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 as China grows more prosperous and powerful, the enforced exclusion of the country’s ethnic minorities will undermine Beijing’s efforts to foster a “harmonious society” and present China as a model to the rest of the world.


Estimates vary, but close to 120 million Chinese citizens do not belong to the majority Han ethnic group. Ethnic minorities such as Kazakhs, Koreans, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs, and other groups represent only eight percent of China’s population. But their existence belies a commonplace notion of China as a homogeneous society. It’s also worth noting that, taken together, the regions of China that are dominated by non-Han people constitute roughly half of China’s territory and that if non-Han Chinese citizens formed their own country, it would be the 11th largest in the world, just behind Mexico and just ahead of the Philippines.

Ethnic minority delegates in front of the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, March 2015.
Reuters / Carlos Barria

Although Tibetans represent only about five percent of China’s non-Han citizens, their struggle attracts significant international attention and is in many ways an effective stand-in for the experience of the other minority groups. Tibetans have long been treated as second-class citizens, deprived of basic opportunities, rights, and legal protections that Han Chinese enjoy (albeit in a country where the rule of law is inconsistent at best). The central government consistently denies Tibetans the high degree of autonomy promised to them by the Chinese constitution and by Chinese law. The state is supposed to protect minority groups’ cultural traditions and encourage forms of affirmative action to give minorities a leg up in university admissions and the job market. But such protections and benefits are rarely honored. The state’s approach toward the Tibetan language well illustrates this pattern: although the government putatively seeks to preserve and respect the Tibetan language, in practice Beijing has sought to marginalize it by insisting that all postprimary education take place in Chinese and by discouraging the use of Tibetan in business and government.

More overt forms of discrimination exist as well, including ethnic profiling. Security and law enforcement personnel frequently single out traveling Tibetans for extra attention and questioning, especially since a wave of protests against Beijing’s policies—some of which turned violent—swept Tibet in 2008. Hotels in Chinese cities routinely deny Tibetans accommodations—even those who can “pass” as Han, since their identity cards designate them as Tibetan. Worse, since 2008, the state has placed new restrictions on Tibetans’ civil rights, forbidding them to establish associations devoted to issues such as the environment and education—something Han Chinese are allowed to do.

Even in Tibetan-majority areas, where Tibetans should enjoy some advantage, Tibetans earn lower incomes relative to Han Chinese.
Deprivations of that kind are part of a broader, more systemic inequality that characterizes life for Tibetans in China. Andrew Fischer, an expert on Tibet’s economy, has used official Chinese government statistics to demonstrate that Tibetans are much less likely to get good jobs than their Han counterparts due to the lack of educational opportunities available to them. Even in Tibetan-majority areas, where Tibetans should enjoy some advantage, Tibetans earn lower incomes relative to Han Chinese.

It is hard to know exactly what role racism or ethnic prejudice plays in fostering these inequalities. In part, that is because it is difficult to generalize about the views of Han Chinese toward Tibetans and other minorities; just like in the West, public opinion on identity in China is shaped by the ambiguity and imprecision of concepts such as ethnicity and race. Still, it is fair to say that most Han Chinese see Tibetans and other minorities as ethnically different from themselves and perhaps even racially distinct as well.

That was not always the case. In the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals and officials talked about Tibetans and Chinese as all belonging to “the yellow race.” By the 1950s, however, such ideas had gone out of fashion, and Mao Zedong’s government launched a project to categorize the country’s myriad self-identifying ethnic groups with the aim of reducing the number of officially recognized minorities—the fewer groups there were, the easier they would be to manage, the government hoped. This had the effect of creating clearer lines between the various groups and also encouraged a paternalistic prejudice toward minorities. Han elites came to see Tibetans and other non-Han people as at best junior partners in the project of Chinese nation building. In the future, most Han elites assumed, such groups would be subsumed by the dominant culture and would cease to exist in any meaningful way; this view was partly the result of Maoist tenets that saw class consciousness as a more powerful force than ethnic solidarity.


An ethnic minority delegate after a plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 2014.
Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon
Perhaps the most striking aspect of contemporary racism and ethnic prejudice in China is its continuity with the past. Throughout the many convulsions China has experienced in the past century, there has never been a watershed moment or turning point in Chinese thinking about race and ethnicity. And regardless of communism’s putative colorblindness, racial and ethnic identity was central to early, pre-Maoist versions of Chinese nationalism, which never ceased to influence the country’s political culture.

Although traditional Chinese thought posited the superiority of Chinese culture, it was not explicitly racist. But during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese intellectuals who had studied in Japan—which, during that period, was self-consciously embracing many Western ideas, including some relating to race—began bringing home new, more essentialist ideas about race and ethnicity. Chinese scholars adopted the Japanese term minzoku-shugi (minzu zhuyi in Chinese), which Chinese speakers use today as the equivalent of “nationalism.” But as the historian Frank Dikotter has argued, minzu zhuyi “literally meant ‘racism,’ and expressed a nationalist vision of race.”

In 1921, Sun declared that China must rid itself altogether of the idea of separate races. “We must facilitate the dying out of all names of individual peoples inhabiting China, i.e., Manchus, Tibetans, etc.,” Sun said. He had a specific model in mind: the United States.
By the 1920s, the question of China’s racial and ethnic identity began to take on greater importance as the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen sought to transform the crumbling Chinese empire into a modern state. In 1921, Sun declared that China must rid itself altogether of the idea of separate races. “We must facilitate the dying out of all names of individual peoples inhabiting China, i.e., Manchus, Tibetans, etc.,” Sun said. He had a specific model in mind: the United States. “We must follow the example of the United States of America,” he said, in order to “satisfy the demands and requirements of all races and unite them in a single cultural and political whole, to constitute a single nation.”

Of course, at that time, the United States was hardly a paragon of racial justice and tolerance. But in the decades following Sun’s remarks, the U.S. civil rights movement began the process of eliminating legally sanctioned discrimination and reducing prejudice in society. Although racial inequality remains a serious problem in the United States, individual and official views on race have changed dramatically during the past century.

The story is far less hopeful in China. Although China’s constitution and ethnic autonomy laws create the appearance of progress, there are no mechanisms for enforcing the vision of equality put forward by those texts. Put simply, there is no Chinese Department of Justice or Chinese Supreme Court to which Tibetans can appeal to fight discriminatory practices.

Tibetan monks at a monastery in Qinghai province, February 2009.
Reuters / Reinhard Krause


It is hardly surprising that Han views of Tibetans include an undercurrent of prejudice and paternalism. After all, Tibet came to be ruled by Beijing through conquest.

One of the main challenges facing Mao’s Communist forces after their triumph in the Chinese Civil War was the consolidation of the central government’s control of China’s frontier provinces. Between 1949 and 1951, Chinese Communists used the threat of overwhelming military force to incorporate Tibet into China. By that point, Tibet had enjoyed self-rule, if not international recognition as a state, for more than three decades.

From the beginning, racial nationalism played a crucial role in Beijing’s consolidation of control over Tibet. In this respect, Chinese communism mirrored the European colonialism that had dominated China in earlier eras. In 1954, the state formally “recognized” some 30 ethnic groups, including the Tibetans, as minority ethnicities. Over the course of the next three decades, Beijing would add another 18 ethnic groups to that list. Of course, within the borders of their home territories, many of those groups made up almost total majorities.

Beijing spun this recognition as a sign of China’s respect for minorities. In reality, it was merely a step in codifying inequality. The Communist Party deemed Tibetans and most other ethnic minorities unfit for leadership roles and made it clear that it was not interested in including them in high-level decision-making. In 1958, authorities placed the leading ethnic Tibetan Communist, Puntsok Wanggyel, under house arrest, charging him with the crime of “local nationalism”; he would spend the next 20 years incarcerated. And although Tibetans and other minority groups were subjected to (and sometimes willingly participated in) the radical reforms and revolutionary violence of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, they were never offered positions within the party leadership.

For Mao, instituting an official form of racism was not merely a way to justify quasi-colonial rule in Tibet and elsewhere but also a means for shoring up a Chinese national identity.
At the same time, the Communist Party began educating the Han majority in a new form of official racism. Ten “minority films” produced by the government between 1953 and 1966 and screened widely throughout the country depicted ethnic minorities as living in harsh, primitive conditions prior to their “liberation” by Chinese Communists. One of these films, The Serf (1963), is still shown today. It features a mute Tibetan protagonist, an unintentionally apt symbol for the way in which authorities in Beijing have sought to silence appeals for Tibetan autonomy and self-representation. Other official efforts to inculcate racist views included museums that distorted Tibet’s past, depicting it as a “hell on earth” and portraying Tibetans as a savage, backward people in need of civilizing.

For Mao, instituting an official form of racism was not merely a way to justify quasi-colonial rule in Tibet and elsewhere but also a means for shoring up a Chinese national identity that would otherwise fragment along any number of potential fault lines: rich and poor, urban and rural, coastal and inland. Just as China needed external “others”—the British, the Japanese, the Koreans—to rally against, so the state needed internal others to shift attention away from the party’s domination and exploitation of the Chinese people.


The level of tension in Tibet today rivals that of the late 1950s, when the Chinese Communists forced unwelcome social, religious, and economic changes on the area. Early Tibetan attempts to drive out Chinese forces were forcefully suppressed, but Beijing has never been able to totally eradicate resistance to its control. For decades, the Dalai Lama has served as a powerful symbol of Tibetan self-determination—and as an intense irritant to Beijing—traveling the world to garner support for greater political, religious, and civil rights for Tibetans. Meanwhile, challenges to Beijing’s control have emerged on the ground as well. During the unrest in 2008, nearly 100 protests broke out in Tibet; around 20 percent of them escalated into violent riots, as protesters looted shops, set fire to police stations and government buildings, and attacked security personnel.

But the 2008 unrest was something of an aberration from the contemporary norm: generally, the central state maintains firm control of the Tibetan Plateau and enforces its rule with a strong military, police, and bureaucratic presence. And rather than produce doubts among the Han majority about the wisdom of Beijing’s policies toward Tibet, the unrest instead encouraged some Han Chinese, including well-educated elites, to embrace a belief in an essential racial difference between themselves and Tibetans, whom many Han people have come to see as inherently dangerous.

One reason that attitudes and beliefs about race and ethnicity have changed so little in China is the extent to which the state has blocked discussion of the topic through its control of universities and research institutions and through its obsessive monitoring and censoring of the press and electronic communications. Communist Party ideologues and state media outlets occasionally acknowledge racism by referring euphemistically to “Han chauvinism.” But such admissions usually come only in the wake of campaigns to repress dissent in minority-dominated regions.

Occasional criticism from within the Communist Party has had little effect. In a speech delivered in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1980, the party leader Hu Yaobang explicitly compared Beijing’s Tibetan policy to colonialism and argued that it had failed to live up to communist ideals: “We have worked nearly 30 years, but the life of Tibetans has not notably improved,” he lamented. He called for the state to make good on its promises of autonomy and “to let Tibetans really be the masters of their own lives,” proposing a series of specific measures: compelling some Han Chinese officials to learn the Tibetan language, replacing Han party officials in Tibet with ethnic Tibetan ones, and creating more opportunities for higher education in Tibet. But the government mostly ignored Hu’s ideas; as with other instances of government recognition of Han chauvinism, this foray into self-criticism was short-lived and inconsequential.

Aside from the small number of Tibetans who serve as Communist Party bureaucrats, very few Tibetans can take advantage of such funding and development.

Chinese Communist Party officials have long argued that the government’s “Develop the West” campaign, which seeks to increase growth and create economic opportunities in Tibet and other frontier provinces, is the best way to redress ethnic inequality in China. “Development is the foundation of resolving Tibet’s problems,” declared Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006. But as Fischer, the expert on Tibet’s economy, has revealed, Beijing has directed most of the development funding toward government administration and massive infrastructure projects that surely help central authorities exercise more control but whose benefit to Tibetans is less obvious. Aside from the small number of Tibetans who serve as Communist Party bureaucrats, very few Tibetans can take advantage of such funding and development, since their levels of educational attainment and Chinese-language abilities generally fall below those of the Han workers who arrive from other provinces to compete for jobs. The result is what Fischer has termed “disempowered development,” which marginalizes Tibetans in their own autonomous region.

Whatever economic improvements the campaign has created, it has also had a counterproductive effect on Han views of Tibetans. Han people often describe the Tibetans as ungrateful for the largess of the central state. As Emily Yeh, an expert on development in Tibet, has written, many Han Chinese tend to see economic projects there as a “gift” to the Tibetans rather than as an instrument of Beijing’s power and control. This perception fuels a view of Tibetans as lazy, unproductive, incapable of managing their own economy, and dependent on the central state.


Ethnic Miao women with headwear are seen during their annual Tiaohua festival in Suoga village, Guizhou province, February 9, 2014.
Ethnic Miao women with headwear are seen during their annual Tiaohua festival in Suoga village, Guizhou province, February 9, 2014. 
In the context of the current political environment in China, it is difficult to imagine how the condition of China’s ethnic minorities might be improved. The authorities treat any activism or dissent in Tibet and other minority-dominated areas as separatist incitement or even terrorism. And given the fact that Han Chinese citizens themselves enjoy few political or civil rights, it might be unrealistic to hope for an improvement in minority rights.

Still, there are officials within the Chinese Communist Party and state structures who recognize the need 
for change. One way they could start improving relations among China’s ethnic groups would be to revive the ideas of Hu Yaobang. Beijing should increase the numbers of Communist Party and government officials of Tibetan descent; put Tibetans in real positions of power, such as party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region; and create a Tibetan-language educational system, especially in rural areas of Tibet. Beijing should also start protecting constitutional guarantees and enforcing existing laws regarding ethnic autonomy, even if doing so requires creating a new administrative or judicial body to hold officials accountable.

Perhaps what China really needs is a truth-and-reconciliation process through which Tibetans and other minorities could safely air their grievances and the Chinese state could acknowledge the abuses of the past. Of course, such an undertaking will be unimaginable as long as China remains a one-party authoritarian state. But nothing currently prevents the Communist Party from simply acknowledging that its policies and practices have failed to bring minority ethnicities willingly into the Chinese state. Such a concession would cost the party very little and would be a significant first step toward improving relations and creating a foundation for a more stable society.

The best hope for change, however, lies with ordinary Han Chinese. If they could see through the Communist Party’s attempts to divide and dominate, then they might come to realize that all Chinese citizens share a similar desire for freedom from government oppression. The U.S. civil rights movement succeeded only after significant numbers of white Americans, appalled by the brutality and inequality blacks faced, allied with black organizations and movements that had been fighting against racism for decades. Likewise, any substantive change in Beijing’s policies toward Tibetans and other minorities will take a similar change in the views of China’s dominant ethnic group.

Such a stark shift might be catalyzed by more person-to-person contact between Han Chinese and Tibetans; according to the so-called contact hypothesis, such interactions make it easier for people from different ethnic groups to overcome their prejudices and fears. Such contact is now happening more than ever before. Owing to the Develop the West campaign, migrant workers now travel to and from Tibet in huge numbers. And since the opening in 2006 of a train line that connects Lhasa to the city of Xining, in Qinghai Province (the first railway to link Tibet to another Chinese region), Han Chinese tourists have poured into the region; this year, 15 million are expected to visit. Meanwhile, even as mainstream Han views of Tibetans have hardened in recent years, a growing number of Han Chinese—especially young people—have begun to demonstrate a sincere and respectful interest in Tibetan society, culture, and religion.

But those developments hardly provide ample grounds for optimism. Barring fundamental changes in Beijing’s policies, it is likely that ethnic and racial prejudice against Tibetans and other minorities will remain a serious weakness in the fabric of Chinese 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
  • GRAY TUTTLE is Leila Hadley Luce Associate Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.
  • More By Gray Tuttle