Since the appalling killing of George Floyd in late May and the nationwide protests that followed, a growing number of Americans have been calling for a national reckoning on race. In addition to calls for lawmakers to address the racial disparity in instances of police brutality, attention is being drawn to the less noble parts of America’s history, tainted by racist institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow laws and their legacy today. Indeed, America and other western nations are now experiencing what some have called a new “racial awakening.”
It is a positive thing that more attention is being paid to the manner in which dark-skinned people have been treated in the west. A society that is able to contend honestly with the ugly aspects of its history will have greater legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, and will instill a healthier and more sustainable patriotism. But this self-criticism must not blind us to the racist transgressions of countries in other parts of the world. This is particularly important today, when the world is confronted with the most threatening racist superpower in almost a century: the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
It’s rare to hear China mentioned in anti-racist discourse. The near exclusive focus on the racist legacies of Anglo-European countries has even led some to the misguided belief that China has no problems with racism at all. Yet a close examination of the ideological underpinnings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exposes China as one of the world’s most racist nations.
At its origins, the PRC was held together by a farrago of Marxist-Leninist ideology, cult worship of the PRC’s first chairman, Mao Zedong, and bits of lip service to Confucian values, sprinkled in at opportune times. This proved to be an unstable foundation for a nation, as evidenced most clearly by the horrific number of deaths during Mao’s rule. Accordingly, the PRC’s leaders after Mao chose to gradually shift away from this mixture, in favor of more practical governing philosophies.
Today, the official ideology of the PRC is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” But, given much of the modern Chinese economy’s turn towards state-directed market capitalism, the latter half of this term tends to be more strongly emphasized.
“Chinese characteristics” comprises a number of components, some of which are beneficial. Confucian culture, for instance, is arguably a positive influence on China. One corrupting characteristic, however, is the idea that the Han Chinese ethnicity is superior to all others—an idea that has been described as “Han-centrism.” Unfortunately, it is this characteristic that has been most prevalent in recent years.
Han-centrism is based on the belief that the Han Chinese are “racially pure and the true descendants of the ‘Ancestral Nation.’” Racism is prohibited by the Chinese constitution—but, like many of the constitution’s other provisions, this is only selectively enforced. It isn’t uncommon for sentiments of Han ethno-supremacy to be voiced explicitly in China—particularly on Chinese social media sites, where citizens can easily frame their racism in the state-sanctioned language of “patriotic anger.”
More often, though, Han-centrism takes less explicit forms. The most far-reaching and deeply ingrained of these is the CCP’s appalling Chinese history curriculum. In Chinese schools, China’s history is taught with a monomaniacal focus on the century of humiliation, which began with the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century and ended with the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Teaching anything that could fall into the category of mistakes made by the CCP is strictly prohibited, as are subjects like citizens’ rights and universal values. The goal is to instill within every Chinese citizen the axiomatic belief that the Chinese Communist Party has succeeded in making China strong again, but that its new-found position is precarious, and must be consistently defended against attacks by those who wish to see it returned to its previous state of weakness. Crucially, these perceived attacks don’t just come from outside China, but also from within, in the form of non-Han minority groups, who obdurately refuse to acquiesce to the CCP’s demands of complete acculturation.
It’s easy to draw a direct line between the pernicious beliefs of Han-centrism and the CCP’s treatment of China’s ethnic minorities today. The most egregious example is China’s crimes against the Uyghurs—an ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority group—in China’s far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), also commonly referred to as East Turkistan. Since around 2014, the CCP has established thousands of concentration camps—euphemistically called re-education camps—where they have imprisoned, brainwashed and often tortured, raped and killed at least one million Uyghurs. Some have argued convincingly that these crimes meet each of the five criteria listed in the UN Genocide Convention, fulfilling any one of which can be considered genocide.
The CCP attempts to justify their operation in Xinjiang by framing it as a necessary counter-extremism policy, and this framing is easier to understand when viewed through the lens of Han-centric ideology. Disaffected, uncooperative minorities within China cannot be acknowledged as marginalized peoples with legitimate grievances. They must always be, by definition, extremists. This is because, according to Han-centrism, minority ethnic groups who don’t fully buy in to what a popular Han-centrist blogger calls “the Han ethnic group’s invigoration and China’s gaining of wealth and power” will always pose an unacceptable threat to social order.
Han Chinese civilians are largely supportive of the counter extremism policies in Xinjiang for the same reason: they believe that without the omnipresent paternalistic influence of the Han-centric government, the Uyghurs will inevitably rise up against the Han. And, perhaps with some help from Western imperialists, unseat the Han from power in China, and relegate them to their former state of humiliation.
So why isn’t there a massive anti-racism movement against China? Surely if the United States or another western nation were corralling its ethnic minorities into concentration camps to be re-educated or if its school systems indoctrinated children with paranoid, racist pseudo-history, which taught them to view minorities as ticking time bombs of subversion, there would be an unceasing effort to stop it—and rightfully so. But we hardly ever hear anti-racism activists in the west speak plainly about the fact that contemporary China is probably the most institutionally racist nation on the planet today. This is a travesty.
It is insulting to the Turkic minorities in China, who are being targeted in the most odious way possible because of their race, to focus our energies exclusively on combating racism in western countries. The oppressed racial minorities in China have no ability to protest in the street, because they’d be snatched up by police and thrown into a cell, if not simply shot. They have no ability to appeal for more legal protections, because what’s happening to them isn’t legal under Chinese law to begin with. The Chinese Communist Party has made it all too clear that they aren’t interested in dealing with the Uyghurs as concerned citizens. They see them only as an incorrigible, inferior race of people, who must be edified by any means necessary to ensure the protection of Han dominance.
The West has a responsibility to face up to its racist past, and correct unacceptable policies and behaviors that still linger on into the present day. But more attention on China is needed if we’re serious about fighting racism. The anti-racist movement must call out China for their campaign of Uyghur genocide.