The Red Genetics of Yanbian: New Research on Party Policy and Chosunjok Identity

By | July 08, 2022 | No Comments

In an ambitious overview of Chinese Korean identity in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, scholars Park Woo, Robert Easthope and Chang Kyung-Sup produce a capsule history of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Their article breaks the history of the Yanbian region into two large parts, broken not by the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 but instead by the year 1983 which “marked Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Yanbian [and] the beginning of a new era” (p. 920). 

Deng’s visit had been preceded by Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang’s shoring up of Party policy in Tibet and other autonomous regions, and it was followed by broader legislative reforms, including the 1984 Law on the Autonomy of Nationalities.

Park, Easthope and Chang note the Deng-era promulgation of the Law on the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (延边朝鲜族自治州自治条例), regulations which were implemented thanks to approval from Jilin in July 1985. The full text of the regulations is available here in Chinese.

The authors are bullish on the law, crediting it with great significance, and cinching it to a broader process of legitimacy building (pp. 920-921):

It allow[ed] the resurrection of Yanbian: it restored the use of Korean language, the development of Korean culture and tradition, and the production of traditional ethnic products…the region was able to rebuild its social links and economic relationship with overseas Korean communities….the people of Yanbian came to firmly believe, especially after the [1989] Tiananmen incident, that the existence of a strong party (both in Beijing and Yanbian) would guarantee Korean prosperity, culture heritage, and unity. 

For a short pictorial version of the various leaders’ visits to Yanbian, a Renmin Ribao gallery suffices nicely. 

Why rehearse these particular details? I believe they are important, because they allow us to think further about what the right historical baseline is for analysts seeking to evaluate questions of CCP legitimacy in Yanbian, and especially to consider what extent ethnic policy (minzu zhengce) has changed in Yanbian under the direction of Xi Jinping.

This question is also relevant for those simply seeking deeper documentation for the history of ethnic Koreans in Yanbian since, as we see in the impressive work of Jaeeun Kim, CCP policy toward ethnic Koreans was neither particularly linear nor effective. Whether the questions today center around mobility, language, cultural identity, religion, economic autonomy, or cross-border identification or family ties in and across Yanbian, history of course plays a role. So back to the 1980s we go. 

How influential in the PRC is the Law on the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (延边朝鲜族自治州自治条例), which the article credits with opening the gates to a new era of Korean loyalty and autonomy in Yanbian? Being unable to run an opinion poll in Yanbian, we can run a simple internet search. This would appear to indicates that the law is not a significant part of the public discourse, since it been cited in state media exactly twice in the past seven years.

One of those references traces the law’s lineage not to Deng Xiaoping but instead to Zhao Nanqi (赵南起), a Han Chinese official who was a highly significant figure in leading the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture from 1978-1985. 

Zhao’s multiple roles tell us something — whilst serving as the leading Party member in Yanbian during this highly significant decade of transition and reform, he was also serving as political commissar for the Yanbian military region and as a vice-chair of Jilin province’s military committee. He was, in short, a military man. But he was a military man with over seven years of experience with the Chinese People’s Volunteers in North Korea, where he did Chinese-Korean translation for Peng Dehuai and stayed until spring 1958.

He had economic ambitions in Yanbian, of course, and this image shows him making plans for development of the border region economy in the late 1970s.

But his career was oriented fundamentally toward the PLA, and he was promoted out of Yanbian to enjoy the bureaucratic politics of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing in the late 1980s.

It is interesting that scholarship covering the late 1970s and early/mid 1980s in Yanbian has yet to get beyond Deng Xiaoping, rather than sifting through the actions and backgrounds of his more locally embedded representatives, like Zhao Nanqi. It is not that the specific local personality should be considered as the vital hinge point in understanding how policies change in the prefecture, but, as we see currently in the case of Party secretaries in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, the personalities and track records can hardly be described as irrelevant.

Finally, the paper describes how the CCP party committee in Yanbian has been “keen to invest in ‘red’ resources.” While not specifically pegging patriotic education to Xi Jinping, the authors note that 2013 was a highly active year for the developing of revolutionary landmarks, and highlight material from the local Korean version of the Renmin Ribao enjoining Korean Chinese that “the red genetics of Yanbian must be passed on” (p. 924).   

The Chinese-Korean border region is one where the Party continues to develop its revolutionary heritage, as was pointed out last month on Sino-NK. More survey data would be helpful in understanding just how effective this propaganda has been in urging Korean Chinese in the six counties of Yanbian to orient their loyalties and emotional energies toward the government and its representatives in Yanji, Jilin, or Beijing.

Ultimately, Woo, Easthope, and Chang’s article gathers up an array of perspectives and transnational links which allow us to revisit how our interpretation of Yanbian’s history in the 20th century undergirds and informs, or in some cases fails to explain, contemporary assumptions of party-society relations. Ultimately their article gives us much fodder to think further about how “the post-socialist citizenship granted to [Chosunjok] in China” interacts with or compares to the more “neoliberal compatriotic citizenship offered to them in South Korea” (p. 929). 

Citation: Park Woo, Robert Easthope & Chang Kyung-Sup, “China’s Ethnic Minority and Neoliberal Developmental Citizenship: Yanbian Koreans in Perspective,” Citizenship Studies, 24:7 (2020), 918-933.  




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