The 21st Century Cultural Revolution that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) showcases is one that is characterized by repressive laws and cultural assimilation. The world witnessed the Culture of the Dominant Han Race being stripped away by the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four from 1966-76 in the name of a Cultural Revolution. Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping, almost 50 years after the incident, is set out to stripping away what is left of the culture of the Chinese minorities.

Xi Jinping’s vision of national and ideological unity through cultural identity is what the 21st Century Cultural Revolution has come down to. China’s border regions, including Tibet and the Xinjian province, have faced growing government repression and extensive campaigns to dispense off their minority education, religions and cultures. While the provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang can be said to be more or less enveloped by the domineering presence of China, one more province is being added to the list. Inner Mongolia, the northern Chinese province is facing tumultuous times with the Chinese government’s new education program that was launched in September of 2020. The new program, known as ‘Secondary Bilingual Education’, has changed the language of instruction from Mongolian to Mandarin Chinese. The rule states that Mandarin must be taught from the first grade, which is one year earlier than before across the region’s bilingual boarding schools. History, politics and literature are to be taught in Mandarin instead of Mongolian.

Inner Mongolia, along with Tibet and Xinjiang, is deemed the prefix – ‘Autonomous Region’. While the autonomous status is to be questioned, what is to be highlighted is the mere fact that Beijing has been exercising greater control over these ethnic minority provinces. While Inner Mongolia was absorbed into China centuries ago, activists in the region and outside refer to the region as Southern Mongolia.

According to to the 2010 census, an estimated 5 million Mongolians are living in the province. This is in stark contrast to the independent state of Mongolia, which is to the north of Inner Mongolia, which has a population of 3.1 million people. It should also be noted that the ethnic Mongolian population in China makes for less than a fifth of the region’s 25.3 million population. Meaning the population is vastly outnumbered by Han Chinese.

According to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), the Chinese authorities had shut down the only Mongolian-language social media site in China, Bainu in August of 2020. The site is known to have hosted about 400,000 users in Inner Mongolia. This move is attributed to the rise in tensions between the government and the people due to Beijing’s plan to phase out Mongolian-language education in the region.

The move witnessed protests in Inner Mongolia with thousands of students and their parents undertaking a regionwide civil disobedience campaign. High school students staged walkouts while many parents pulled their students from schools. Nevertheless, Chinese security officials have been successful in quelling the protests.

Cultural assimilation through language has been of the most crucial steps that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has implemented on its ethnic minority populations. Language policies were implemented in Xinjiang and Tibet in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Why the Need for Cultural Assimilation?

China’s ethnic minority areas account for nearly two-thirds of the country’s landmass. The Constitution of the country states that “all ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the ethnic minorities” (National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China).Where does the need for national homogenisation come from?

For the CPP, the identity of an individual is not to be preceded over their ethnic identities but should represent the Chinese state. The move is also directly proportional to legitimising the Chinese Communist Party as the sole centre of power in China. The need to establish absolutive and permanent control of its population also comes from the ideological differences that could lead to a potential struggle or split from the mainland.

Historically, China is a multi-ethnic country that was formed through territorial expansion and a fusion of different peoples throughout history. Its widely dispersed population is characterized by tremendous geographic, linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. There are about fifty six officially recognized ethnic minorities in China (Wu, 2014). Minorities such as the Tibetans, Uygurs and Kazakhs have distinct and strong cultures, languages, religions and respective traditions.

In a bid to assimilate these groups into the larger and dominant Han Chinese culture, the government and the CCP has gone to great lengths. In Xinjiang, mass detention camps have been found that keeps the ethnical minority community of Uighur Muslims. Today, the Xinjiang province is known to be the home of the second-largest mass detention of a minority group since the Second World War. The detention camps are also known as ‘vocational training camps’ which are used to impose the larger CCP ideology over their Uighur religious identity.

While China’s national minorities are relatively small when compared to the country’s total population, the geographic areas that these ethnic minorities constitute account for almost 60 per cent of the territory of the country. This largely includes the border and remote areas which are of strategic importance and are extremely rich in natural resources (Wang, 1995).

With the establishment of the PRC in 1949, establishing a nationality policy was of utmost importance to the CCP. This was due to the nationalistic concerns and the need to control the remote border regions that might otherwise fall under the influence of hostile foreign or domestic forces (Wu, 2014). Not to mention the control of natural resources that are found in these border regions.

The Construction of a Chinese National Identity

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According to the historical concept of Huaxia, “those foreign to us surely have different minds.” Confucius, in Spring and Autumn Annals, states that “when foreign tribes enter into the Central Plains, they will be centralized; when people of Central Plains enter into foreign tribes, they will be foreignized.” Meaning when people of foreign tribes enter the Central Plains, they become accustomed to the cultural conventions of Huaxia and hence become members of the Huaxia nation; in contrast, when people of the Central Plains enter remote areas and become accustomed to their cultural conventions, they also become foreigners (Wu, 2012). Thus merely adhering to the philosophy that what matters is not the blood relationship, but the culture of people that they are accustomed to.

This demarcation between the centre and the foreign tribe or the periphery, or the self and the other, has had an important influence on the construction of Chinese traditional cultural identity (Wu, 2012). This can especially be attributed to the national identity pedagogy that President Xi has been espousing.

“When stressing and defending a country’s cultural, religious or linguistic harmony, nationalism should admit of diversity and pluralism, and of the plural cultures, diversified living styles and languages, among others, within a country” (Wu, 2012). But what is to be noted is that while promoting a national identity based on the dominant culture, the system or the government should be open to admitting other heterogeneous cultures. The means of maintaining a proper balance between identities and ethnic realities is of significance to not only China but also to the rest of the world.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Team Eastern Interest.

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