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The Debate on China's Existing Nationalities Policy ( EPW)

Scholars have, in recent works, sought to "depoliticise" the ethnic nationalities question in China and to reorient it around cultural and civic arguments. This has not been received too well by critics, including those favouring the status quo in China, which still derives its understanding of the "ethnic question" from orthodox communist doctrines on the subject of nationalities.
Debasish Chaudhuri ( is with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
Alot of deliberations on the theoretical issues related to depoliticisation of China’s existing ethnic policy and the need for a second generation ethnic policy have been going on for about a decade. The debate began with the publication of an article1 in 2004 by Ma Rong, a professor of sociology and social anthropology at the Beijing University. Scholars from different disciplines of social sciences in China felt the urge for revisiting various aspects of ethnic policies since the creation of several new states following the disintegration of multi-ethnic countries like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The growing inter-ethnic tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet since early 1990s possibly infused an uninhibited academic quest for a new theoretical approach to the ethnic problem amongst a small section of scholars in China. Following the riots in Lhasa and Urumqi in 2008 and 2009, the academic discussions on the need for reviewing ethnic policies became more public and a greater number of Chinese academics expressed their criticism of present policies on ethnic nationalities (Qiu 2010).
The deviation from the official approach to ethnic policies in the post-Mao era is not new. The internationally acclaimed sociologist Fei Xiaotong, who led extensive fieldwork for national minority identification under the auspices of the communist government in China, later made criticisms about the excessive political interventions during the survey in the ethnic minority areas by scientific workers in the first half of 1950s (Fei 1981: 14-15). The first generation of Chinese ethnologists’ reservations about the complete adoption of Stalin’s definition2 of ethnic groups have been a widely discussed subject in the 1980s (Wang et al 1998: 113-18; Fei 1981). This is the time when an increasing number of Chinese scholars began to look for various theoretical debates beyond the Marxist understanding on the subject. Following the Marxist tradition of dealing with national question, Lewis Henry Morgan’s version of stage evolutionary theory was uncritically endorsed for a long time by Chinese social scientists and utilised to justify depiction of ethnic minorities as backward representatives belonging to earlier form of society, and living fossils of savagery and barbarianism (Gladney 2004: 38). Tong Enzheng, an anthropologist and museologist, suggests that there is a need to have fresh understanding of the excessive influence of mechanical materialism and historical determinism in Morgan’s thesis because a dogmatic approach to his evolutionary theory has been persistently obstructing progress in the research in this field (Wang et al 1998: 350-51; Gladney 2004: 60).
Against this backdrop Ma Rong initiated his theoretical undertakings. He has been developing, expanding and clarifying his points of arguments in a series of articles since the publication of his first article on depoliticisation of ethnic minority problem in 2004.3 Ma’s concept of depoliticisation of ethnic policy has been severely criticised by most of the scholars from the discipline. Amidst this theoretical squabble, there have been few academic writings openly supporting Ma’s idea, until 2011 when Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe published an article4 on the need for a second generation of ethnic policy in the Journal of Xinjiang Normal University. This article clearly approved most of the basic arguments of Ma’s thesis and further popularised the concept of depoliticisation5 (Jin et al 2012: 5). Recently he has written another article where he expressed urgency for improving inter-ethnic relations at the earliest (Ma 2013).
Ma Rong has distinguished nation or nationalities (minzu), the commonly used term in China from ethnic groups (zuqun). In his view, minzu is a political entity tied with a fixed territory whereas zuqun is a sociocultural community with distinct linguistic, religious and cultural customs and practices. In Ma’s opinion, China’s ethnic minorities (shaoshminzu) are basically similar to various ethnic groups of America like the Afro-Americans, people of Asian origins and the Indians. Therefore, he comes to a conclusion that China’s 56 nationalities (minzu) should be considered as ethnic groups (zuqun) and not as nation or nationalities (minzu) (Ma 2004: 35-67; Ma 2007: 14 and fn 4; Jin et al 2012: 2). This apparently is the first step to the conceptualisation of Ma Rong’s thesis on the depoliticisation of ethnic policy.
Ma Rong has discussed the present ethnic policy via four perspectives: from “politicisation” of ethnic problem to “culturalisation”; the need to look beyond “tribal state” to “civic state”; the need for a preferential policy for ethnic groups as a whole and for individual assistance; and analysing ethnic relations from the perspective of cultural interactions and cultural blending (Ma 2007: 17-24). He observers that the Soviet communist party was the first to politicise the ethnic problem through a series of policies like federalisation, demographic immobilisation along the border, territorialisation of ethnic autonomy, institutionalisation of preferential policy for the ethnic groups as a whole. China has adopted most of the Soviet policies regarding “nationalities” except federalism and right of separation of autonomous areas by the ethnic groups.
In Ma’s theorisations, civil rights do not have much importance in China because the “ethnic composition” of individuals is directly attached to entitlement of various preferential policies. In this politicised system, a sense of identity among all ethnic groups becomes stronger which leads to ethnic resurgence and separatism. In his understanding the Soviet disintegration is result of these erroneous ethnic policies (Ma 2007: 18; 2013). In contrast to the Soviet experience, Ma Rong gives the example of India and some other former colonies, which have, according to him, successfully depoliticised the issues related to caste, religion and ethnicity in the course of “state building” (Ma 2007: 19). He also expresses serious doubts about the efficacy of existing regional ethnic autonomy introduced after the establishment of People’s Republic of China (Ma 2007: 35-36).
Many in China possibly do not feel comfortable in accepting Ma Rong’s direct challenge to the established official line of the ethnic question. In fact, there are serious criticisms about many of his ideas and the consequences of the proposed second generation ethnic policy. The following are some of the objections raised by the critics:
(1) One cannot overlook the fact that nations or nationalities (minzu) are a political category. It is not only the core concept in context to the issue of depoliticisation, but also the most studied subject in the Chinese ethnology. There is a widely accepted definition of minzu in China, whereas zuqun has originated from the western concepts and only since the 1960s. It is not easy to establish the theory of depoliticisation just by changing the nomenclature from ethnic minorities (shaoshu zuqun) to national minorities or minority nationalities (shaoshu minzu) (Jin et al 2012: 10-11).
(2) The ethnic problem exists in all multi-national countries which cover every aspects of political, economic, cultural and social life and it is difficult to use abstract concepts like depoliticisation and culturalisation in dealing with ethnic problems. Moreover, one cannot expect that ethnic problems in a multinational environment would be resolved at the popular level through culturalisation, and ultimately one has to rely on so-called politicised institutions (Jin et al 2012: 3).
(3) It has been pointed out that the idea of viewing ethnicity as a cultural category was first put forward in the Second International (1889-1916). The concept of depoliticisation can be traced in liberal evolutionism as well (Jin et al 2012: 5-6). This is not necessarily a fresh idea.
(4) Some scholars criticise the heavy reliance on others’ experiences and express doubts about Ma Rong’s understanding about inter-ethnic relations especially in India and America (Jin et al 2012: 7-8 and 12; Du 2009: 4-9).
(5) Ma Rong’s views on other issues such as preferential policy, historical basis of culturalisation of ethnic problem, culturalism, and existing system of ethno-regional autonomy have also invited severe criticisms.
It is possibly easy to criticise Ma, but it appears that those who are criticising him are still not ready to counter his systematically formulated thesis against existing ethnic policy. One thing is clear from the debate that ethnic policy, generally considered as one of the most sensitive issues in the Chinese politics, has become a subject of popular debate in the contemporary China. Finally, one can question whether Ma’s opponents have anything new to offer and how long the prevalent official ethnic policy would sustain the pressure of sharply divided theoretical dispute.
1 Title of the article is “Lijie minzu guanxi de xin silu – shaoshu zuqun wenti de ‘qu zhengzhihua”’ (Depoliticisation of ethnic minority problem – a new approach to understanding ethnic relations).
2 Joseph Stalin defined nation as a “historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” (Mackerras 1987).
3 Ma Rong has addressed the issue in the following articles: “Dangqian Zhongguo minzu wenti yanjiu de xuanti yu silu”. The subjects and approaches of current ethnic affairs study in China (2007); “Fansi minzu yanjiu: lilun yu shijian’ Review of ethnic studies: theory and practice (2007); “Zhongguo minzu wenti de lishi yu xianzhuang” History of China’s ethnic problem and the present situation (2011); and ‘“Qu zhengzhihua, de yisi jiu shi gei shaoshuminzu geng da de huodong kongjian he geng wanzheng de gongmin quanli – duihua zhuming shehuixuejia Ma Rong” (The meaning of “depoliticisation” is to provide ethnic minorities with greater space to exercise and integrate in civil rights – an interview with the renowned sociologist Ma Rong 2011).
4 The title of the article is “Di erdai minzu zhengce: cujin minzu jiaorong yiti he fanrong yiti” (Second generation of ethnic policy: accelerate to merge into an organic whole and achieve prosperity together).
5 Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe used “fei zhengzhihua for depoliticisation instead of “qu zhengzhihua” used by Ma Rong.

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