For all the tremendous change China has experienced in recent decades—phenomenal economic growth, improved living standards, and an ascent to great-power status—the country has made little progress when it comes to the treatment of its ethnic minorities, most of whom live in China’s sparsely populated frontier regions. This is by no means a new problem. Indeed, one of those regions, Tibet, represents one of the “three Ts”—taboo topics that the Chinese government has long forbidden its citizens to discuss openly. (The other two are Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.)
But analyses of China’s troubles in Tibet and other areas that are home to large numbers of ethnic minorities often miss a crucial factor. Many observers, especially those outside China, see Beijing’s repressive policies toward such places primarily as an example of the central government’s authoritarian response to dissent. Framing the situation that way, however, misses the fact that Beijing’s hard-line policies are not merely a reflection of the central state’s desire to cement its authority over distant territories but also an expression of deep-seated ethnic prejudices and racism at the core of contemporary Chinese society. In that sense, China’s difficulties in Tibet and other regions are symptoms of a deeper disease, a social pathology that is hardly ever discussed in China and rarely mentioned even in the West.
When placed next to the challenge of maintaining strong economic growth, fighting endemic corruption, and managing tensions in the South China Sea, China’s struggle with the legacy and present-day reality of ethnic and racial prejudice might seem unimportant, a minor concern in the context of the country’s rise. In fact, Beijing’s inability (or unwillingness) to confront this problem poses a long-term threat to the central state. The existence of deep and broad hostility and discrimination toward Tibetans and other non-Han Chinese citizens will prevent China from easing the intense unrest that roils many areas of the country. And