China’s ethnic policy in Xinjiang and Tibet: The move toward assimilation


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This week on the Sinica Podcast, Jeremy and Kaiser speak with Tashi Rabgey, research professor of international affairs at George Washington University and director of the Tibet Governance Project. They are joined by returning guest Jim Millward, professor of history at Georgetown University and renowned scholar of Xinjiang and Central Asia. This episode focuses on their respective areas of expertise: human rights violations in the Xinjiang region; the P.R.C. approach to ethnic policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, referred to on this show as minzu (民族 mínzú) policy; and the assimilation and securitization of both regions.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

5:40: Jim gives an update on the disturbing conditions in Xinjiang: “We’re seeing more and more work facilities, or factories, in these camps. Recent reporting has revealed that this has become a serious part of what the camps are doing. That once these people ‘graduate’ from learning Chinese and sort of move on, they’re put to work in some kind of facilities, making textiles, shoes, some packaging, electronics, assembly, those kind of things, for a period of time we don’t know about.”

11:50: Tashi describes heightened levels of security in Tibet: “There’s a lot of contradictory practices being put into place that are hard to explain, really. And so, increasingly, I think the surveillance, through many different means, is higher than ever before in history, even just to circumambulate around the Potala Palace, for example. Local Tibetans talk about that [it’s harder to get into than an airport].”

13:07: Tashi explains the burden that is created by using self-immolation as a political tool: “I think what’s really significant is how this has sat with the Tibetan people, and I think there’s a kind of silent mourning going on. Whether or not it’s being covered in the media, it really sits on people’s conscience — the fact that it is not something narrowly limited to monks and nuns. In particular, I’d point out that during the 18th Party Congress, where we saw the change in power, there were 28 self-immolations. That’s pretty much one every day.”

24:15: In the ongoing debate surrounding minzu policy, a second-generation minzu policy (第二代民族政策 dì èr dài mínzú zhèngcè) has emerged among Chinese thought leaders, pushed by Peking University professor Mǎ Róng 马戎. His solution of depoliticization (去政治化 qù zhèngzhìhuà) was met with great pushback from ethnic minority academics and government officials, but with notable absences, which Tashi explains: “At the same time, they got massive pushback, especially led by shaoshu minzu [少数民族 shǎoshù mínzú; ethnic minority] intellectuals, Hui and Inner Mongolians, for example. You know who didn’t push back, generally speaking? Tibetans and the Uyghurs.”

43:34: Kaiser asks the two about the concept of territoriality. Jim cites the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which spurred the creation of trade enclaves, treaty ports, and certain degrees of autonomy for merchants. However, in the modern era, things are very different, which Jim explains: “They are turning their back on these approaches, I would say, and chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of a homogeneous national identity, which doesn’t really exist. So I’m saying that China should look to its own traditions for creative ways of dealing with territoriality and sovereignty as a way of addressing the problems in Xinjiang and Tibet.”


Jeremy: A retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in the graphic novel version by Pablo Auladell.

Tashi: Jinpa by Pema Tseden, a Tibetan-language film and recipient of Best Screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival.

Jim: Post Reports by the Washington Post, a 20-minute podcast with stories drawn from the newspaper.

Kaiser: Kaiser’s new favorite brand of rice, grown in the black soil of Heilongjiang Province, Fúlínmén dàohuāxiāng wǔchángdàmǐ 福临稻花香五常大米.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.