Touting ‘Ethnic Fusion,’ China’s New Top Official for Minority Affairs Envisions a Country Free of Cultural Difference

Last October, China’s top officials convened the once-every-five-year congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to determine the leadership and political trajectory of the country for the next half decade. Xi Jinping secured a precedent-breaking third term as paramount leader of the Party, confirming expectations that the congress would cement his authority and concentrate power in a single person to a degree not seen since the Mao era. Several high-profile promotions and demotions signaled that officials’ political survival depends on personal loyalty to Xi, and that aggressive implementation of his policies is key to career advancement. Among the officials garnering Xi’s support is Pan Yue, who was elected as a full member of the Central Committee of the CCP.

Since last June, Pan has been head of the State Council’s Ethnic Affairs Commission, which is responsible for policy concerning China’s “minority nationalities,” the 55 officially recognized ethnic groups who collectively represent around 8.9 percent of the total population. For decades, the CCP’s ethnic policies have oscillated between multiculturalism—recognizing and even celebrating distinct ethnic identities—and assimilationism—denying and destroying them—with significant variation at the local level. The Chinese term “minzu” (民族) captures this policy range: it refers both to individual “nationalities” or ethnic groups, like Han, Uyghurs, and Tibetans, and to the overarching “Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu, 中华民族), which comprises all 56 (55 minorities plus the Han majority) groups.

Pan’s election to the Central Committee suggests that the Xi administration’s hard turn toward assimilationism will likely continue and perhaps intensify. Pan is the second Han official in a row to head the Ethnic Affairs Commission, which for nearly 70 years had been led by a Party member from a non-Han nationality. Since the beginning of Xi’s second term in 2017, measures related to “managing” ethnic minorities have run the gamut from destruction of what officials deem “foreign” architectural elements such as mosque domes and removal of Arabic signage on restaurant awnings and storefronts to the imposition of Mandarin as the sole language of instruction for certain subjects in some schools. Repression has been most severe in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the local populations have been subjected to extreme restrictions on movement, constant surveillance, mass internment, and as has been reported of Uyghur women, forced sterilization.


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