Management of Ethnic Relations and Conflict in Western China: Past and Present
Addressing issues of conflict management, development, and history, the present project looks at the social and political transformation of China's multiethnic western and south-western border regions. The project takes as its intellectual point of departure the realization that by default rather than by design, a number of dimensions are absent from the existing literature on this vast expanse of sparsely populated but strategically important territory, culturally diverse and home to some 80 percent of China's officially designated minority nationalities. This absence would be of limited importance were it not for the fact that any "missing dimension" may well – in the words of historian Christopher Andrew – "distort our understanding of other, accessible dimensions" and invalidate in part or in full the findings of our analyses.
The project singles out two distinct but interlocking "missing dimensions" for scrutiny, the first arguably absent from the bulk of European studies of the Mao era and from analyses of the program of "market Leninism" launched by Deng Xiaoping and continued by his successors. It is the dimension of the "united front" work that shaped the process of social and political transformation of the southwestern and western frontier in the first two decades of the PRC. It asks to what extent and in what way(s) tactical alliances with nominal adversaries, negotiated compromises and pragmatic "understandings" enabled the consolidation of the central government's control. How did the "united front" – defined ad hoc in the 1950s and 60s as "joining forces with the feudal to defeat the feudal" – play itself out in the party's relations with and perception by the upper strata of ethnic groups and its engagement with powerful local elites and "democratic personages"? What did it entail in the management of multi-ethnicity as a challenge to political integration? What is its present-day legacy?
The second dimension is less opaque than the first, yet remains almost equally understudied. It concerns the public roles of today's ethnic elites – intellectual, administrative, and entrepreneurial – and their engagement with the state. Largely owing to an overemphasis on Soviet models in explaining PRC nationalities work, contemporary China studies have often overlooked the politics of central-local relations and delicate power balances in the locality between ethnic groups. The present project avoids downplaying the crucial agency of local elites, and instead puts the analytical focus sharply on their capacity to shape, influence, and hijack policy-making during important transitions. While there exists a substantial body of scholarly literature devoted to what has been characterized as the uneasy relations of Chinese (Han) intellectuals with the party-state, corresponding research on China's ethnic elites is still weak by comparison. Probing this dimension, the project analyses the crucial role of ethnic elites in managing the tension arising as a by-product of the uneven economic development and modernization process pursued nationally since the start of the 1980s. It explores rhetorical parallels between the Chinese intellectuals privileging of "thought" and the ethnic elites privileging of "culture", and seeks to identify the points where they differ with respect to their relationships with the state and vested interests. The ongoing development of western China at the heart of the present study brings the CCP's "united front work" of the past into play in a new context, the significance of which goes beyond economic change in the region.
Dr. Michael Schoenhals
Sofia K. Ledberg