Officially, it’s all part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s campaign to eradicate absolute poverty in ethnic minority areas by teaching local people new skills to enable them to increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods.
These so-called “vocational training programs”, made infamous by the Muslim Uighur camps run in western Xinjiang, have more recently been extended to Tibet. But it is evident from official Chinese declarations in Tibet and Xinjiang that it’s not only about educating “rural surplus workers” in ethnic minority areas Beijing perceives as “backward.”
Official Chinese documents on “poverty alleviation” quoted extensively by the non-partisan, Washington-based Jamestown Foundation research and analysis institute say the Chinese state must “stop raising up lazy people” and that can only be done through “strict military-style management” of the vocational training process.
According to the documents, the vocational training program also aims at “diluting the negative influence of religion.”
Those who have been rounded up – often forcibly, according to relatives living in exile interviewed by Asia Times – for such “training” are taught to eschew “backward thinking” and forced to learn “work discipline”, the official documents say. They must also improve their Chinese language skills and learn Chinese law.
In Tibet as in Xinjiang, Xi’s “poverty alleviation” campaign aims to turn China into a “single nation-state”, a drive Sinologists and other observers say diverges sharply from China’s until recently relatively tolerant tradition of accepting ethnic diversity.
At least 55 ethnic minorities and the Han majority, which makes up 92% of China’s 1.4 billion population, were previously officially recognized.
Now, Xi’s government is promoting a less tolerant pan-Chinese identity known as zhonghua, while the Han, or Mandarin, language previously known as hanyu has become guoyu, or officially the “national language.”
The first target for those new “single nation-state” policies was the autonomous Xinjiang region in the west, home to around 25 million people including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks and other Turkic groups and known for its traditional discontent with Beijing’s central rule.
In July 2019, China’s ruling State Council issued a white paper entitled “Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang” in which it claimed that Xinjiang has “long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory” and that the region’s Uighurs “formed through a long process of migration and integration” from outside China.
They are “part of a Chinese civilization” and “Islam is neither the indigenous nor the sole belief system of the Uighurs,” the paper stated. In the vocational camps, the Uighurs are being Sinified while their religion is degraded with news reports they have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol against their religious beliefs to celebrate China’s lunar New Year.
Now, Beijing’s attention has turned to the mostly Buddhist Tibetans, which under the policy must also become part of the greater Chinese family and change their traditional semi-nomadic way of life of herding yaks and other livestock on the vast region’s sweeping elevated plateau.
The Tibetan “laborers” in the camps are compelled to reform their “backwardness” and abandon the notion of having a separate identity, according to the official documents. Also as part of the policy, bilingual education is being replaced by schools that are only allowed to teach in guoyu.
As China scholar James Millward, of Georgetown University, wrote in the New York Times “proponents of Uighur and Tibetan language-learning have been persecuted” through arrests and bans on teaching.
Meanwhile, programs in non-Han Chinese languages are disappearing from official TV channels in a demonstration that there is only one language, one nation and one identity in Xi’s China.
Tibet and Xinjiang are traditionally the most restive regions of China, with long-time movements advocating for independence from Beijing’s rule. The new directives are therefore being introduced more forcefully in those regions, with internment camps and population transfers to other parts of the country.
But the policy is apparently being implemented the same across the country and is meeting varying degrees of ethnic pride resistance. In September, tens of thousands of people in Inner Mongolia, officially an autonomous region of China, protested against Beijing’s plans to replace their language in some school subjects with guoyu.
The protesters saw that as an unwanted push to create a common identity, with news reports showing at least one placard displayed at the protests stating bluntly: “It is the inalienable right of Mongolians to learn the Mongolian language.”
After the demonstrations, authorities said about 130 protesters were arrested and accused of “inciting protest on social media” and “breaking into schools locked down by the police.”
While Mongolian and in nearby provinces the Korean languages can still be taught for an unspecified time, the new laws stipulate that three core subjects — Chinese language and literature, morality and law, and history — must by 2022 be taught solely in guoyu in all schools in those minority regions.
Textbooks in the “national language” covering those three subjects were introduced in Xinjiang in 2017 and in Tibet in 2018. Despite the drive for homogeneity, China is a richly and vastly diverse nation.
There are about 6 million Mongolians living in China and 6.5 million Tibetans living in Tibet proper and neighboring provinces such as Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu. According to official figures, there are just over 12 million Uighurs, or approximately half the population of the Xinjiang “autonomous region.”
The number of ethnic Koreans in China is believed to be around 2.5 million, mostly concentrated in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning, representing the largest ethnic Korean population outside of North and South Korea.
In addition, there are various ethnic minorities in southern Yunnan, including the Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang and Dai, numbering in the millions.
Moreover, several local dialects distinct from standard Chinese are spoken in southern provinces like Guangdong and Fujian, as well as in the two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
Whether Xi will succeed in turning his multi-ethnic country into a homogeneous nation-state remains to be seen. But what is clear is that his policies represent a clear departure from those of previous Chinese rulers.
Past emperors did not truly rule the outlying areas of their perceived or claimed realms and were in many cases content with collecting annual or even irregular tributes from areas such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan. No centrally-directed governance existed in any of those areas up until the late 19th century, and then only tenuously.
It was only after the first republican revolution in 1911-12 which overthrew the last imperial dynasty that the new rulers wanted to turn China into a more modern state with a functioning, central government and fixed borders.
Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese republic, sought mostly unsuccessfully to establish a “union of nationalities”, which he identified as the Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs.
In the beginning, Mao Zedong’s communists were even more lenient when it came to the question of ethnic minorities. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “state constitution” of 1931 stipulated “the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to complete separation from China, and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority.”
“All Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans and others living on the territory of China shall enjoy the full right to self-determination, i.e. they may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own state as they may prefer,” the 1931 constitution said.
This policy was abandoned as soon as the communists seized power and the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1, 1949. But ethnic rights were still recognized and the country consisted or several autonomous regions as well as autonomous counties on an even more local level.
It has been argued that this was a showcase system where the Hans were the dominant force, while leaving space for learning ethnic languages and the preservation of local cultures.
Under Xi’s pan-Chinese notion of zhonghua that is clearly no longer the case, but as recent protests in several ethnic minority areas show it won’t happen without significant local resistance, which in turn could threaten national unity and stability.
The actual number of people who were arrested before and after the September protests in Inner Mongolia may be much higher than reported. The New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center said in a statement that “an estimated 8,000-10,000 [ethnic] Mongolians have been placed under some form of police custody.”
The center has translated a video produced by Elbegdorj Tsakhia, president of the independent nation of Mongolia from 2009-2017, in which he said: “No matter where you live, as long as you are Mongolian, you should join this movement. Without Mongolian language, there is no Mongolian nation we can speak of.”
The exact number of Uighurs being detained in camps is not known, but BBC News has claimed based on satellite imagery that it may be in the hundreds of thousands. Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have estimated up to one million may be in the Uighur camps.
The precise number of Tibetans who have recently been rounded up is also not known. But the issue must have been raised when Lobsang Sangay, president of the Tibetan government in exile based in India, made a historic visit to US President Donald Trump’s White House on November 20.
It was the first such leader-to-leader meeting in 60 years, well before Washington finally diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1978. The top-level meeting was viewed by some as US support for the Tibetan independence movement.
The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times strongly criticized the meeting, writing that “Washington’s arrangement of the meeting is a grave interference in China’s internal affairs and undermines China’s national interests.” A follow-up November 22 op-ed tied the meeting to other “anti-China” US policies.
Xi may well be the most powerful leader China has had since Mao Zedong, the founder of CCP rule, and the late reformer Deng Xiaoping, who launched China on the path to capitalism. But Xi may also be playing with fire in his drive to create a universal nation.
“Xi’s vain dream of political and cultural hegemony not only runs contrary to Chinese traditional approaches to diversity,” China expert Millward wrote. “His assimilationism also incites the very instability the CCP has long hoped to avoid.”