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Fri Jun 11, 2021, 10:51 PM

Thomas S Mullaney: How China went from celebrating ethnic diversity to suppressing it

Source: The Guardian

How China went from celebrating ethnic diversity to suppressing it

The brutal clampdown in Xinjiang represents an about-face from the communist party’s original approach to cultural differences

Thomas S Mullaney
Thu 10 Jun 2021 08.00 BST

China’s mass detention of Uyghur Muslims – the largest of a religio-ethnic group since the second world war – is not the inevitable or predictable outcome of Chinese communist policies towards ethnic minorities. I’ve spent the past 20 years studying ethnicity in China and, when viewing the present situation in Xinjiang through the prism of history, one thing becomes clear: this is not what was “supposed” to happen.

In the early 1950s the Chinese Communist party (CCP) was holding on to revolutionary victory by its fingernails. The postwar economy was in shambles, and the outbreak of the Korean war brought a nuclear hegemon to its doorstep, in the form of the United States. Not the moment most regimes would choose to enlarge their to-do lists. The CCP did, however, committing to officially recognising more minority peoples than any other Chinese regime in history. While Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists had begrudgingly accepted the official existence of five groups in the 1930s and 40s, the Communists recognised 55 in all (plus the Han majority), many with populations under 10,000.

A remarkable amount of time and capital was dedicated to the celebration and bolstering of these groups. Perhaps the largest social survey in human history sent thousands of researchers into minority communities, filling libraries with their reports. Linguists created writing systems for minorities who did not already have them. The scale of the People’s Republic of China’s investment in groups it designated as “minorities” has been staggering.

Here’s the irony: the Chinese communists don’t believe that “ethnic identity” truly exists – not in the long run. Rooted in Marxism-Leninism, the party maintains (at least, it did) that class is the only fundamental dimension of human identity. Other collective identities, such as nationality, religion and ethnicity are long-lasting but ultimately ephemeral fictions, constructed by those at the top of the economic pyramid to distract the poor from seeking comradeship with fellow proletarians.

Why would the party invest in something it doesn’t think exists? To neutralise it.


Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/10/china-celebrating-diversity-suppressing-xinjiang-communist-party

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