Minority Affairs in the Xi Jinping Era: Hardened Cadre on the Periphery

By | March 18, 2019 | No Comments

An ethnic Korean performance. | Image: PRC Ethnic Affairs Commission (国家民委)

Do the ethnic Koreans in Yanbian anticipate uniting with the motherland after the stirring summit meetings of 2018? If new research into Korean-Chinese identity is any indication, the answer is probably not. And even if the prospects of peace on the Korean peninsula and thawing North-South relations were to stir feelings of ethnic longing among Chinese citizens of Korean descent, the Chinese state would leave zero room for debate on the matter. Beijing has always kept a close watch on its ethnic minorities and autonomous prefectures, but under Xi Jinping social control or regulation has intensified. Adam Cathcart arms himself with a handful of CCP speeches, biographies, and press releases to argue that Xi’s “new era” is harsher in the ethnic borderlands than prior. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Minority Affairs in the Xi Jinping Era: Hardened Cadre on the Periphery

by Adam Cathcart

It is an odd and fractious time to be studying Chinese peripheries and foreign policy. Xi Jinping is logically cast in a central role in most foreign assessments of China’s direction, whether it be the chairman’s activity in calculating (or miscalculating) trade war tactics with the US, or in his brandishing a high-tech chain-mailed glove not all that far from the Korean border. Far less often is his outlook on minzu zhengce (民族政策), or nationalities/ethnic minority policy, looked at in depth.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers analysts one potential shortcut for imposing coherence on what is in fact the messy and complex business of Chinese foreign policy (and foreign direct investment) through a thicket of bilateral relationships. While Belt and Road is also typically placed within the matrix of Xi Jinping’s growing personality cult, at times it can strain credulity to link the broad ribbons of his charismatic leadership with the very specific strains and challenges that arrive along the Belt and Road. Take, for instance, the problem of border security in Northeast Pakistan; what is the relationship between Xi Jinping’s power consolidation and this particular problem set?

Likewise, both the “Xi Jinping as prime mover” and the Belt and Road frameworks are of limited value in understanding China’s relationship with North Korea. Chris Green and I made an attempt at such an analysis in 2017. But ultimately the Belt and Road framework and the drive for local officials to carry out Xi’s will are no more or less important to the environment for sanctions enforcement on North Korea than, say, broader tensions in the US-China relationship.

A more productive line of inquiry would be to look at the impact of China’s increasing authoritarianism. In a state already oriented toward control, there has been a turn under Xi toward yet harder security and more, mainly digital, control. Individual liberties have obviously suffered. This broader trend impacts the implementation of the united front policy, of the anti-corruption campaign, of the penetration and disruption of foreign journalistic and analytical networks, and for cadre on the periphery.

The securitization move remains a prime concern in the Chinese northwest, or Xinjiang province, which has soaked up incredible amount of funds of late due in large measure to a crackdown on Uighur Muslims that has expanded into parameters which ought to be shocking to any observer. None of this could have been done without the enthusiastic work of Party officials at the provincial level.

Looking at how local and provincial officials put their stamp on things, and the method of implementing policies, can tell us something about central demands. Who survives and who is promoted in this tense atmosphere? The answer can tell us much about the internal climate in the Party, and about the ways in which the “nationalities policy” toward ethnic minorities is being interpreted and implemented. Personnel shifts have occurred within the many groups involved in minorities policy and implementation under Xi Jinping’s banner after the 19th party Congress.

Jun Shi: From Sichuan to the United Front Department |The appointment of Shi Jun as the deputy head of the United Front Work department was flagged up by James Liebold as something that could tell us a “great deal about the increasing importance of stability maintenance in the new era.”

The favorable coverage in the Party press that accompanied Shi’s appointment emphasized his law and order credentials, praising his anti-crime bona fides from Sichuan province and his successful prosecution of two criminal gangs whose leaders were put on trial in Hebei. The stories also praised his “zero tolerance policy” for people working under his supervision, recalling one instance where a colleague who had been playing with his mobile phone during the meeting was severely criticized. Finally his humanitarian concerns for his work on a big earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 were called out positively.

Jun has in some respects an unusual biographical background. He worked his way up in the Communist Party by starting from the factory floor lighting factory where he began work early (at age 16) and finally left six years later, in 1984. He spent about two years in Beijing studying during the relatively liberal mid-1980s but appears to have not walked outside any Party lines, given that he entered Sichuan Teachers’ College in June 1989 when any students or staff who had participated in the democracy movement would have been taking a semester off and writing confessional letters. In the 1990s he worked in local youth organizations and moved up in county level politics, and for five years from 2007 to 2012 he was the party committee secretary of a Tibetan autonomous county, which apparently gave him a reputation for smashing dissent.

In one extraordinary public complaint by an ethnic Tibetan cadre, he was accused of of promoting one ethnicity over the other, inflating economic achievements consistently, of not trusting local party leaders, and of generally undervaluing his counterparts and playing factional games.

Li Hui: Tying it all Back to Xi | Li Hui’s work at the State Ethnic Affairs Commission demonstrates a less overtly controlling ethos than Shi Jun. But in the realm of ethnic affairs and ideology there is no one I have seen who demonstrates the importance of braiding Xi Jinping in to just about everything. Take her speech at the Ethnic Work conference of July 25, 2018:

Always standing firm with our political stance, we must always maintain a high degree of unanimity [高度一致] with the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core. Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the Party and the country have historic achievements, unleashed historic transformations, above all doing so through the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core. The most crucial thing is that General Secretary Xi Jinping is supported by the whole Party, loved by the people, and unreservedly accepted as the core of the Party, as the military marshal, and as the people’s leader who is the helmsman of the ship [最关键的是有习近平总书记作为全党拥护、人民爱戴、当之无愧的党的核心、军队统帅、人民领袖的领航掌舵].

This evocation of Xi’s centrality and greatness is followed immediately by a discussion of ethnic work for the Party. Li’s speech followed a tour through Liaoning province, and her colleagues in the Ethnic Affairs Commission also made forays into Yanbian.

Conclusion | As Xi Jinping continues to consolidate power and authority, the organs of state dealing with minority affairs will likewise adapt in a fashion. Even as the two Koreas circle nearer to one another diplomatically, Chinese-Koreans remain well outside of the bonds of inter-Korean identity. Their status, although nominally autonomous within the Chinese state, is tightly bound to the policies emanating from the center (Beijing) to the peripheral units, such as Yanbian and other borderland prefectures.

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