Planting the Seed: Ethnic Policy in Xi Jinping’s New Era of Cultural Nationalism

Planting the Seed: Ethnic Policy in Xi Jinping’s New Era of Cultural Nationalism

By: James Leibold

The Jamestown Foundation

The recent leak of secret Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents in Xinjiang provides irrefutable evidence of the CCP’s radical plan to fundamentally remake Xinjiang society and transform the thoughts and behaviour of its Muslim minorities (ICIJ, 24 November). Less well known, however, is the role that Xi and his supporters have played in reorienting People’s Republic of China (PRC) policy away from a previous tolerance of ethnocultural heterogeneity, and towards a virulent form of cultural nationalism that pathologizes dissent and diversity as an existential threat to the Party and the nation.

The self-described “New Era” (新时代, Xin Shidai) of Xi Jinping Thought marks a decisive departure from previous attempts to propitiate ethnic minorities through special preferences and a “loose reins” (羁縻, jimi) system of ethnic autonomy. This new orientation is most clearly articulated in a public speech Xi Jinping gave in September, suggesting a new level of confidence in the Party’s attempt to build a “spiritual homeland” (精神家园, jingshen jiayuan) for China’s fragile political unity in the face of deep internal resistance in the peripheries of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

Ethnic Minority Groups and “Leap-Frog Style Development”

The acceptance of ethnocultural diversity is foundational to the Leninist solution of the “national question” (or the “minzu question” in Chinese parlance), as different nationalities or ethnic groups (民族, minzu) are believed to progress at varying paces towards the shared goal of socialism and harmony. In China, the advanced Han majority must lead the way, but also assist their minority “brothers and sisters” in catching up. In response, revolutionary parties like the CCP should provide breathing space and preferential development assistance to build up the trust and mutual understanding required for national integration.

Following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, CCP leaders (including Xi Jinping’s own father Xi Zhongxun) stressed socioeconomic development as the key to stability and prosperity along the ethnic frontier. Developing the economy of ethnic regions, Deng Xiaoping asserted in 1979, is the key to effectively solving the minzu question. [1] Jiang Zemin echoed Deng after coming to power in 1990: “The withering away of minzu groups is a long term historical process, and before this happens, it is a mistake to ignore ethnic differences and peculiarities.” [2] According to former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, these differences could take a hundred, if not several hundred years, to disappear. [3]

In 1999 Jiang Zemin launched the Great Western Development Strategy (西部大开发, Xibu Da Kaifa), which saw billions of dollars in state and private company investment in frontier regions. These massive subsidies were meant to spur what Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao termed “leap-frog style development” (跨越式发展, kuayue shi fazhan) in ethnic regions (Fenghuang, January 23, 2010). In order to protect autonomous development, the CCP passed the highly progressive and wide-ranging Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy in 1984, which laid the legal and institutional foundations for ensuring ethnic minorities are “masters over their own affairs.”

The result was rapid yet uneven economic growth, which created new inequalities and resentments among minority and majority populations alike. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 and a new cycle of ethnic unrest led to calls for a major rethink of Party policy (China Brief, July 6, 2012). Zhu Weiqun, the former Executive Director of the United Front Work Department, stated in 2012: “We need to be sober minded that rapid socioeconomic development does not guarantee [ethnic] unity and stability, and resisting splitism, in particular, will not automatically resolve itself” (Xuexi Shibao, February 14, 2012).

Forging “Communal Consciousness”

In his September 27 speech before “national role models for ethnic unity,” Xi Jinping stressed the deep historical foundation of the Chinese people’s culture, racial and spiritual unity, in what was arguably his most comprehensive public statement to date on ethnic policy (Xinhua, September 27). In the speech, Xi highlighted the importance of strengthening Party leadership over ethnic work, fostering inter-ethnic mingling, managing ethnic affairs according to law, and harshly dealing with acts of splitism, violence, extremism and terror. When he spoke about “pushing forward with the equalization of basic service provisions,” Xi signalled the further winding back of ethnic-based preferential policies, in order to treat each ethnic group equally before the law.

Yet what Xi termed “the communal consciousness of the Zhonghua nation” (中华民族共同体意识, Zhonghua minzu gongtongti yishi) was the main focus of his speech and subsequent policy pronouncements and media commentary. Xi declared “cultural identity the deepest level of identity,” with the magnificent Zhonghua culture layered on thousands of years of “grand minzu fusion” (民族大融合, minzu da ronghe). “The spirit of the Zhonghua nation,” Xi announced, “is mutually fostered, inherited and developed by the people of each ethnic group—already agglutinated in their blood and soul—and propels forward the formidable spiritual force of China’s advancement.” In Xi’s own words, “Chinese civilization possesses a uniquely embracive and absorbent character.”

Previous acts of resistance in Tibet and Xinjiang have hardened Xi’s resolve to transform ethnic cultures and identities, and the ongoing rebellion in Hong Kong reinforces this imperative. “We say that development is the top priority and the basis for achieving lasting security, and that’s right,” Mr. Xi said in a confidential speech while touring Xinjiang in 2014. “But it would be wrong to believe that with development every problem solves itself” (New York Times, November 17). In fact, the perceived successes of the Party’s mass internment strategy in Xinjiang—with Party officials regularly asserting the absence of “terror attacks”—is encouraging the expansion of cultural nationalist tactics throughout Chinese society.

Xi warned against complacency in his recent speech (Xinhua, September 27), especially in the face of a “complex international and domestic environment.” Instead he called for a re-doubling of effort and a more proactive and energetic role for the Party in guiding this process of fusion forward. The “forging of Zhonghua communal consciousness” is now the “main thread” (主线, zhuxian) of ethnic work, with the phrase written into the Party’s constitution. In a directive issued by the CCP Central Committee and the PRC State Council following Xi’s speech, the Party spoke of the dangers of “bottlenecks” and poor policy implementation, and instructed cadres to push further and deeper in “constructing” (营造, yingzao), “casting” (铸牢, zhulao), and “smelting” (熔铸, rongzhu) the collective consciousness of the nation (Xinhua, October 23).

Image: A propaganda banner produced for Zhongshan Polytechnic Institute exhorts viewers to “Deepen and Expand Ethnic Unity Education, Sing the Melody of Ethnic Unity Development” (深入开展民族团结教育, 唱响各民族团结发展主旋律 / Shenru kaizhan minzu tuanjie jiaoyu, changxiang ge minzu tuanjie fazhan zhuxuanlu). (Source: Baidu Images)

Ramping Up “Patriotic Education”

In November the CCP Central Committee and PRC State Council issued a directive on “promoting patriotic education in the new era” (China Brief, December 10). This represents a major reboot of the 1994 patriotic education campaign launched by Jiang Zemin after the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. The directive calls for the updating of methods and “vehicles” for instilling patriotism across Chinese society—including the promotion of “red tourism,” flag raising ceremonies, commemorative activities, and the celebration of traditional Zhonghua festivals and culture. Here ethnic minorities must conform to Han norms, with Uyghurs forced to eat pork dumplings when celebrating Chinese New Year (ChinaAid, February 15, 2018) and Tibetans asked to don “Han clothing” (汉服, hanfu) in the name of carrying forward traditional Zhonghua culture (Zhongguo Xizang Wang, November 20, 2018). Xi Jinping has previously called on Party officials to “discard the dross and select the essence; weed out the chaff and bring forth new roots” when it comes to ethnic minority cultures (Qinghai Ribao, September, 16, 2018).

Education is now the forefront of ethnic work. The Directive insists the Party actively “guide the people in establishing and persisting with the correct view of the fatherland, nation, culture and history, and constantly enhance the sense of belonging, identity, dignity and honor of the Zhonghua nation” (Xinhua, November 12). Local study sessions are being held in Xinjiang, Tibet and other minority areas, where patriotic and ethnic unity education is now dubbed “an engineering project of the soul” (灵魂工程, linghun gongcheng) (Renmin Kandian, November 19).

In his September speech, Xi Jinping urged Party officials “to plant the seed of love for Zhonghua deep in the soul of each and every child” (Xinhua, September 27). “Culture,” Xi told the gathering of ethnic role models, “is the soul of every nation and cultural identity is the root artery of national unity.” In fact, the narrow focus on economic development in the past left China vulnerable to outside meddling, according to Zhu Weiqun, with “hostile foreign forces” exploiting ethnic sentiments and differences in order to weaken and disintegrate China (Huanqiu Shibao, September 20).

Schools are the main “battlefield” in ethnic unity education, with Party officials urged to ensure that patriotism “enters classrooms, enters teaching materials, and enters pupil’s minds so the seed of ethnic unity can take root and blossom in the youth and students of all ethnic groups” (Neimenggu Zizhiqu, September 22). Yet this educational work must also “push forward in all directions,” and become normalized across all Party organs, enterprises, communities, villages, places of worship, and the internet, where “big data technology” should be harnessed to promote positive cultural exchanges.

Tightening Up on the “Loose Reins” of Ethnic Policy

The Party’s new approach extends well beyond Xinjiang and Tibet. In recent years, the extra points minority students receive on the university entrance exam have been significantly reduced (Guanchazhe, June 6, 2017), and next year Ningxia and Shandong will join Shanxi in abolishing extra points all together (Diyi Jiaoyu, December 11; Quanmin Weixinba, October 31). In the name of combatting “Salafism, Arabism and Islamism” (沙化阿化伊化, Shahua Ahua Yihua), foreign influences were scrubbed from restaurants, mosques and cultural sites across the Northwest (Mianshu, April 7, 2018), and now major cities like Beijing and Shanghai (Reuters, July 31). A state-run library in Gansu publicly burned religious books, and neighbouring Ningxia altered the name of a river deemed too religious sounding (Inkstone, September 28, 2018).

Change is also coming to Yunnan, where a tolerant and more relaxed approach to ethnic and religious issues has long been the norm. This year Party committees initiated “strike-hard” investigations, issued repeated warnings about the dangers of illegal religious activities, and called for the urgent “sinicization” (中国化, Zhongguohua) of religious activities (Zhongguo Minzubao, June 11). The People’s Armed Police raided what it claimed was an illegal mosque in the historic city of Weishan (RFA, December 30, 2018) while police confiscated religious books and paintings from Christian house churches across Yunnan (Bitter Winter, December 8).

Meanwhile influential voices like Zhu Weiqun and Ma Rong are remobilizing in opposition to the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, arguably the only remaining cornerstone of the CCP’s “loose reins” system (China Brief, July 6, 2012). Despite formal retirement, Zhu remains an active adviser, frequent media commentator, and occasional representative of the Party on supervisory work (Huanqiu Shibao, September 20). In September, Ma Rong published a highly provocative critique of the 1984 Law, arguing it represents an “over-correction” of Cultural Revolution excesses and is out of step with the PRC Constitution (CASS, September 22). Ignoring Xi Jinping’s earlier call to stop debating the law’s appropriateness (China Brief, November 7, 2014), Ma boldly asserts: “The wheel of history is continuously turning, and our country’s laws must alter in accordance with new social developments and contradictions, and be revised and readjusted in the spirit of progress and seeking truth from facts.”


It is unclear how far Xi Jinping is willing to push in this direction—the Xinjiang leaks suggest significant internal dissent—but the perceived successes of the Party’s approach in manufacturing stability in Xinjiang and Tibet are driving the Party deeper into the lives of its citizens, Han and minority alike. The Party’s heavy-handed approach to nation-building might ultimately prove counter-productive: rather than planting the seed of patriotism and unity, it is sowing mistrust and resentment among significant segments of the population who find the Party’s message unpalatable.

James Leibold is an Associate Professor and Head of Department at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia, and an expert on ethnic policy and ethnic conflict in contemporary China. He is the author and co-editor of four books and over thirty peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and a frequent contributor to the international media on these topics.


[1] Su Taiheng, “Kaifangxing minzu guanxi gailun” (Discussion of ethnic relations during the opening to the world), Guizhou minzu yanjiu, 1999(2): 105-111.

[2] Jiang Zemin, “Zai Xinjiang kaocha gongzuo shi de jianghua” (Talk during inspection tour of Xinjiang), SEAC, 5 July 2004, at

[3] He Fang, “Hu Yaobang yu minzu quyu zizhi” (Hu Yaobang and regional ethnic autonomy), Aisixiang, 10 December 2012,

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Photo source: The photo in this article is the original image uploaded by The Jamestown Foundation (source: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and other senior CCP officials greet delegates to the “National Ethnic Unity Advancement Commendation Conference” (全国民族团结进步表彰大会, Quanguo Minzu Tuanjie Jinbu Biaozhang Dahui), held in Beijing on September 27. (Source: Zhongguo Zhengfu Wang)