Tolerance of diversity, not repression, is the surest way to govern a vast territory with many peoples.
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) on Oct. 1, the party-state has much to celebrate: an unprecedented record of economic development, world-class education and technological innovation, an increasingly prominent position on the world stage. But even as the authorities go to extreme lengths to assure a triumphant birthday parade, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) faces its most intense international criticism since 1989, when it killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the heart of Beijing, at Tiananmen Square. Thirty years later, international concern is focused on China’s peripheries: Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Both are thorns in the C.C.P.’s side, as is Tibet, where a dispute over who will succeed the elderly Dalai Lama could reawaken mass dissent, and Taiwan, where popular support is rising for a president who challenges Beijing’s view that the island is an integral part of China. Despite the C.C.P.’s claims, these challenges are not the doing of “hostile foreign forces,” “separatists” or “thugs” stirring up trouble in these territories. Rather, they result from the fact that when the C.C.P. came to power 70 years ago, it took over not a homogeneous China, but a sprawling empire with a variety of peoples.
In its first decades, the P.R.C. tacitly acknowledged this past and proudly proclaimed its identity as a multinational state. But now, under President Xi Jinping, the C.C.P. is actively working to erase the cultural and political diversity that is the legacy of its imperial precedents.
Although P.R.C. propaganda obsessively asserts that all places and peoples under the C.C.P.’s control today have been Chinese since ancient times, it is the Qing empire (1636–1912) that is responsible for the rooster-shape territory we now associate with China. Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet were all Qing acquisitions, as was Mongolia. Hong Kong’s peculiar status today is also a legacy of Qing policy.
Chinese first began settling Taiwan in the early 1600s, and in 1683 the Qing put Chinese colonists and indigenous Taiwanese under two distinct kinds of administration. The Qing conquered Xinjiang, to the west, in 1759, the culmination of a long-running struggle with the Zunghar Mongols for dominance in Central Asia. The imperial court ran Xinjiang under loose military rule, allowing indigenous elites to manage local affairs. Chinese settlers followed, colonizing parts of northern Xinjiang. Tibet, too, fell under Qing control during the Zunghar wars, thanks to a combination of military intervention and religious diplomacy. The Tibetan lamas and Qing emperors agreed in principle to split spiritual and secular realms of authority between them, in a formula known as the “priest-patron relationship.”
Hong Kong is a different case, but it is also linked to the Qing imperial era and, perhaps surprisingly, to Xinjiang. The city was ceded by the Qing to Britain in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking that ended the first Opium War — the same treaty that opened treaty ports elsewhere on the Chinese coast to western commerce. This infamous agreement, widely known as an “unequal treaty,” is unquestionably a case of British imperialist aggression. But the idea of letting foreigners manage frontier trade enclaves like Hong Kong and the other treaty ports was a standard element of the Qing imperial repertoire. Indeed, Russians had traded in just such an enclave in Kiakhta, in Qing Mongolia, since 1727.
Before the first Opium War, the Qing faced a challenge off Xinjiang’s western border similar to the one they later faced from the British. Merchants from the Khanate of Kokand attacked Kashgar repeatedly to press for trade privileges. After years of instability, the Qing and Kokand reached a deal to open a trade enclave, let Kokandi officials apply their own laws and levy customs tariffs in return for governing the Kashgar marketplace, and granted most-favored-nation status to merchants from other lands. Many of the same Qing officials who negotiated the Treaty of Kokand in 1835 subsequently dealt with the British, and key articles of the treaties that settled the first Opium War in the 1840s mirrored those in the Kokand agreement. Trade enclaves may have been a foreign imposition, but they were also a tool of the Qing state.
When the C.C.P. first came to power in 1949, it tacitly recognized this imperial past. Like the Soviet Union — another socialist state that denounced Western imperialism while itself assuming power in a former empire — the P.R.C. did not want to look like an evil colonialist. So it acknowledged the ethnic diversity of the peoples living in the territory it controlled by recognizing 55 nationalities besides the majority Han. And it established titular “autonomous” administrations in non-majority-Han areas, in many of the same places where the Qing had ruled through local non-Han elites, including Xinjiang and Tibet.
The special economic zones that Deng Xiaoping established in the late 1970s in Shenzhen and other Chinese cities revived a Qing precedent. Those zones look a lot like the traditional trade enclaves in Kiakhta, Kashgar, Hong Kong and the treaty ports. And like the Qing trade enclaves, they facilitate commerce by granting legal and tax privileges to foreign businesses. Similarly, the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” — the principle that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and serve, Beijing hopes, as a model for the future reunification of Taiwan with the mainland — is another echo of Qing policy.
The early P.R.C., then, recognized and drew upon the Qing tradition with flexible approaches to diversity and sovereignty. But over the years, especially since Mr. Xi came to power in 2012, the C.C.P. has abandoned its relatively tolerant tradition while intensifying ethnic assimilationism and political rigidity. Today, rather than celebrating the uniqueness of individual cultures, the C.C.P. increasingly promotes a unitary category called “zhonghua,” a kind of pan-Chinese identity. Though supposedly all-inclusive, the customs and characteristics of “zhonghua” are practically identical to those of the Han.
The government now calls Mandarin, previously known as the “Han-language” (“hanyu”), the “national language” (“guoyu”) and more forcefully pushes its use in schools and public settings, even though linguistic freedom and the official use of local languages are guaranteed by the Constitution. The P.R.C. once actively supported publishing and bilingual education in non-Han languages. Now, Uighur bookstores in Xinjiang are empty and shuttered. In both Xinjiang and Tibet, bilingual education has been replaced by Mandarin schools, and proponents of Uighur and Tibetan language-learning have been persecuted. Authorities have scrubbed Arabic script from public places across China — including the word “halal” on the front of stores and restaurants. TV shows in non-Mandarin Chinese languages are disappearing from P.R.C. broadcasts. Cantonese is under pressure, in Hong Kong and neighboring Guangzhou province.
Similarly, in the name of Sinicizing religion, Mr. Xi’s party-state is razing mosques and churches and has demolished huge swaths of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic centers of Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, expelling monks and nuns and interning some of them in so-called re-education camps like those in which it now holds some one million Uighurs. The C.C.P. has tried to impose “patriotic education” in Hong Kong schools to enforce the teaching of the party’s version of history. When Taiwanese voters elected a leader Beijing didn’t like in 2016, Mr. Xi threatened military force and prevented mainland tourists from visiting the island.
Such policies undercut the P.R.C.’s legacy of administrative flexibility and relative ethnic tolerance, as well as expose it to international criticism, exacerbating tensions while undermining the party’s legitimacy. What’s more, concentration camps will not turn Uighurs and Kazakhs into faithful “zhonghua” Chinese who eat pork and disregard Ramadan. Violent policing will not make Hong Kongers abandon calls for the autonomy promised in the territory’s mini-Constitution. Religious repression and demonizing the Dalai Lama will not endear Tibetans to the party. Military threats will not make Taiwanese feel closer to the mainland.
Mr. Xi’s vain dream of political and cultural homogeneity not only runs counter to Chinese traditional approaches to diversity. His assimilationism also incites the very instability the C.C.P. has long hoped to avoid.
~James A. Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is the author of “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang” and “The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction.”