Q. and A.: James Leibold on Ethnic Policies in China

Q. and A.: James Leibold on Ethnic Policies in China

La Trobe University’s James Leibold, an expert and frequent commentator on the politics of ethnicity in China, has recently spent time in western studying anti-veil campaigns aimed at local Muslim Uyghurs. In an interview with Ian Johnson for the New York Times, Dr. Leibold discusses the roots of China’s official ethnic taxonomy, his recent work in Xinjiang, the relation between current Party policy and violence in China’s troubled far west, and his assessment of central government approaches to ethnic tension:

Q. When did China begin classifying people according to ethnicity?

A. The distinction of groups by language and culture started in the imperial era. More recent attempts to “scientifically” classify people began with foreign adventurers and naturalists who traveled around southern China during the Republican period, and this gets picked up in the People’s Republic of China and mixed with Marxist taxonomies.

It became more sophisticated and institutionalized under the Communists but reflects Qing dynasty policy on ruling through local customs — recognizing ethnic chieftains, co-opting them into the state in exchange for titles and money.

The system that runs today is still based on ethnic patronage. “We’ll recognize you as ethnic minorities and, if you’ll play by the rules of the game, we’ll reward you with certain benefits. But if you resist, the boot awaits.” This is what the Qing called combining imperial grace (en) with might (wei), or what we might call a carrot-and-stick approach to ethnic governance.

Q. How is this reflected in your current work?
A. Right now, I’m working on the Communist Party’s anti-veiling campaign in Xinjiang with a colleague in the U.S. The party is offering women who take off their veils fully paid trips to Shanghai or Urumqi, as models of deveiling. But those who don’t remove their veils lose preferential benefits or are subject to administrative detention. […] [Source]

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