Is China a Ticking Time Bomb of Ethnic Contradictions?

The relative lack of interethnic contact today could ultimately prove detrimental to the long-term health and durability of multiculturalism in China.

The News Lens
Date: 2016/09/27
By: James Leibold

China’s ethnic periphery can be a volatile place. Over the past decade, violence has repeatedly

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

marred the remote yet strategic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, which comprise nearly a third of Chinese territory and are its chief sources of oil and water. Here, the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities have long chafed under the integrationist policies of the Han-dominated Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with bloody cycles of resistance and conflict. In fact, recent episodes of interethnic violence, such as the Lhasa (2008) and Ürümqi (2009) riots and the horrific Kunming train station attack (2014), portend a rising storm of ethnic contradictions that threaten to spin out of control. While Party-state officials depict these incidents as the work of “separatists” and “terrorists,” many commentators in the West view them as examples of national decay and harbingers of national implosion.

Longtime China-watcher David Shambaugh warns that Xinjiang and Tibet are “living on the brink of exploding into full-scale civil disobedience and anti-regime activities.” Some inside China agree, warning that centrifugal forces could propel China down the same road as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Here, metaphors like “crisis,” “emergency,” “tinderbox,” and even “ticking time bomb” are sometimes employed when discussing the current state of ethnic relations in the world’s most populous nation-state, highlighting the sense of “urgency” in addressing perceived policy failures.

Yet these predictions are not only premature, they also obscure both the scope and dynamics of internecine conflict in China today. On the whole, interethnic relations are sturdy yet unstable. Tensions remain high in parts of Tibet and Xinjiang, but conflict here does not resemble that of Palestine or Chechnya as some would have us believe. Despite intermittent violence, relations between China’s officially recognized ethnic groups are generally amiable, at least on the surface, with far more examples of cooperation than conflict.

That said, deep-rooted bigotry, misunderstanding and distrust in certain segments of the minority and majority communities alike (among other problems, chiefly poor governance, heavy-handed policing and a corrupt legal system) engender subterranean strains that under the right conditions can flare into open discord and even violence. These sorts of tensions are most evident in Tibet and Xinjiang, but also affect ethnic relations in Inner Mongolia, the Hui areas of Ningxia and Gansu, and ethnic ghettos in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The result is a “wobbling pivot”: a series of structural fulcrums that keep a lid on open revolt while also sowing the seeds for deterioration should the sociopolitical environment shift suddenly.     [FULL  STORY]