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China’s War on its Minority Cultures

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has increasingly targeted minority ethnic populations by unfairly claiming these groups constitute a threat to national security and Chinese unity. Although over 90 percent of mainland China is Han Chinese, there are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, representing a broad array of unique cultures, histories, and religious beliefs. However, in Beijing’s view, these minority groups, some of which are seeking self-determination, constitute a threat to national security and unity. While not a stance officially maintained by China’s ruling elite, Chinese scholar Hu Angang refers to Beijing’s actions as the “second generation of ethnic policies,” as they seek to prune separate ethnic identities and promote a uniform cultural and national identity. China’s drive toward cultural homogeneity aims to spare China the fate of the USSR, which fractured along ethnic lines; however, it comes at the cost of preserving unique cultural identities and basic human rights.

Beijing’s actions posit an immense humanitarian challenge, especially since dissuading China from its chosen course is nigh impossible. However, the United States can make it financially difficult or damaging. Immediate and sustained action from the U.S. government is needed in the face of China’s egregious human rights violations under the guise of cultural homogeneity.

The idea of a single, unified national identity truly took off following the ascension of Xi Jinping. Under Xi’s watch, the government has rolled back numerous preferential policies allotted to ethnic minorities, ranging from affirmative action to family planning. In addition to the revocation of privileges, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi has commenced a proactive operation to homogenize China.

Today, Beijing’s campaign is vast and highly sophisticated. Many of its repressive tactics originated in Tibet, a once a self-ruled theocracy now home to more than two million ethnic Tibetans, most of whom adhere to Tibetan Buddhism. The region’s geopolitical importance as a buffer zone along China’s border and its access to water resources, along with its tumultuous history of local unrest, helped strengthen Beijing’s resolve to smother Tibetan freedom.

Over the course of seven decades, Chinese officials have intermittently arrested religious leaders, imposed travel restrictions, and redirected government funding to more “politically loyal” monasteries. The recent effects of assaults on Tibetan culture are already evident – a 2010 policy mandating Mandarin education has resulted in decreased competency in the Tibetan language. Furthermore, in 2020, Xi declared that “Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to the socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context.” In other words, Tibetan culture is to be Sinicized.

Tibetan Buddhists are not the only demographic in Beijing’s sights. In China’s northwest is the Xinjiang region, which has of late become infamous due to revelations of Beijing’s repression of the local Muslim-majority, ethnically Uyghur populace.

Xinjiang was absorbed in 1949, and its role as China’s gateway to European markets, along with its abundant natural resources, has made it a vital part of Chinese trade ambitions. However, the Han majority’s (often government-influenced) stigmatization of the region’s Muslims has resulted in increased ethnic tensions, and separatist and terrorist groups, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party carrying out attacks. In the context of the U.S.-led Global War on Terror, Beijing has cited the existence of such groups as justification for an intensive clampdown seeking to erase Uyghur cultural identity.

As a result of new policies under Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have placed somewhere around two million ethnic Uyghurs in “reeducation camps,” demolished mosques, and implemented a police state with extensive civilian surveillance. Beijing has also sought to reduce Uyghur birth rates through forced sterilizations and abortions, as well as identify and rein in Uyghurs in exile abroad.

In contrast to the Uyghurs and Tibetans, China’s Mongolians have often been extolled as a “model minority” due to their relative restiveness. Despite this, the PRC is now forcefully “assimilating” them. After years of Han migration, Mongolians now comprise less than 20 percent of the population in Inner Mongolia. In 2020, a controversial education reform, increasing Mandarin usage in classrooms at the expense of Mongolian, sparked mass protest. The resulting crackdown was swift: over 100 people were reportedly arrested in connection with the protests, censorship increased, and threats were made to livelihoods. Much like Tibet, government officials claimed that the education measures would “[benefit] the promotion of ethnic unity, the development and progress of ethnic regions, and the building of a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation.”

Beijing’s repressive efforts have not gone unnoticed, nor has the United States failed to respond. However, despite a volley of economic sanctions, which have fallen short of targeting the most senior Chinese officials, little has changed. In fact, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that anything can be done to dissuade Xi and his apparatchiks. What the U.S. can, and should do, is further disincentivize individuals and companies from engaging with Chinese entities linked to human rights violations.

Sweeping legislation similar to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act (HKAA), which slaps sanctions on those violating Hong Kong’s autonomy, should be passed in support of China’s persecuted ethnic minorities. Such sanctions would force individuals and companies to cut ties with sanctioned Chinese entities assisting this oppressive regime. And as with the HKAA, Congress should be able to override an executive decision to terminate certain sanctions, thereby making it harder for a U.S. president to waive sanctions in the form of concessions, whether for a future trade deal or some other arrangement. In addition, the Biden administration should coordinate with allies to utilize multilateral sanctions, as well as engage with minority activists who find themselves targeted by Beijing. Human rights are not up for negotiation, and Washington must show China that its war on its minority cultures will not be without reprisal.


Jack Erickson

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