February 14, 2014, by Tony Hong

Chinese Intellectuals’ Thinking on Reforming Ethnic Policies

By Dr .Julie Yu-Wen Chen,

Department of Government,

University College Cork.

While the Western media offer us a channel for understanding what’s going on with ethnic relations in China, sometimes partial media coverage and an overreliance on English sources/perspectives give us an impression of a China that is indifferent to its various minorities. What is often ignored is that since 1949, China’s non-Han populations have enjoyed certain preferential rights and privileges. How to keep the country unified while balancing its diversity is a daunting task for the regime. Despites a number of ‘affirmative policies’, the society remains torn and in recent years has even witnessed an escalation of ethnic tensions.

I enjoyed reading a number of recent scholarly publications that seek to bring Chinese perspectives to non-Chinese readers. They are published in English and can help English readers gain a more in-depth understanding of what is actually being debated among China’s public intellectuals and scholars. Please note, though, what I offer in this blog article is not an exhaustive list of all relevant publications.

For instance, James Leibold’s 2013 piece in East West Center’s Policy Studies provides a detailed analysis of how Chinese intellectuals of various political ideologies articulate the challenges facing China’s policy makers and what they consider constructive methods to redress current problems. Leibold’s work focuses on Chinese elites’ thinking in recent years. A read of Allen Carlson’s 2012 chapter in Peter J. Katzenstein’s edited book Sinicization and the Rise of China, furthermore, will help readers contextualize the emergence of these new intellectual debates in modern Chinese history.

Both Leibold and Carlson point out that Peking University sociologist Ma Rong’s idea of ‘depoliticalisation’ and ‘culturalisation’ of ethnic issues has left an imprint on various intellectuals’ thinking.

Ma argues that the current preferential policies amplify the differences between ethnic groups. Many socioeconomic issues should be managed as issues among individual citizens regardless of their ethnicity, but current policies tend to regard issues as conflicts between ethnic groups, thus exacerbating ethnic relations. In Ma’s view, instead of protecting the rights of different groups, the government should protect the rights of all citizens of China.

For readers who might not be able to read the original Chinese texts of Ma’s writings, you can consult two English papers by him published in Asian Ethnicity. In the 2007 paper, you will find Ma’s depoliticalisation proposal. In January this year (2014), Asian Ethnicity has a short article from Ma defending his proposal and indicating how others have misread him. The paper is not yet in hard copy, but you can download it for free online.

The reason Ma has to defend his proposal is not just that he has received a lot of critiques arguing that his approach would not work. Ma insists that even those who have seemingly adopted his ideas have misread him, and he felt the need to clarify his points. Ma particularly notes the so-called second generation of ethnic policies proposed by Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe. As mentioned in Leibold’s work (2013: 19), Hu Angang is particularly notable as he is a kind of policy guru who seems to have the ear of top party leaders. How he articulates and proposes regarding the policy reform, accordingly, might be important.

In the ‘two Hus’ view, there is also an emphasis on attenuating ethnic identity, which at first glance seems to echo Ma’s depoliticalisation idea. Ma, however, refutes this by explaining that what he advocates is a pluralist society. This differs from the two Hus, who stress depoliticalising ethnic issues and integrating minorities into the Han-dominated Chinese society. Ma says he has always tried to keep China’s unity and diversity in balance. In his 2007 paper in Asian Ethnicity, he uses ideas taken from Jürgen Habermas’s Postnational Constellation to state that his China would be a place where ‘at the national level the members of all ethnic groups should respect the common social norms; at the ethnicity level, each should respect, even appreciate, the cultures of other groups’ (Ma, 2007: 215). Leibold (2013: 1) also points out that here the shadow of Ma’s mentor, the renowned sociologist Fei Xiaotong is apparent. Ma believes that he is upholding the right interpretation of Fei’s “multiple origins, one body” (多元一体) paradigm.

Ma goes on to defend what he means by depoliticalisation—to ‘reduce the political colour in ethnic relation’ (Ma, 2014: 4)—but he does not deny ‘the political demands of minorities for equal rights and fair participation’ (Ma, 2014:5).

To be honest, when I first read Ma’s proposal, I felt that his references to concepts in western sociology such as nationalism and ethnicity as well as his comparative approach to study the situations in India and the United States was interesting and to a certain extent, I was captivated by his idea. But as Carlson (2012: 61) similarly observes, there is ‘an element of (Han) cultural superiority’ in Ma’s thinking. It was only in his later ‘defence’ article, with his clarification of what he meant by ‘depoliticalisation’ as stated above, that cultural superiority was toned down.  

It is also worth noting that having read a number of Chinese scholars’ work which, like the two Hus, borrows Ma’s depoliticalisation idea, I think one does need to attend to the actual content of their proposals. Most depoliticalisation discourses circulating in public debate now have a stronger preference for unity under Han Chinese civilisation. As said, I sensed this cultural superiority in Ma’s original proposal as well. But again, Ma clarifies in his ‘defence’ piece in 2014 that he does not ‘privilege the Han majority or any minority’ (Ma, 2014: 7). At the time of writing this blog article, I am still not clear exactly how these discrepancies in discourses occur and how intellectuals actually influence each other in their evolution of thinking and writing. 

Among other differences, Ma points out, is his belief that minority elites should be ‘respected, trusted, and encouraged’ to play roles in the transformative process. Ma also cautions against the outright push for interracial marriage and integration, as advocated by the two Hus and their followers. It appears that while Ma does agree with a more assimilationist approach, he understands that this has to be done incrementally and that attention needs to be paid to the diversity of models, which should be implemented in light of the different pace and condition of development in minority regions.

I would like thank Leibold who read an earlier draft of this blog article and pointed out that I should mention the hidden tensions among the scholars who are debating these policy reforms. There is a “turf war” over various social science disciplines regarding what kind of experts have the right to speak on these issues. 

Despite ongoing debates among China’s intellectuals, Leibold notes that we do not know much about Chinese leaders’ actual thinking on this matter. It appears that a kind of conservatism prefers the status quo, plus very minor changes to any of the reform proposals initiated by intellectuals.



Carlson, Allen (2012). Reimagining the Frontier: Patterns of Sinicization and the Emergence of New Thinking about China’s Territorial Periphery. In Peter J. Katzenstein (ed.) Sinicization and the Rise of China: Civilizational Processes beyond East and West. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 41-64.

Leibold, James (2013). Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable? Policy Studies, No. 68. Honolulu: East West Center.


Rong, Ma (2014). Reflections on the Debate on China’s Policy: My Reform Proposals and Their Critics. Asian Ethnicity.


Rong, Ma (2007). A New Perspective in Guiding Ethnic Relations in the Twenty-First Century: ‘Depoliticalization’ of Ethnicity in China. Asian Ethnicity, 8(3): 199-217.

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