Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (8 and 9) – Han Chinese Chauvinism; Ethnic Regional Autonomy and Anti-separatism

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 19, 2015

Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals, VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and VII. Governmental Competence and Credibility


VIII. Han Chinese Chauvinism


The preamble to the Chinese Constitution once read: “In the struggle to safeguard national unity, we must oppose Han chauvinism, as well as combat ethnic nationalism.” In the Mao era, the two phrases “ethnic nationalism” and “Han chauvinism” would often appear together in discussions of ethnic relations, but today, the phrase “Han chauvinism” has completely disappeared from everyday conversation.

Our government has always proclaimed its opposition to “Han chauvinism” as well as “ethnic nationalism,” yet virtually no one has ever been arrested or removed from office due to “Han chauvinism.” Ethnic minorities account for less than ten percent of China’s total population, yet in the seventeen years before the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands were arrested on charges of “ethnic nationalism” in the People’s Republic of China.

In reality, Han chauvinism is now more intense and more overt than it has been at any time in the past. Since “opposing the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism] became the main focus of all levels of government in Xinjiang, Han chauvinism has reappeared in the guise of “safeguarding national unity” and “preserving social stability.” No one dares to object, of course, or to criticize this emotional outpouring of Han chauvinism, lest they be accused of harboring separatist tendencies. This chauvinism manifests differently among the citizenry and among officials.

In recent years, discrimination against Uighurs has intensified to such an extent that it has become institutionalized nationwide. Uighurs routinely face discrimination in employment, passport issuance, rental housing, hotels, travel and many other areas of life; many domestic airports even have a designated security channel for residents of Xinjiang.

In Xinjiang itself, Uighurs are frequently the target of derogatory ethnic slurs by Han Chinese, such as “chan-tou” (“缠头”) or “wei-zi (“维子”). In other areas of mainland China, Uighurs encounter discriminatory treatment or even outright rejection when trying to register for hotel accommodation; when boarding planes, trains or other modes of public transport; and even at Internet bars and cafes. Often, a service employee will loudly proclaim: “We can’t let you register. It’s Public Security Bureau policy.” Those who have experienced this discrimination range from students and manual laborers to high-ranking provincial officials and eminent scholars. As for online discussion, it is even more extreme: self-proclaimed “imperial Han” lobbing insults at Xinjiang’s “barbarian” ethnic minorities are ubiquitous online.

Han chauvinism in official circles, on the other hand, tends to manifest itself in certain turns of phrase, stock expressions that the speaker uses unquestioningly. Phrases such as “Yan-Huang zisun” (“descendants of Yan Di and Huang Di”), “long de chuanren” (“descendants of the dragon”), “Huaxia er-nu” (“sons and daughters of Cathay”) are commonly used to invoke the Han Chinese people in their totality, but if a Uighur refers to their forbearer Oghuz Khan or a “wolf totem”, it is thought to be fraught with secessionist implications. Moreover, after the July 2009 ethnic unrest in Urumqi, every branch of every governmental organization in Xinjiang organized study sessions designed to refute the “parochial” view that “Xinjiang belongs to the Uighurs of Xinjiang.” The speakers and scholars at these meetings often claimed that, in fact, it was the Han Chinese forbearers who arrived in Xinjiang before the Uighur forbearers did, thus employing logic identical to the logic of the claim they were attempting to refute. Appearing as they did in an official capacity, these speakers and scholars were utterly counter-productive.

Incidents such as the aforementioned make Uighurs feel that society is becoming increasingly unjust and disrespectful of their culture and their feelings.

These slights pale in comparison to the pain and inconvenience ordinary Uighur suffer when using public services. To register for an identity card, for example, one is required to fill in a form with one’s personal information. With no consideration for the majority of Uighurs who do not understand Chinese, the form only provides one column heading for “Chinese name.” Even if one were to fill in Pinyin, the Chinese transliteration of one’s Uighur name, the form is nearly impossible to fill out because it does not take into account differences in Uighur naming conventions. Since census registration was digitized, some local governments have introduced policies that force Uighurs to choose from a list of commonly used names; if their names are not on the list, they are not allowed to register.

A more serious problem is the Uighur community’s growing fear of the government’s increasingly chauvinistic ethnic policies. The government’s sharp curtailing of bilingual education and Uighur cultural enterprises has led many in the Uighur community to feel that official ethnic policy is beginning to look like forced assimilation. In many public forums, particularly on the Internet, it is not difficult to find people openly discussing a point of view common among Han Chinese: that the only way to solve Xinjiang’s ethnic problems is to accelerate Uighur assimilation.

The recent surge in theoretical inquiries that masquerade as critiques of national ethnic policy while negating the principle of regional ethnic autonomy and opposing updated concepts of ethnicity give the impression that virulent Han chauvinism has entered mainstream public discourse. Within the Uighur community, this has provoked intense fear and a sense of impending crisis, and has severely shaken the Uighur sense of national identity.

The natural merging of ethnicities and the creation of societies in which diverse ethnic cultures can coexist and learn from one another is an unstoppable historical trend that no one will really oppose, but a fear of forced assimilationist policies rooted in Han chauvinism has prompted more and more Uighurs to become suspicious of Chinese language education and Nei-Gao-Ban [the Chinese acronym for “Inland Xinjiang Senior High School Classes”, which are elite courses designed to prepare minority students for entry into prestigious Chinese universities.] These doubts and fears have led many Uighurs to adopt a form of silent resistance by privately turning back to traditional culture, religious worship, and a strengthened sense of ethnic identity.

Thoughts and Recommendations

  1. Enact policies that implement and respect regional ethnic autonomy; respect and protect the existing ethnic and cultural diversity and peaceful co-existence.
  1. To combat openly discriminatory speech and behavior, we should take our cues from internationally accepted methods and standards: draft detailed prohibitions; gradually establish a legal and regulatory framework that protects the legitimate rights of minorities and forbids all forms of status discrimination (including ethnic discrimination); use legal means to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities in employment, public services and the cultural sphere; and eliminate forms of casual ethnic discrimination. On this basis, we can transform the culture and habits of an entire society, creating a more “politically-correct” value system against discrimination.
  1. The government should organize systematic research and discussion among experts and scholars to determine which commonly used official phrases are most likely to be misconstrued or wound the feelings of ethnic minorities. Such discussion could be a form of social critique, a way of combatting unconscious racial bias in our speech. For example, describing the Han Chinese people as being uniformly “black haired”, “black eyed” and “yellow skinned” would, in the West, be considered a form of overt racial propagandizing inappropriate to public discourse.
  1. The government should re-examine and reflect on the role of Han Chinese chauvinism and ethnic nationalism in Chinese society. When dealing with ethnic issues, it is not fair to stress only minority chauvinism and ethnic separatism, while completely ignoring the issue of Han chauvinism. At the very least, the government should allow citizens to freely discuss and criticize both Han chauvinism and ethnic extremism. For China’s future as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation, and as a rising international power, the strong strains of Han chauvinism and ethnic nationalism in today’s mainstream Chinese society are not a sign of healthy attitudes.
  2. In theory, the People’s Republic of China is supposed to be comprised of 56 different ethnicities. Thus, the terms “overseas Chinese” or “Chinese diaspora” should refer not only to people of Han Chinese lineage, but also to people of other lineages as well. In fact, if the government treated all overseas people with ancestral ties to China even-handedly, the results might well amaze. For example, more than a year ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan began to reach out to the local Uighur diaspora community: as a result, Pakistani exchange students of Uighur lineage could soon be heard on Beijing university campuses proclaiming themselves as “overseas Chinese” and taking great pride in their contributions to their ancestral land—whereas in the past, the term “overseas Chinese” was never used to describe diaspora Uighurs, because it seemed to refer specifically to people of Han Chinese descent.


IX. Ethnic Regional Autonomy and Anti-separatism


Upon the founding of the People’s Republic of China, China created a set of clear-cut national policies based on the principles of regional ethnic autonomy and ethnic equality, and backed by the Chinese Constitution, the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and a variety of other legal mechanisms. Not only was this a fundamental leap forward for China, a vast improvement over the old system, it was also well ahead of many Western countries at the time. China’s system of regional ethnic autonomy was based on a fair distribution of dignity and power; it was meant to be an integrated institutional mechanism capable of balancing the needs of the state with the needs of ethnic peoples, but it has never been carried out and implemented properly.

Although the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law was promulgated as a basic law nearly thirty years ago, there still are no regional-level regulations governing its implementation. The system of regional ethnic autonomy is a story of years of accumulated promises—promises that have, noticeably, not yet been honored.

There are a variety of reasons why regional ethnic autonomy has never been truly implemented: cultural and economic factors, the unique political climate of the times, and other factors. The Uighur community was never particularly vocal about this non-implementation, partly because of a lack of awareness or knowledge about their basic rights, and partly because they never felt that their legitimate rights and interests had been seriously undermined.

But over the last decade or two, at least in Xinjiang, the purely nominal nature of regional ethnic autonomy has become an increasingly serious problem. Legislative attempts to implement true regional ethnic autonomy have stalled or made no headway, which means that provisions contained in the Chinese Constitution and the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law – both of which include clear stipulations regarding minority employment, cultural protection, cadre functions, religious belief and other issues – are impossible to enforce. Ignoring the stipulations of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law has led to the ethnic problems we discussed earlier; it is also the reason that Uighur rights and interests have not received due legal protection.

Implementing and enforcing rules and regulations related to regional ethnic autonomy has been a difficult task from the beginning, but now there is new problem that makes the future of ethnic autonomy even more complicated and uncertain.

Today, the discussion is not about how to implement regional ethnic autonomy, but about whether or not to abolish it. This is particularly true since the ethnic strife that occurred in Lhasa in 2008 and in Urumqi in 2009. A group of scholars led by Ma Rong and Yang Shengming, in re-examining ethnic policies and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, have begun to openly negate and oppose the concept of regional ethnic autonomy. Furthermore, in the name of eradicating ethnic separatist ideology, they have put forward a viewpoint that seems akin to “abolishing the idea of ethnicity altogether.”

At a time when even ethnologists are publicly questioning the regional autonomy provisions of the Chinese Constitution, rare are those who dare to publicly stand up for the principle of regional ethnic autonomy, much less demand the full implementation of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. This will lead to the following effect: the public will come to believe that it is the intent of the government to abolish regional ethnic autonomy, and they will take it as a public expression of support for forced assimilation. And in today’s climate, anyone who dares to openly discuss implementing ethnic autonomy is automatically perceived as advocating ethnic separatism.

When academia speaks with a single voice, that voice does not necessarily reflect social reality. For example, before the 2009 ethnic unrest in Urumqi, Yang Shengming’s published survey on ethnic problems in Xinjiang claimed that Uighurs had a stronger sense of national identity than even Han Chinese, and that Uighurs and Han Chinese showed similarly high levels of support for inter-ethnic marriage. The report concluded that the idea that Xinjiang had serious ethnic problems was “an alarmist viewpoint.” But our survey showed the exact opposite: the outlook for national identity in the Uighur community brooked no optimism, and every ethnic group, in fact, seemed to oppose and resist inter-ethnic marriage.

The lack of public voices supporting the protection and implementation of regional ethnic autonomy is actually quite frightening, because China’s ethnic minorities are crying out for genuine ethnic autonomy. If regional ethnic autonomy is not an option, only two possible scenarios remain: abolishing ethnic autonomy and enforcing assimilation, or ethnic independence movements.

Doing away with regional ethnic autonomy under the mantle of opposing separatism is an extremely dangerous idea because it will nudge more and more ethnic minorities from hopelessness into irrational support for independence movements. The true threat to China’s national unity and integrity is not ethnic autonomy: it is the prospect of abolishing ethnic autonomy.

To some extent, countering secessionism in Xinjiang is a race between the full implementation of regional ethnic autonomy and the forces of ethnic separatism.


Thus far, the path to addressing and resolving ethnic relations in multi-ethnic nations has involved some form of regional autonomy. Almost without exception, this has been the case in multi-ethnic nations formed by historical circumstance (typified by Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Britain, France and other European countries), and in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nations formed through immigration (such as French-speaking areas of Canada).

Among the rare exceptions are the United States, Malaysia (with its Chinese immigrants) and a few other nations. In these nations, because multiple ethnicities and cultures later began to merge, they never formed into ethnic enclaves or regions.

The prescription that Ma Rong and other scholars are recommending for China today is patently mistaken and dangerous when they repeatedly emphasize the American experiences as a model without respecting the fact that China’s experiences and national conditions are vastly different from those of the United States.

Separatism exists in most every corner of the globe. Among advanced Western nations, France has the Corsican problem, the British have the dispute over Northern Ireland, Spain has the Basque and Catalan problems, Canada has the Quebec separatist movement, Japan has the Ryukyu Islands independence movement…even the United States has a few dozen separatist organizations.

No country has found a way to completely eliminate separatism. But through economic development, the implementation of civil rights, systemic design and the use of legal means, some have consistently managed to marginalize and neutralize separatist movements, while at the same time enhancing solidarity, safeguarding national unity, and mitigating the pressures of globalization. There are many successful examples to choose from.

Perhaps the most worthwhile example is Spain. In the late 1970s, after Spain bid farewell to authoritarianism, the Basque and Catalan separatist movements broke out. Fueled by stark ethnic and linguistic differences, the Basque separatist movement enjoyed nearly unanimous support among the Basque people, and extremist separatist groups carried out constant attacks. In October 1979, referenda on the Statute of Autonomy that balanced the interests of the various parties were held in the two restive regions (Catalan and Basque) and each gained over 90 percent approval. Among today’s Basques (the group with the most serious separatist tendencies) 64 percent oppose independence; in Catalonia, the figure is as high as 80 percent.

Chinese scholars frequently regard Yugoslavia as a case study in secessionism, but few people draw the correct lesson: although the separatist tendencies of ethnic peoples in Yugoslavia were far less serious than in Spain, the dominant ethnic group, the Serbs, cared less about the nation’s territorial integrity than they did about competing with other ethnic groups for a bigger slice of the national pie. Fanatical Serbian nationalism played a destructive role in Yugoslavia’s dissolution.

The most fundamental solution to Xinjiang’s ethnic problem is to enforce Chinese constitutional provisions regarding regional ethnic autonomy, and to try to strike a balance between ethnic autonomy and national unity.


  1. As soon as possible, promulgate and implement the statute of autonomy in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the detailed rules for the implementation of the existing Law of the Peoples Republic of China on Regional Ethnic Autonomy in order to implement the law by establishing an institutional framework that provides sound legal protections for regional ethnic autonomy in China.

The statute of autonomy would be the most fundamental embodiment of the right of self-determination in China’s ethnic autonomous regions. Yet as of now, not a single statute of autonomy has been put forward to protect autonomous government in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region or the five autonomous prefectures and six autonomous counties under its jurisdiction. In contrast, in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, legislative work on provisions for ethnic autonomy was complete by the mid-1980s. Yanbian can be regarded as China’s most successful example of implementing regional ethnic autonomy.

  1. Allow discussion and public dialogue on the subject of implementing regional ethnic autonomy while also safeguarding national unity. In practical terms, this is a necessary precondition to seeking equilibrium between national unity and regional ethnic autonomy in Xinjiang.
  1. The current system of government should establish at least one benchmark for the progressive implementation of regional ethnic autonomy in Xinjiang. Such a benchmark would help to improve the status quo on such issues as Uighur employment, cultural protection, appointment of cadres and religious beliefs, and would help to greatly reduce current levels of ethnic resentment and strife.

Finally, when crafting policies designed to aid Xinjiang, the central government should cease favoring the economic sphere at the expense of the political and cultural spheres. It should also avoid unilateral “financial infusions” that ignore the local economy, particularly those that overlook the local Uighur socio-economic support system. Currently, government aid to Xinjiang revolves around bringing in big business and big capital from other parts of mainland China, but offers few opportunities for local capital or minority-owned capital. Some places in Xinjiang have already exhibited a crowding-out effect, as outside capital pushes out local capital; we should remain vigilant to such signals. Because they have no positive effect on local employment, and can even directly harm the interests of local industry and commerce, today’s government aid policies in Xinjiang will have even more negative consequences than similar wasteful and ineffective policies in Tibet (see Jin Wei’s Aid Policies and Tibetan Economic Development 《援助政策与西藏经济发展》).


Then End


Previous installments:

I. Unemployment,

II. Bilingual Education

III. Religion

IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation

V. Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals

VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps

VII. Governmental Competence and Credibility





Chinese original: 《伊力哈木:当前新疆民族问题的现状及建议》



One response to “Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (8 and 9) – Han Chinese Chauvinism; Ethnic Regional Autonomy and Anti-separatism”

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