Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, December 08, 2014

Big ado about nothing?

Comparative textbooks all seem to emphasize the near absence of ethnic cleavages in China. That seems to be true in a comparative context, but if ethnic cleavages are absent, why does the Beijing government spend so much money and energy dealing with minority groups?

Q. and A.: James Leibold on Ethnic Policies in China

James Leibold is a senior lecturer in politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University in Australia… His research has focused on the Chinese government’s policies toward ethnic minorities and their effects on people’s daily lives. He recently returned from a trip to the western region of Xinjiang, the nominally autonomous homeland of China’s ethnic Uighurs, a mostly Sunni Muslim, Turkic-speaking people…
Q. When did China begin classifying people according to ethnicity?

A. The distinction of groups by language and culture started in the imperial era… The system that runs today is… based on ethnic patronage. “We’ll recognize you as ethnic minorities and, if you’ll play by the rules of the game, we’ll reward you with certain benefits. But if you resist, the boot awaits.”…

Q. And we see this in current policy, right?

A. Recently, the party has pushed a “mass line” campaign aimed at embedding officials in grass-roots communities… The Xinjiang one was initiated in March of this year. It’s going to send 200,000 officials down over three years. This year nearly 75,000 party members in teams of five to seven were dispatched, with one-third going into rural villages in southern Xinjiang, where they will stay for a year. They’re meant to be the eyes and ears of the party and ensure policy implementation at a local level.

Q. How do you judge the effectiveness of this kind of policy?

A. You’d need a good anthropologist to go to these villages and live there and see what’s going on…

In China, the party launches these campaigns and puts up glossy posters announcing various “strike hard” targets, but often officials go through the motions and try to serve their time or pay off someone to get back to Urumqi…

Q. How does the party view the non-Han cadres it has?

A. In the 1980s, there was a lot of promotion of ethnic cadres. Then under [former President] Jiang Zemin more people entered the party. Now the Communist Party has six million ethnic minority members. But in the eyes of Beijing, many probably haven’t been carrying out policy adequately.

For example, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about rooting out religious belief among party members. I think there’s a growing realization that, while in the 1980s and 1990s there were party representatives in the frontier regions, they weren’t carrying out party rules…

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