Ethno-federalism to Complete Assimilation: China’s Ethnic Policy in Tibet

Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Chinese leadership has maintained (at least on paper) a policy of ethno-federalism based on ethnic autonomy. This system of governance was deemed reasonable due to the fact that the newly-born People’s Republic of China contained a variety of previously self-ruled regions with strong national identities and histories that the Communists have invaded on the pretext of liberation and on contested claims of inheritance from the erstwhile Qing empire.


However, this ethno-federalism model of governance began to shift towards a more rigid and assimilationist policy since the early 2010s into what scholars have called a second-generation ethnic policy.


Although there isn’t a specific catalyst for this shift, many scholars and China-watchers attribute the 2008-09 large-scale protests in Tibet and East Turkestan as one of the major factors that pushed the transformation.


Following the 2008 Lhasa protests in Tibet and the 2009 Urumqi protests in East Turkestan, discussions on China’s ethnic policy received a lot of impetus with many challenging the then existing policy of differential treatment to minorities.


Although Tibetans and Uyghurs saw these spontaneous protests as an expression of grievance toward state discrimination and oppression, the majority Han Chinese viewed the protests as minority ingratitude toward state largesse. They further saw China’s institutions encouraging dissent among ethnic minorities through such policies. This was the first time in the PRC’s history when discussions on China’s ethnic policy spilled from academics to ordinary citizens and into the public domain. The Chinese internet also started brewing with calls from netizens to curb the state’s ‘leniency’ and ‘privileges’ toward ‘ungrateful’ ethnic minorities.


In fact, China did practice a limited preferential policy towards minorities in areas such as family planning, school enrolment, bank loans, job recruitment in minority regions, etc. This preferential policy (Youhui Zhengce) has however never produced any strong ethnic tensions as the majority Han Chinese (almost 91%) live outside of minority areas and thus the state’s ethnic policy was a non-issue to them. However, the 2008-09 protests incited strong emotions among the majority Han. This was due to the immense global attention that these protests received and the international scrutiny that followed about China as a nation and its treatment of minorities. The majority Han ethnicity saw this as an affront and a betrayal of the state’s largesse toward minorities. The majority’s anger soon started resonating with scholars who have long called for assimilation and integration of the minorities with the majority, and the depoliticisation of ethnicity in China. These scholars include Ma Rong, Hu Angang, Qian Xiusen, Wang Yingguo, et al.


Most of these scholars were influenced by Modernist theories and advocate civic nationalism, arguing that politicisation of ethnicities in China have strengthened ethnic identities and consciousness which have negatively affected China’s national identity. They have called for replacing the Soviet model of governance based on ethno-federalism with that of complete cultural assimilation. They have maintained that, by copying Soviet theories and policies, China remains a multination state (Duo Minzu) that arouses a desire for independence among ethnic elites with previously weak identities. These scholars also claimed that such ethnicity-based policies pose both a danger of separatism and a threat of dissolution of the nation à la the USSR.


Such widespread discussion and criticism of China’s ethnic policy from its own citizens led to speculations that there could be a shift in China’s ethnic minority policies in the future. The shift, although subtle, came in the January 2010 Fifth Tibet Work Forum. Unlike previous Tibet Work Forums, it did not emphasise infrastructure building like roads and hospitals but focused more on integrating Tibetan areas with mainstream China. The forum also highlighted the importance of ethnic contact, exchange, and blending.

With the arrival of Xi Jinping as China’s president in 2013, the assimilationist faction within Chinese policy makers received a further boost. The Chinese government now openly embraces cultural assimilation as a means to create a single national identity by minimising ethnic minority identities and cultures. This was implemented with various initiatives such as clamping down on minority languages, encouraging inter-marriages with Han ethnicities, criminalising contacts with ethnic diaspora communities, programs to send ethnic minority children to Mainland China for cultural transformation, and also suppressing ethnic traditions and culture including religion. This assimilation of ethnicities through forced erosion of ethnic identities was further confirmed during the Seventh Tibet Work Forum in 2020. During the forum, Xi Jinping called for governing Tibet in the new era with the ‘ten musts’ giving a special focus on sinicising Tibetan religion. Identifying Tibetan Buddhism as the core of Tibetan cultural identity, he said Tibetan Buddhism should be adapted to socialist society and developed in the Chinese context.


Following these proclamations of backing from the top leadership, ethnic policies in minority regions like Tibet, East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Ningxia Hui areas have been implemented with a strong focus on sinicisation. Destruction of Tibetan Buddhist statues, imposing limits on the number of monks and nuns, suppression of Tibetan language education, encouraging inter-ethnic marriage with Hans, incentivising the study of Mandarin, and mass migration into Tibetan areas have now become the norm in Tibet. It remains to be seen how successful this second-generation ethnic policy would be in eradicating ethnic identities and forging a single Chinese national identity among ethnic minorities. However, one thing is certain. The fate of the unique cultural and religious identities of the national minorities is being seriously threatened into extinction through assimilation. The road ahead for national minorities and their cultures including Tibetans and Uyghurs are looking extremely difficult and fraught with challenges and obstacles.




(Jamphel Shonu is the editor of tibet.net, the official english website of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and Tibetan Bulletin, the official bi-monthly magazine of the CTA).

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