Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Will China meet the same fate as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia?
What do they all have in common? A multinational empire in which the dominant nationality is surrounded by ethnic minorities. In the case of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians made up about half of the Soviet population in 1991. In Yugoslavia, the dominant Serbs could not hold the federation together after the collapse of communism. In fact, all communist federations failed: the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The latter only consisted of two main nationalities: Czechs and Slovaks. But they found they could not cohabit together and divorced. Why did all this happen?
Russia before the Bolshevik coup in 1917 and China before the communist takeover in 1949 were unitary states. Minorities had no special status. There was a common nationality and a shared citizenship. The tsarist regime never found a solution to the problems thrown up by the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian Empire. Vladimir Lenin wanted to yoke the nationalities to the Bolshevik chariot and offered them autonomy. They would have the right to secede from a Soviet state if they wished. This won over many of them.
Lenin’s nationality policy divided the Soviet Union into ethnic republics, such as Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Where a nationality was too few in numbers to qualify for a republic, they became autonomous regions within another republic, such as the Russian Federation. Smaller groups were granted autonomy status within an oblast or province. In doing this, Lenin created a nationality problem. Inside each ethnic republic, autonomous republic and so on, political, economic, social and cultural elites formed. Their national consciousness developed apace. These elites defended the status quo. Ethnic nationalism became reality.
Yugoslavia, a communist state from 1944, copied the Soviet model and set up ethnic republics within the Yugoslav Federation. When communism collapsed civil war erupted and each republic became a sovereign state.
When the People’s Republic of China was created in 1949 it was inevitable that it would follow the Soviet model. Each ethnic minority was given a territory and cultural autonomy. They acquired the right to form their own administration, teach their own language in schools and conduct business in their local language. The same thing happened as in the Soviet Union. Political, economic, social and cultural elites formed who wanted to defend the status quo. They also asked for more privileges and resources to be apportioned to them. One concession they won was the one child policy, in effect from 1979, did not apply to them.
China has now recognised that its ethnic policy has failed. Lenin assumed that as the economy developed, ethnic and other differences would melt away. The opposite happened in the Soviet Union. This is repeating itself in China at present.
Although ethnic minorities only account for 100 million of the 1.3 billion population, they are an increasing headache for Beijing. The policy of integrating all peoples in a common Chinese identity has failed spectacularly.
So what can China do to prevent the problem escalating? Some scholars propose that the problem can only be solved by establishing a federation. Others want the ethnic territorial divisions abolished.
Local elites favour the first option but are, naturally, vehemently opposed to the second. The latter would rob them of their privileged existence.
So what can Beijing do? There is a vigorous debate going on in the country about its future. The existing model has failed so what should replace it? Given the choice, Tibet and Xinjiang would declare independence. That is one option Beijing cannot countenance. The communists have created the problem and will have to compromise to placate ethnic sensibilities. Expect more ethnic conflict in China. And even a possible break-up of the country, say, in 10 years’ time.