Xi Jinping’s calls for ethnic tolerance don’t match his government’s actions

What would Confucius do?
What would Confucius do?
Image: Reuters/Ng Han Guan
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At a gathering yesterday to celebrate Confucius’s 2,565th birthday, the president of China gave a speech that called for tolerance, the celebration of differences, and respect for all cultures: “Don’t feel displeased or try to transform, assimilate, or even replace other civilizations when they are different from your own,” Xi Jinping said.

It was a jarring soundbite in a week when China also sentenced the moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti to life in prison. As Quartz has reported, Tohti’s sentence was the toughest meted out to any dissident in China in recent memory—not for a violent crime but for setting up a website devoted to cultural dialog and understanding between China’s Muslim ethnic minorities and the majority Han Chinese.

In fact, China’s domestic policy towards ethnic minorities like the Uighurs stands in stark contrast to Xi Jinping’s speech. In Xinjiang, for instance, the government bans officials and students from observing religious fasting during Ramadan, and in at least one city locals sporting beards or Muslim headscarves were barred from buses.

Beijing also recently started paying newly married couples if one member is Han and the other is an ethnic minority. The New York Times reported that officials are offering payments of 10,000 yuan ($1,600) a year, and also give mixed couples priority for housing, government jobs, schooling, and other benefits. It is a policy that seems designed with assimilation in mind.

Many government critics, Tohti among them, have argued that such policies will turn moderate members of ethnic minorities against the state (paywall). A steady uptick of violence in China’s western regions—including attacks on police stations and government buildings in Xinjiang this weekend that killed a dozen people and injured about 100—suggest that Xi’s hardline policies are radicalizing the Uighurs, not pacifying them.

Xi perhaps implicitly acknowledged the likelihood of further strife in his speech on Confucious’s birthday, saying: “History has repeatedly proved that any move that aims to resolve differences among civilizations is doomed to failure and wreck havoc on civilizations.”