Will minority groups still be suppressed in 2019?

China's ethnic groups between adaptation and resistance

After the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last imperial dynasty in China, the vast western and northern fringes of the empire also fell as inheritance to the Chinese Republic, which was founded in 1912. But it was only with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 that the central government established effective rule over the minority areas. These make up 65 percent of the territory, the ethnic groups living there, however, only around eight percent of the total population.

The Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group. Another 55 ethnic minorities are officially registered, most of whom live in the five autonomous regions that were established between 1947 and 1962.

 "Soft "autonomy laws

Settlement areas of minorities can also be found in other regions or provinces, for example in the province of Qinghai, which mainly consists of Tibetan autonomous districts and counties. In Yunnan on the border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, around half of the area is in eight autonomous districts, each with its own minority. The largest are the Miao (10 million), the Yi or Nuosu (8.7 million), and the Tujia (8.3 million)

However, there is no real autonomy at any of these levels, as the sinologist Thomas Heberer writes in an essay from 2008: "Despite the autonomy rights enshrined in the constitution and laws, there are no legal and political instruments to enforce these 'soft' laws In addition, the autonomy law passed in 1984 does not provide the affected ethnic groups with a say in important issues such as immigration of Han, industrial settlement or the protection of natural resources. "

(Archive) Dalai Lama (middle), spiritual head of the Tibetans

Resistance in Tibet and Xinjiang

The degree of integration of the various minorities in the Han-dominated Chinese society varies. While the Zhuang in the south and Manchu in the northeast, who are among the largest minorities, are largely assimilated, Tibetans and Uyghurs insist on their independence.

In the case of Tibet, there is also the suppression of the worship of the Dalai Lama. In March 1989 Beijing declared martial law in Lhasa after protests, and in 2008 riots broke out across Tibet. There are repeated self-immolation by Tibetans, there was a real wave in 2013.

The strong influx of the Han to Xinjiang has contributed significantly to the social tensions there. In 1949 only four percent of the population there were Han Chinese, now it is almost 40 percent. The Muslim Uyghurs (around 46 percent) (still) make up the relative majority of the around 24 million residents. In the 30s and 40s, with the support of the Soviets, a "Republic of East Turkestan" was founded twice by the indigenous population. The Uyghurs are the only major people in Central Asia to be a "nation without a state".

Counter-terrorism troops in Kashgar, Xinjiang

Control over Xinjiang as a priority

For Beijing, the suppression of any separatist tendencies in Xinjiang is a top priority. This is all the more true since it plays a central role in Xi Jinping's project of the New Silk Road due to its geographical location. "It is important for China that the Xinjiang region becomes politically more stable so that the project can move forward," Basil Zimmermann, head of the Confucius Institute in Geneva, recently told the Z├╝rcher Tagesanzeiger.

Aside from its role in the Silk Road project, Xinjiang, which literally means "New Territory," also has an important role in China's armaments. China used to test its nuclear weapons there in the desert; today, Xinjiang is the test site for the most modern long-range anti-ship missiles. With their help, Beijing strategists want to one day keep the superior US Navy in check.

There have been repeated bombings and knife attacks against the Han population by radical Uyghurs in Xinjiang and outside the region since the early 1990s. The terrorist "Islamic Party of Turkestan", which also had or has connections to Al Qaeda and IS, claimed responsibility for some of the attacks. No major attacks have been recorded since 2017.

Why the storage system?

In the meantime, the Chinese leadership secretly established the surveillance and camp regime in Xinjiang, which has meanwhile become known worldwide, to forcibly re-educate the Uyghurs. If possible, they should speak Chinese instead of Uighur and recite the speeches of Xi Jinping instead of the Koran. "There is nothing to be said for locking people up against their will in order to drive out their own culture and impose a foreign one on them. But apparently there are sections of the communist government who see this as the best way to deal with the problems of the Xinjiang region." said Basil Zimmermann's statement on Beijing's actions condemned by the West.

China expert Adrian Zenz, who made a significant contribution to publicizing the storage system in Xinjiang, sees the motivation of the Chinese leadership quite differently. "The KP is not just about exercising power, but also about attracting a 'new person' in line with the ideology," writes Zenz in an article for the FAZ. "It can only counter people's hunger for deeper meaningfulness and spiritual fulfillment with an increasingly compulsive ideological alignment. If regular propaganda methods are not sufficient here, then all that remains is re-education," writes Zenz.

China expert Adrian Zenz

Muslim Hui minority also affected

In other areas with Muslim minorities, too, Beijing is relying, if not (yet) on drastic re-education measures as in Xinjiang, on the "Sinization" of religion. The Muslim Hui minority, with around 10.5 million members, is the second largest in China. In contrast to the other minorities, the Hui do not have their own language. They are descendants of Arab traders who came to China 1500 years ago. The Hui speak Chinese and look like Chinese and are widely dispersed in China.

In their main settlement area, the Ningxia Autonomous Region, the number of mosques more than doubled to 4,000 between 1958 and 2016. Since the responsible state office handed over religious affairs to the party's ideology unit (Department for United Front Work) in April 2018, these mosques have been the focus of "Sinization".

Their dome and minarets are either destroyed or rebuilt in the Chinese style. Kindergartens and religious schools run by Hui are closed. Imams in Henan and Ningxia provinces are required to undergo monthly briefings on state ideology and minority politics, according to a September 2019 report by US broadcaster NPR.

(Archive) Hui during Friday prayers in Beijing

Waiting for better times

The new tough line against the Hui Sunni Muslims, who previously lived largely undisturbed under the leadership's radar, is "partly due to the leadership's fear of fundamentalist Islamic currents from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states invading China," it says in the NPR report.

Meanwhile, some members of the Hui minority are trying to come to terms with the new line of religious policy without fully conforming to it. For example, domes of mosques are not redesigned, but hidden behind visible walls, or Arabic characters are attached to mosque walls in transparent plastic. Some Hui are calm and hope for better times: "Who knows how the political environment will change? We don't want to tear down our dome today just to rebuild it next year at our own expense."