China Policy Institute: Analysis



Refuting the racist Chinese narrative

Written by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong.

One of our research areas focuses on the links between China and Africa links. An often-raised issue about that interface concerns the place of “race.” We have responded in studies based on surveys we conducted in China and Africa about how Chinese and Africans perceive each other; in analyses of myths that Chinese firms in Africa bring prisoners to labour or refuse to hire Africans; and on the racialization of the Chinese presence in our field site country Zambia by local political elites. Most recently, we have written about how racialization of labour in Chinese firms in Africa is misconceived as resembling that of Western firms operating in developing countries. Continue reading “Refuting the racist Chinese narrative”

Yuepao apps and casual sex culture

Written by Haiqing Yu.

“Every technological innovation creates deviant as well as respectable possibilities.” So opens an essay written by Charles Edgley and Kenneth Kiser in 1982. The invention of instant photography represented by the Polaroid Camera facilitated homemade pornography, known in its day as “Polaroid sex.” Polaroid sex allowed young women, who were identified as “bad girls”, to pose for “naughty” pictures and engage in more egalitarian sexual pursuits. It also facilitated casual and commercial sexual relationships among strangers. Fast forward to China in 2016, where the availability and immense popularity of social media services and mobile phone apps has rendered casual sex “mobile,” on-the-go, and at one’s finger tips. They have enabled all kinds of young adults to explore their sexuality, set new trends, and pose new questions about the linkage between technology and sex, “deviance” and respectability. Continue reading “Yuepao apps and casual sex culture”

Attitudes to sex and hook-up culture in China

Written by Jue Ren.

Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian pop star, was recently exposed by female fans who accused him of infidelity. Contrary to the scandal involving Hong Kong-Canadian pop star Edison Chen in 2008, when intimate images of Chen and his numerous partners were leaked, Wu’s female partners were responsible for going public rather than having images posted online without their consent and subsequently suffered a ‘slut shaming’ backlash. The difference illustrates how attitudes toward sex have changed in the last eight years.

The Chen scandal was the first time dating culture among Chinese celebrities was exposed to the public. Intimate photos of Chen with various women, including a number of actresses from Hong Kong, were illegally distributed via the Internet. Although both Chen and his female partners were affected, the women had trouble convincing the public that they were also victims of having their sex lives maliciously exposed online. The scandal broke during Chinese New Year, which made it a main topic of conversation among families and friends who were meeting for the festivities. Many of the Millennial (九零後) students that I taught at Shantou University in 2014 clearly remembered discussions during that holiday gathering. For some of them it was the first “sex education” they received.

Continue reading “Attitudes to sex and hook-up culture in China”

Precious Little Space for Uyghur or Tibetan Grievances.

Written by Elliot Sperling.

It’s already been many years since anyone seriously asserted that continuing political liberalization would be the certain result of economic growth in post-Mao China. One might propose, however, that we are seeing something somewhat opposite: as economic indicators turn downward the post-1989 idea that if left to its authoritarian ways the CCP will continue to deliver economic progress and better lives is no longer taken for granted. In this environment, the lashing out at scapegoats and the tightening of the space available for dissident speech and action in the PRC is unquestioned. The indications are so numerous as to make any doubts risible: human rights lawyers arrested, Hong Kong booksellers abducted, and on, and on, and on.

If this sort of reaction is now familiar, it has long been evident in the way the most aggrieved of China’s “minority nationalities” (or, if one wishes to use the newer mandated terminology, “ethnic groups,” the status to which they’ve been rhetorically relegated, lest someone take the term “nationalities” too seriously) have been treated. The troublesome incorporation of Uyghurs and Tibetans into the PRC has been particularly fraught since the inception of the PRC, essentially as a result of the late-19th-early-20th centuries’ structuring of Chinese identity in such a way that Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongols have come to be viewed as indisputably Chinese (rather than subjects of China). Thus, their centrifugal impulses—real or perceived—invariably seem threatening to a regime for which the unification and of China has, since 1949, been infused with legitimating significance.

In this environment dissent and grievances from Uyghurs and Tibetans are not seen simply as expressions of discontents that might be redressed. They are, rather, threats to the stability of the regime and the nation. And these grievances are very substantive: demographic marginalisation; internal travel restrictions (for Tibetans); blatant discrimination in employment and other areas; harsh restrictions and monitoring of religious and social practices; and even (particularly with Uyghurs) restrictions on clothing and grooming. This is not to mention the particularly severe nature of political imprisonment visited on Uyghur and Tibetan dissidents. Given all this, it would be surprising if there weren’t widespread resentment of the Chinese state. But the official response is not to ask what policies and conditions are behind the discontents being expressed. It is to ask who is doing this to China; who is behind it all. It is to demand scapegoats. This ought to seem reasonably clear when recourse is made within China proper to the plotting of foreign anti-China forces. Uyghur and Tibetan protests and dissent are respectively and reflexively ascribed to Islamic terrorism and the machinations of the Dalai Lama and his clique. The former claim, regarding the Uyghurs, may yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For over two years one of the most prominent Uyghur intellectuals, Ilham Tohti, has been in prison (now under a life sentence) for voicing Uyghur grievances and publicising violations of their basic human rights. Almost uniquely moderate (he does not advocate independence), his persecution and imprisonment exemplifies how China feeds and bolsters extremism: by sweeping up moderates who work and speak openly, it leaves only extremists, who by necessity are below the radar, to speak to the grievances that afflict large numbers of Uyghurs.

Inside Tibet the use of the Dalai Lama as a scapegoat has a history of decades and has had no success (except, perhaps, in increasing veneration of and allegiance to him on the part of the Tibetan population). The greater visibility of the Tibet issue has generated a greater degree of attention to Tibet as an international issue impacting China’s image than has been the case with the Uyghurs and a greater amount of ink in official publications and pronouncements has been given over to vehemently asserting the correctness of China’s policies and actions in Tibet. But in spite of the repeated rhetoric about the Dalai Lama plotting to split China, his stand against Tibet’s independence is known to a number of those who deal with the Tibet issue inside Chinese officialdom. Similarly, Ilham Tohti’s rejection of independence for the Uyghurs is also not unknown.

The Uyghur opposition outside China has advocated self-determination as a goal (and it would be the height of political cynicism—as far as both Uyghurs and Tibetans are concerned—to assert that, given what has been done to them since 1949-1950, they should have no voice in their future), while the Tibetan exiles, whose political base is in Dharamsala, India, have been following a chimerical China, based on the Dalai Lama’s assessments, and offering compromise after compromise.

Expectations of any sort of Chinese accommodation with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community (whose discontents with China are shared with large segments of the Tibetan population inside Tibet) have been misplaced since the 1990s. The authorities in China are effectively counting on the Dalai Lama’s death to end the Tibet issue. They’re now confident that this end is near and remain certain that there is no further need to deal with him. The exile authorities (under the Dalai Lama’s tacit leadership; he has ostensibly relinquished political leadership, though his name is invoked by exile politicians with authority and none seem willing to treat him as less than infallible) have fecklessly made repeated concessions while China has retained its position. In the upcoming exile leadership elections, the two remaining candidates have been speaking disproportionately about welfare and other issues pertinent to exile life and have had few words for addressing the dead end into which their fantasy image of China has led them.

The various negotiations that have engaged Chinese representatives and exile delegates have come to a halt and there is little to indicate that this will change. Since the 1990s China used the talks as busywork for the Tibetan exiles: something to keep them otherwise diverted while China waited for the demise of the Dalai Lama. And the exile side accommodated this, periodically asserting that their chimera was real. Now, more powerful than ever, China sees no need to budge. Indeed, it constantly pushes back and now lobbies (with growing success) to prevent high-level visits and meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign leaders.

Professor Elliot Sperling is an Associate Professor of Central Eurasian Studies and  the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University. Image credit: CC by Bob Witlox/Flickr.

The “Terror” Angle in China’s Domestic “Stability Maintenance.”

Written by Tom Cliff.

The foremost aim of Chinese authorities’ “Uyghur terror-threat” mobilisation outside Xinjiang is stability among the Han majority. Initially confined to Xinjiang, China has significantly expanded “anti-terror” mobilisation across the country. Urban police forces are rapidly being augmented with paramilitary units, and equipment including armoured cars and semi-automatic weapons. The Chinese authorities employ a discourse of “anti-terror” to justify the militarisation of the streets in Han-majority regions. Taking such assertions at face value is, I believe, problematic. There are, in my view, much better explanations for such mobilisation at this time.

At the very least, such displays of force are used to back up state claims that they are “striking hard at terror” in defence of the Chinese civilian population, and to make that same population feel at once grateful and uneasy. The discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang not least because the need for a discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang.

That is, this is not simply about preventing terror attacks on Han civilians—it is primarily about rapidly or even pre-emptively “harmonising” potentially unstable elements of the Han population itself. People feel less uncomfortable when they are told that the police on the streets are there to protect them from dangerous “others,” rather than to protect the state from them or other Han. All forms of traditional and non-traditional media pound home this message within China.


IMAGE: CCTV frame of black-hooded Uyghurs

The chilling image of black-hooded Uyghurs being repatriated to China from Thailand in July 2015 is a case in point. The image was first broadcast China-wide on prime-time television, and quickly went global. Unverified reports of imprisonment and torture followed just days afterwards. China’s official media responded immediately with a flurry of stories apparently showing that the repatriated Uyghurs were remorseful about being led astray (by outside separatist forces and Islamic extremists), but otherwise living happy lives back in Xinjiang. This was in turn met by predictable international scepticism. From the perspective of the Chinese government, however, what outside observers like the Western world and media think about what happened to these Uyghurs after they were repatriated is, at best, of only secondary importance.

In terms of political aesthetics, “illegal emigrants” returning home in black hoods is a sinister form of shanzhai (copycat product, like a fake Prada bag) through its very clear association with Guantanamo Bay and the US war on terror. These aesthetics help to deliver a clear statement to people inside China that their own domestic war on terror has not only spread beyond Xinjiang, it has spread beyond the borders of the nation-state.

This nationwide threat alert began with the Urumqi riots of 2009, but it has really taken hold since the middle of 2014. By that time, violent incidents in Xinjiang were becoming commonplace, and there had been two high-profile violent protests by Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang. Moreover, increasing numbers of Uyghurs were attempting to flee China through the South, or simply find work outside of Xinjiang, raising their visibility in Han-majority regions.

Uyghur “terrorism” provides a ready-made frame for securitisation. In Xinjiang this has long been the case, but the nationwide expansion of this frame now justifies displays of state power that are also, even primarily, intended to warn off Han people. Among the most protest-active Han groups are rural migrant labourers, pensioners, and laid-off workers who have been underpaid what they feel they are owed.

Guangdong hosts the most migrant workers of any province in China, and these workers have taken their calls for social justice to the streets more often, and more successfully, than workers anywhere else in China. The economy of Dongguan city, in Guangdong, shrank by 10% in 2014, so officials stopped taking statistics altogether in 2015. A colleague’s extensive interviews with migrant workers in the province revealed that they are only working four days per week and are permitted to take leave (without pay) whenever they want. Alongside—and conceptually connected to—this piece of economic news, the workers proffered the information that they try to avoid contact with Uyghur people. Uyghurs are “very dangerous,” they asserted.

Heilongjiang province has a high proportion of pensioners and laid-off workers, and has been a site of continual social unrest since the early 2000s. Most ordinary people’s economic situation has become significantly worse since the beginning of 2013. The plunge in demand and the price of coal, in particular, has driven one of the north-eastern region’s major industries to the wall, and their workers home “to rest” – or onto the streets. Popular discontent is on the rise, and that has already begun to manifest in actual protest. Under these conditions, I do not think it is coincidental that the “Uyghur terror threat” is being given such prominence in the media and official statements.

The media barrage has had a marked effect on public discourse in Heilongjiang. A foreign visitor to the region in mid-2015 was warned: “There are lots of police around. Security is tight.” The taxi driver told the foreign visitor to be careful and to carry their passport at all times so as not to be mistaken for one of the Uyghurs that the newspaper had reported were “on their way here.” A few days later, a local businessman explained the heightened tension in society by saying, “Uyghurs…are not happy with the central government and they want to make trouble. Be very careful.” Driving around, the visitor encountered checkpoints in the most remote locations. But that visitor did not see, or even hear confirmation of, a single Uyghur in the region.

In the last days before Beijing was closed for the military parade in early September 2015, inbound flights were packed with officials who were headed to the capital specifically to do “stability preservation” work. Each prefectural-level city in the Northeast dispatched their mayor or vice-mayor, high-level internal security personnel, and the leaders of key state enterprises—a significant proportion of the region’s governing elite. But it was not Uyghurs who were threatening to be unstable, despite the rumours flying around the Northeast. Asked why so many officials had to personally go to Beijing for the period of the military review, one official confided that “each has to look after their own children.” Those potentially disruptive “children” were Han people from the enterprises and administrative areas that those officials were responsible for.

With armoured police patrols becoming normalised across urban China, Han people who are considering “making a fuss” to draw attention to their own cause will think again, and are likely to think better of it. If facing down “stability preservation” is difficult and dangerous, encountering an “anti-terror” response is often fatal.

Dr Tom Cliff is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Tom’s book, Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang, will be published by The University of Chicago Press in early 2016. Image credit: CC by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.

The Current Status of Ethnic Policy in China

Written by Wenshan Jia.

This post discusses China’s Ethnic Policy since the 18th Party Congress. Analysis of literature on evolving theoretical and policy discourses on ethnic relations in China between the founding of PRC in 1949 and the 18th Congress in 2012 reveal the following:

The so-called “first generation” of ethnic policy discourse represented by scholars such as Hao Shiyuan, can be most accurately described as a Stalinist-Maoist model of political-economic empowerment for minority nationalities and their regions. This model begins to reveal its limitations and inadequacies, such as excessively materialistic reinforcement of the sense of uniqueness (and thus separateness) of the ethnic minorities with scant cultivation of their sense of national identification in the contexts of the emerging market conditions of contemporary China, the global rise of China, and globalization in general.

The model has subsequently been challenged by a group of Chinese scholars including Ma Rong, Hu Angang, Hu Lianhe, who have created an alternative “second-generation” model that proposes ethnic blending, the removal of ethnic area autonomy, the reduction of minority nationality-based privileges, and the thinning of ethnic consciousness in order to reinforce the ethnic minorities’ identification with the Chinese nation-state.

However, neither model alone can maintain a dynamic balance between unity and diversity, as illustrated in the unpublished case study of Gannan, an autonomous Tibetan region of Gansu Province, Northwest China by Jia Wenshan and Wei Mengzhi. A dynamic balance between unity and diversity is an essential feature of multiculturalism commonly embraced in today’s international society. It is suggested that a hybrid model resulting from a creative integration of the “first generation” ethnic policy and the “second generation” ethnic policy be adopted in China’s current and future efforts to effectively manage inter-ethnic relations. This hybrid model of ethnic relations, I argue, is more valid and reliable as it is more holistic and capable of addressing a whole range of issues with regard to ethnic relations in China, and indeed elsewhere in the world.

This policy maintains the political autonomy of ethnic minority areas and provides economic equity and empowerment as the “first generation” ethnic policy does. In addition, the hybrid model also embraces the social, cultural and psychological integration of the ethnic minorities into the Chinese nation-state while respecting ethnic diversity.

The fifth generation of Chinese leadership since the 18th Party Congress appears to have adopted such a hybrid model. First, as a sign of political empowerment, national leaders of ethnic minority backgrounds have been promoted to higher and more critical ranks of national government. Nur Bekri, a Uyghur, was appointed Vice-Chairman of China National Commission for Development and Reform and Chief of National Bureau for Energy in December 2014. Yang Jing, an ethnic Mongol, was promoted to the positions of Secretary of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China, State Councilor, and Secretary General of the State Council in 2014. Bayangqolu, another ethnic Mongol, was promoted to the position of Party Secretary of Jilin Province in 2014. He is currently the only ethnic-minority official serving as a provincial level Party Secretary, a phenomenon which did not exist during the fourth generation of Chinese leadership.

Secondly, according to, between 2011-2013 the central government allocated a total fund of 27.75 billion RMB for 136 border counties (78.7% of which are ethnic minority counties) for infrastructure development, ethnic industries and livelihood programs and achieved a total GDP of 809.7 billion RMB, a 58% increase over that in 2010. Besides the regular financial allocations provided by the Chinese government, the nationwide programme ensured that more economically developed coastal cities, provinces, companies and universities provide special free assistance to ethnic minority areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet. This has been rigorously implemented since 2002, and by 2011 a total amount of 10 billion RMB had been provided to narrow the wealth gap. Since the 18th Party Congress, this program has continued.

Third, the fifth generation of Chinese leadership led by Xi Jinping has been promoting five kinds of identification among ethnic minorities in order to realize the “Chinese dream”. President Xi stated: “We must carry out the Party’s ethnic policy and religious policy, reinforce interethnic unity, and cultivate all ethnic minority members’ identification with the Great Motherland, Chinese Nation, Chinese culture, Chinese Communist Party, and Chinese socialism.” He calls for all ethnic members of China, including Han, to be as united as “seeds of a pomegranate”.

Last but not least, besides being more focussed on unity than their predecessors, the fifth generation of Chinese leadership has been staunchly anti-separatist, particularly with regard to Xinjiang.

While I applaud the adoption of this hybrid model of ethnic relations, I expect further maturation and refinement by accepting these suggestions: To achieve the five kinds of identification is no easy and quick fix. It should not rely upon top-down moral persuasion. Rather, I suggest that more freedom of thought, discussion, and innovation at the grassroots level be afforded so that identification can take root and bear fruit. I also suggest that elite designs be done scientifically. For example, all ethnic minority members could carry a hyphenated identity such as Mongol-Chinese with Mongol as the label for ethnic identity and Chinese as the national identity just like informal conventions in the US. Laws could be passed to use such labels in official documents, media, and formal occasions. Last but not least, the Chinese education system is advised to rethink and redesign its mission to incorporate harmonious interethnic relations as an inseparable part of its mission and thus as a core part of the entire curriculum at all levels of schooling.

Wenshan Jia (Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst) is Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Intercultural/Global Communication, School of Journalism & Communication, & Research Associate, The National Academy of Development & Strategy (NADS), both at Renmin University of China.  Jia is also tenured Professor of Communication & China Studies at Chapman University, California, USA.  He serves on the Board of Directors of the International Academy for Intercultural Research and a standing council member of All China Association for Intercultural Communication . He is the recipient of both the Wang-Fradkin Professorship for 2005-2007, the highest award given by Chapman University for faculty research, and the Early Career Award from the International Academy for Intercultural Research. He served on the National Communication Association’s Task Force of Internationalization and has a publication record of 10 books and more than 60 research articles and book chapters mostly  on intercultural communication and Chinese as well as ethnic relations in China. He is currently working on a book titled Global Communication for an Inclusive World Order with Routledge/NY. Image credit: CC by KittyKaht/Flickr.

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