With crackdown on minorities, Xi rebuilds China’s identity


In Tibetan villages in southwest China, Communist Party officials spread leader Xi Jinping’s gospel of national unity: all ethnic groups need to merge into a single, indivisible China with a shared legacy dating back more than 5,000 years.

Thousands of officials in Ganzi, a Tibetan region of Sichuan province, were deployed with families to gather information and distribute gifts such as rice, cooking oil and portraits of Xi. The aim of the effort is to hammer home the leader’s message of an overarching Chinese identity, spreading it from Xinjiang in the west to the disputed island of Taiwan in the east.

“I will also be a part of your family in the future,” Shen Yang, the Communist Party secretary in Ganzi — called Kardze in Tibetan — said, speaking to a family, according to a local newspaper.

The nationalist drive behind the campaign is increasingly central to Xi’s efforts to reshape the country, which have far-reaching consequences for education and social policy.

Messages of patriotism have been part of the party’s toolkit for a long time, but Xi has greatly reinforced that imperative, calling for a unified “community of Chinese nationality” to protect the country from internal and external threats.

As Xi prepares to claim a third term, which he will do at the party congress that starts on Sunday, he concretely named himself the country’s chief historian, writing a story, retold in museums, publications and television programs. , which portrays its authoritarian and centralizing agenda as the concretization of values ​​rooted in antiquity.

In his view, all Chinese, regardless of ethnicity, are united by cultural ties that date back to a time before the first emperors. It is implied that anyone who challenges Xi’s priorities is also betraying China’s sacred and timeless values.

At a time when nationalism is resurgent in the United States, Russia, India and elsewhere, Xi’s vision is also aimed at vaccinating China against unwanted influences, especially from the West. In May, Xi told the Politburo, made up of the party’s 25 highest-ranking officials, that Westerners are often wrong when they see China as just a modern nation-state.

“They don’t look at China from the perspective of more than 5,000 years of civilization,” he said, using a dating of the country’s origins that is often used but disputed. “That’s why they have a hard time getting a real understanding of China’s past, present and future.”

In its most extreme expression, Xi’s insistence on a unique Chinese identity has led to accusations of cultural genocide by scholars and other countries, citing the mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslim-majority groups in Xinjiang.

Other indoctrination efforts are being waged with Tibetans, Mongols and Hui Muslims. Xi’s message is also addressed to Hong Kong and Taiwan, increasingly averse to Beijing’s demands for unification.

“Cultural identity is the deepest type of identity,” Xi has told officials.

The key is unity

Excavated in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, the relics were unlike anything found in the country before. Huge sculptures of heads with bulging eyes in a tubular shape. Gold masks with pointed ears. A 4 meter tall bronze tree, apparently an object of worship.

One of the country’s most spectacular archaeological finds, the Sanxingdui site has been excavated since the 1980s but has attracted increased attention in the past two years following the discovery of 13,000 artifacts. Many who see the relics ask the same question: what do these otherworldly-looking objects have to do with China?

Han Zhongbao, a tourist visiting a museum dedicated to the archaeological site, commented, “I think Sanxingdui may be linked to extraterrestrial beings. It seems that it has nothing to do with Chinese culture.”

Chinese officials emphatically argue the opposite. The government has been promoting relics from over 3,000 years ago as evidence that ancient Chinese civilization was more diverse than many assumed, yet fundamentally cohesive.

“Diversity in unity. The key is unity,” archaeologist Sun Qingwei of Peking University told the state-run Xinhua news agency. “The Sanxingdui civilization is a chapter in the formation of Chinese civilization and contains many cultural factors, but ultimately it is integrated into Chinese civilization.”

Experts point to similarities between the materials and techniques used to create the Sanxingdui bronzes and those used by the kingdoms of central China traditionally seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization.

“Through this very specific and concrete scientific evidence, we want to rescue these links one by one,” said Li Haichao, a professor of archeology at Sichuan University who led recent excavations. “‘Diversity in Unity’ is not just an empty slogan.”

But other archaeologists argue that the ancient inhabited cores do not support the modern claim that China is a unified state dating back millennia.

“There was no idealized nation before,” said Wang Ming-ke, a Taiwanese expert who has studied the Sanxingfui site. For him, narratives of national origin, in China and in the rest of the world, are constructed by the authorities to consolidate power. “And then they say ‘this is where our culture came from, our civilization, where our ancestors came from’.”

For Xi, these questions are fraught with political implications. Ahead of the May meeting on the origins of Chinese civilization, Xi hosted a 2020 Politburo meeting on “archeology with Chinese characteristics”. In 2017 he and former US President Donald Trump argued over whether China or Egypt had the oldest civilization.

“Only China has moved forward as a culture of integrity and unbroken,” Xi told Trump as they walked through the Forbidden City.

The government has been injecting increasing resources into historical and archaeological research. Support is accompanied by pressure for the researchers’ findings to reflect the official narrative. The government’s five-year plan for archeology states that projects that receive support “should reveal the formation and development of a diverse but united Chinese civilization”.

The aim is to arouse the kind of pride that high school student Nie Yuying, 17, felt when she visited the Sanxingfui museum. Speaking of the artifacts on display, she said: “They reveal the legacy of Chinese culture.”

“We were deeply influenced by Western culture and art,” she added. “For the sake of our future development and not to forget our own roots, we must study the past of this nation.”

The Chinese government’s efforts go far beyond Sanxingdui. The government insists that books and exhibits on Tibet, Xinjiang and the border regions portray these regions as timeless parts of China. Officials argue that the genetic and linguistic links between Tibetans and Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group, reveal that even the mountains of Tibet were linked to Chinese civilization thousands of years ago.

“The Chinese national community originally existed as a natural phenomenon, a natural essence, and only later did we give it a name,” genetics professor Li Hui of Fudan University in Shanghai said in a recent lecture. “First there was the community, and then each ethnic group.”

Strangers in their own home

Gyal Lo grew increasingly concerned as this reinforced view of the Chinese nation reached the remote cities and towns he regularly traveled through.

A Tibetan teacher of pedagogy, he toured western China for decades, encouraging Tibetan administrators, teachers and families to keep teaching alive in their native language and culture. His efforts, which were never easy, have been increasingly hampered in recent years as schools began teaching classes almost exclusively in the Chinese language.

“A language is not just grammar. It carries our culture.”

Xi strongly accelerated a campaign to instill Chinese language and culture among ethnic minorities, most widely in Xinjiang, but also among ethnic Tibetan and Mongolian citizens.

In 2020, authorities in Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China, detained parents who protested against the adoption of school curriculum taught exclusively in Chinese. Last year the Ministry of Education ordered all ethnic minority children to be taught Mandarin in preschools.

“For a long time, our country’s ethnic work has overemphasized the particularities of ethnic minorities, their traditional culture and their right to autonomy,” said Ma Rong, a sociologist at Peking University who has for years advocated greater efforts to integrate minorities, writing in the state-run Global Times newspaper.

Xi’s government has been promoting officials who espouse this view. This year, Pan Yue was appointed to head the National Commission on Ethnic Issues. Between the 1950s and 2020s, the commission was always chaired by an official from an ethnic minority. But Pan and his immediate predecessor are both Han, and Pan enthusiastically embraced the idea of ​​a shared identity that would have its roots in antiquity.

“Chinese civilization has never been interrupted and is based on great unity,” Pan said in a speech last year. “Historically, there has been no lack of diversity of ethnic groups and religions, but however diverse these groups may be, with their shared destiny they must always merge into one.”

Tibetan educator Gyal Lo, 55, began his work more than two decades ago, when the Chinese regime pursued a more lenient ethnic policy and schools in Tibetan regions often taught students in their own local language.

Lo said he hopes Tibetan children can first learn their own local language — the Tibetan language is actually a large family of dialects — and only then begin to master the standard written and spoken language.

Under Xi Jinping, the space for local languages ​​has steadily shrunk. Increasingly, schools required that students be educated almost exclusively in Chinese. Since 2016, more and more Tibetan children as young as 4 or 5 have been sent to boarding schools to accelerate their Chinese language immersion, Lo said. He witnessed the effects when the kids came home on weekends.

“It was as if they had become strangers, guests in their own home,” said the educator. “Instead of talking to their parents and having physical contact with them, the children kept their distance from them.”

Lo left China at the end of 2020, when his contract as a professor at a university in Yunnan province ended. He feared political distrust because of his ethnic Tibetan and educational activism. Today he campaigns from Canada, where he previously studied, for an end to compulsory boarding schools for Tibetan children.

“We had a little space for a little while to find our own approach. Today we can talk about school education in Tibet, but we can no longer say that there is Tibetan education.”

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