During his report to the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang took the time to comment on China’s social goals. In doing so, he reiterated what has become the cornerstone of ethnic policy under Chinese President Xi Jinping: “the acceleration of interethnic contact, exchange, and mingling”—in other words, the blending of peoples through mixed marriages and other forms of social and cultural exposure.

In China, the nation is fundamentally conceived as a biological union, or what Xi calls “a large family” with a long and rich history of “conjoined bloodlines.” In recent years, Xi has repeatedly stressed the need to speed up the pace of cross-ethnic exchanges—with exogamy, or marriage outside one’s own ethnic group, viewed as an important indicator of success. Interethnic marriage, party officials believe, will reduce ethnocultural differences and strengthen identification with a single, shared Chinese culture and identity.

This policy has attracted widespread controversy and debate, particularly among its Uighur and Tibetan minorities, who feel this top-down push is simply a way for the Chinese government to erase their identities. Pundits and civilians alike have persistently noted concerns about the erosion of minority cultures and languages, which are protected by the Chinese Constitution and are vigorously defended by many minority elites inside China. But for most Han Party officials, ethnic assimilation is a historical inevitability—the endgame of economic and social modernization.

And yet the regime’s obsession with ethnic mixing, especially recently, signals an underlying anxiety. Horrific acts of ethnic and religious violence, such as the 2014 Kunming train station attack, in which a number of Uighurs stabbed Han Chinese, and the spate of Tibetan self-immolations, have rattled the public and cast serious doubts on the Communist Party’s claim of interethnic harmony. The rift between the Han ethnic majority and the Tibetan and Uighur minorities in particular seems to be widening.

A celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, October 1, 2015.

Encouraging interethnic matrimony is not a new policy. During the imperial period, emperors offered up their own concubines to nomadic chieftains, hoping that “peace marriages” would buy stability. Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, considered bloodlines the most powerful element in the formation of a nation. In 1924, he wrote that “Since the blood of one’s ancestors is always transmitted by heredity down through the race, bloodline is the greatest force.” Sun and others in his generation called on the Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, and other “culturally inferior” frontier peoples, as they considered them, to “smelt together” with the Han majority in an evolutionary “furnace.” And in 1988, China’s most famous sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, employed the metaphor of a “rolling snowball” to describe what he thought would be an inexorable process of ethnic homogenization.

More recently, Chinese academics and policymakers have come to view interethnic marriage rates as a scientific indicator of national cohesion. Peking University Professor Ma Rong argues that one possible indicator of healthy ethnic relations is when more than ten percent of the population are in cross-ethnic unions. Since the fourth national census in 1990, the state has gathered data on the frequency and composition of “mixed-ethnic families.” In her analysis of the 2000 census results, sociologist Li Xiaoxia concluded that interethnic marriages were “already fairly universal” across China and reflected the strong unity and cohesiveness of the Chinese nation. Yet the data don’t support these inflated claims, and the results from the most recent 2010 census reveal a declining rate of transethnic marriages in China.

Overall, mixed marriages are extremely rare in China, especially when compared to rates elsewhere in the world. In 2010, only 2.8 percent of Chinese households consisted of more than one ethnic group, down from 3.2 percent a decade earlier. And only 2.5 percent were Han-minority mixes. In comparison, nine percent of marriages in England and Wales are interracial, as are 12 percent of new relationships in the United States. In Russia and the former Yugoslavia, which share similar ethnic policies as China, 12 and 13 percent of marriages, respectively, involve more than one ethnic group.

Despite high rates of exogamy among some minority groups in China, such as Manchus, Mongols, and Zhuang, endogamy is the norm among the Han majority and the Tibetan and Uighur minorities. Only 1.5 percent of Han Chinese married outside of their ethnicity in 2010. And a scant 0.44 percent of Uighurs did, with most of these marriages occurring with other Muslim minorities. And the rate of Han-Uighur intermarriage dropped from 0.56 to 0.20 percent over the last decade. The figure is higher among Han and Tibetans at roughly five percent in 2010, but has also declined slightly over the last decade.

The sheer size of the Han majority, which makes up nearly 92 percent of China’s population, means that cross-ethnic encounters are uncommon in China, especially in the rural heartlands where non-Han minorities are nearly nonexistent. And when these groups do cross paths, most Han look down on the ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs, regarding them as backward and uneducated.

One reason for the low rate of exogamy among Uighurs is Islam’s prohibition against marrying nonbelievers. But there are other factors at play as well, such as cultural, linguistic, and social differences. After all, there is a high frequency of intermarriage, roughly 12 percent, between the largely Sinicized Hui Muslim minority and the Han majority. Physical appearances also play a role. Due to their Central Asian features, Tibetans and Uighurs find it more difficult to “pass” as “Chinese,” and as a result face open discrimination when living and traveling in China proper. Finally, mutual suspicions and mistrust have intensified in Tibet and Xinjiang following the 2008 Lhasa and 2009 Urumqi riots. This helps to explain why these two regions have the lowest percentage of interethnic marriage, at 1.4 percent, of any region in China.

Chinese officials believe that urbanization will naturally boost transethnic matrimony because cities tend to be more diverse. Yet the data suggest the opposite. Interethnic marriage rates are slightly higher in the countryside than in the cities, and are lowest among the highly educated and urban residents. We now have abundant evidence demonstrating how increased interethnic contact actually intensifies rather than weakens the divisions among Hans and Uighurs and Tibetans. Take, for example, students from minority groups who are educated far from home in Beijing and other major cities. They usually participate in state-run programs designed to integrate ethnic minorities through dislocation. As scholar Timothy Grose and others have found, students exit the programs identifying strongly as Tibetan and Uighur, despite conducting their schooling in Mandarin, the language of the Han majority, and living among mainstream Han societies.

The drop in interethnic marriages has worried Chinese academics and officials. In response, local authorities in Xinjiang and Tibet have focused on financial and other incentives. In 2014, the Qiemo county government in Xinjiang began offering 10,000 yuan, or $1,536 per year, over five years to interethnic couples, plus subsidized education, health care, and housing, as well as preferential employment opportunities. Local governments in Tibet offer similar payoffs. In 2014 at a special conference to promote marital mixing, the Tibet Party chief Chen Quanguo even praised interethnic unions for “making a positive contribution to the unity and fusion of our fatherland’s ethnic groups.”

Jing Li (L) and her husband Ke Xu wear Tibetan traditional costumes as they pose for their wedding photos, November 18, 2015.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters

But these crude methods have appeared to backfire. Uighurs and Tibetans regard the Communist Party’s policy as meddlesome and an open assault on their culture and identity. Blending, for them, is viewed as a road to ethnic extinction. The Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser, who is married to the Han intellectual Wang Lixiong, argues that these measures are colonialistic.                                            

These policies are also premised on false assumptions about the dynamics of ethnic identity: it is not a linear process. That is why someone like Woeser can marry a Han and still feel Tibetan. Identity is a subjective perception, and increased mobility, modernity, and urbanization do not magically erase ethnic and cultural differences. Under certain circumstances in a cross-ethnic marriage, the minority partner, and sometimes the children too, strengthens ethnic attachments, as Paul Spickard demonstrated in his 1989 book Mixed Blood.

Moreover, mixed marriages flourish only under the right structural and cultural conditions. Demographic equality, for one, is important, and in China, the size of the Han majority and the relative segregation of the Uighur and Tibetan populations creates obvious barriers to interethnic relationships. China has also institutionalized the ethnic divide. Ethnic status is noted on identification documents and preferential benefits are doled out based on one’s ethnicity.

Yet, perhaps most important, frequent interethnic contact and marriage require a free, open, and tolerant society, conditions that are currently lacking in China. In Xinjiang and Tibet especially, the Communist Party’s heavy-handed approach to social and ethnic management has spurred alienation, mistrust, and resistance.

When blending isn’t voluntary, ethnic boundaries are sure to harden. China’s Han-based biological nationalism is crushing the civic belonging necessary for natural and meaningful interethnic mingling. China must turn its back on social engineering policies if it hopes to create the conditions for a genuine multiethnic society.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now