, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, responded: “For Tibetans, Buddhism is more important than communism. To force them to treat communism as more important than their faith is not only a violation of international religious freedom but is also deeply misguided.”

And so Beijing has begun forcing ethnic minorities to adopt the Chinese language, history and culture as their own, not to mention traditional Han religious beliefs.

Up until the 1980s, five minority languages were used for teaching in “autonomous” areas: Mongolian, Uyghur, Tibetan, Kazakh and Korean. But after China adopted the market economy in the 1980s, employers began preferring native Chinese speakers, prompting many minority parents to enroll their children in mainstream Chinese schools, rather than ethnic schools, so as to widen their career prospects. Now, ethnic schools are being systematically closed. In Xinjiang, this happened in 2017; in Tibet, they were shuttered in 2018. It appears to be the Mongols’ turn, next.

The Chinese language is now described as the national language, not just the language of the majority Han Chinese population. “The national common spoken and written language is a symbol of national sovereignty,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said when asked about the situation in Inner Mongolia. “It is every citizen’s right and duty to learn and use the national common spoken and written language.”

It doesn’t just end with the adoption of the Chinese language, history and culture as their own by the ethnic minorities, either; they must now also give up their traditional religious beliefs. That’s why Mr. Xi called for ethnic Tibetans to “recognize,” or identify with, Chinese culture, the Communist Party and the policy known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

A common language and identity – namely, Chineseness for all – is now the most important thing for Beijing. Non-ethnic Chinese must, in effect, become Chinese, through a Sinicizing process of reducing and, if possible, eliminating differences between minorities and the Han norms.

The goal is that, ultimately, everyone in China – the 100 million Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs and more – will act and think like Han Chinese. In that world, Chineseness will become their only identity.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.