Is China sowing the seeds of its own dissolution?

I was unpleasantly reminded of the Soweto uprising of 1976 in South Africa by a recent article discussing China’s crackdown on the Mongol language and culture.

Chinese authorities are searching for protesters in Inner Mongolia after a new policy aimed at pushing Mandarin-language education across the region sparked widespread unrest among the country’s ethnic Mongols, with many angered by what they saw as a move to erase their culture.

Thousands of students in Inner Mongolia have taken to the streets during the past week to rally against the government’s three-year plan to push Mandarin-language education across the northern region and phase out local history, literature and ethnic textbooks in favor of national coursebooks, according to rights group Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

Parents are also refusing to send their children to school in defiance of the new policy, said the New York-based human-rights center in a report earlier this week, while unverified videos of demonstrators protesting outside schools have circulated on Chinese social media.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has intensified efforts to promote Mandarin and push the country’s ethnic minorities to adopt a uniform Chinese identity.

There’s more at the link, although the article may disappear behind a paywall.

What’s the connection between China in 2020, and South Africa in 1976?  It’s all about language and culture.

The Soweto uprising was a series of demonstrations and protests led by black school children in South Africa that began on the morning of 16 June 1976.

Students from numerous Sowetan schools began to protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. It is estimated that 20,000 students took part in the protests. They were met with fierce police brutality and many were shot and killed. The number of people killed in the uprising is usually given as 176, but estimates of up to 700 have been made.

. . .

For the state the uprising marked the most fundamental challenge yet to apartheid and the economic (see below) and political instability it caused was heightened by the strengthening international boycott. It was a further 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released, but at no point was the state able to restore the relative peace and social stability of the early 1970s as black resistance grew.

Again, more at the link.

The Chinese government doubtless thinks that because Han Chinese are the biggest ethnic and cultural group in the country (about 92% of the population), it can use them to dominate and suppress all others.  The trouble is, one is dealing with numbers so great as to dwarf the imagination.  The Mongol cultural group in China may be only about 5.8 million strong, but if even 1% of that number becomes sufficiently radicalized to fight back, that’s tens of thousands of potential insurgents.  Add to that the other minority ethnic groups in China, all of which are under similar repression by Han Chinese language and culture (see, for example, the Uighur concentration camps), and one has the potential for real disruption.

It’s instructive to compare what happened to two other nations when their central governments tried to impose their respective visions of ethnicity and the state.  In South Africa, the apartheid government tried to forcibly divide the nation along the lines of tribal groups, establishing so-called “Bantustans” for the larger tribes and seeking to force their members to be citizens of their “homeland” rather than the nation as a whole.  This policy met with massive resistance;  and when apartheid collapsed, the result was that everyone who had been “forced apart” demanded to come together into a central, unified nation.  That was actually a pretty bad choice, from an ethnic perspective:  South Africa to this day has eleven official languages, making for huge bureaucratic headaches to manage translation between them and running the country with due allowance for all of them.  Nevertheless, that was the result.  Remember Newton’s third law of motion?  “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”  In political terms, push people apart hard enough for long enough, and they’ll rush back together as soon as the pressure is removed.

In the former Soviet Union, the opposite problem was seen.  Moscow implemented centralized rule over all the nations that made up the Union.  The Russian language was imposed on all other ethnicities;  administration was centralized in Moscow, and regional governments were forced to hew to the Moscow line;  and any political leaders who wanted to get anywhere in their own states were forced to conduct themselves like “Russians in miniature” in order to get Moscow’s permission to run things locally.  Deviation was met with at best suspicion, at worst imprisonment or death.  Thus, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the “equal and opposite reaction” in political terms was that most of the minor nations that had been forced into the Union demanded their independence.  They almost all went their own way, so that we have today the many “Stans” of central Asia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, and many other former Soviet states that regard Moscow with suspicion and don’t want to risk losing their “independence” – such as it is – to a resurgent Russia.

In South Africa, pressure to separate eventually forced a stronger, greater union.  In the Soviet Union, pressure to unite eventually forced the breakaway of those who did not want to be forcibly united.  Equal and opposite reactions, in both cases.  Will the same thing happen in China?  I guess the Chinese government and Communist Party think they have sufficient centralized power, and sufficient Han Chinese ethnic dominance, that they can ride roughshod over all objections.  Trouble is, that ignores the lessons of history.  Even the greatest Chinese imperial dynasties eventually collapsed.  If history is any indication, sooner or later the same will happen to the current Communist Party dynasty there.

Will ethnic oppression hasten that day?  My experience in South Africa leads me to believe that it will.  We’ll have to wait and see . . .



  1. The difference between the Han and the Afrikaaners is that the Han will happily exterminate their opposition. There are only 6 million people to be liquidated, after all. What's another bucket in a sea of blood?

  2. India has a similar issue. Their constitution initially called for Hindi in the Devangari script to be the language for all government and administrative functions by 1965, but all the various states that don't speak Hindi pushed back. English had been used for hundreds of years for all of that by the British and that served as an overall common language that they already knew. The central government relented on that and passed a law that says more or less "until all states agree to use Hindi, we'll keep using English."

    Considering India has 22 recognized "state languages" and over 1600 recognized languages in the country as well as over 100 different writing scripts, I suppose that seems a valid workaround.

  3. It seems to me that the Chinese government's only tool is a hammer, so they see force as either the only, or at least the primary, method of attaining their goal.
    If this is in fact the case, then, yes, they are sowing the seeds of their own dissolution.
    Don't forget that while the majority of the population IS Han, their are still significant regional rivalries and resentments. North vs, South, Coastal vs. Inland, and more. What we think of as China has only been under unified leadership for less than 200 years of it's history – 60 years of which are under the current leadership.

    I have read elsewhere that the central government is terrified of regions splitting off, and has designed their military regions to overlap with civil regions and tries to prevent military leadership from developing close ties with civil leadership. How much of this is true, I don't know. I do know that many of China's boasts of military and economic strength are significantly exaggerated or are outright lies.
    I expect to see a really nasty civil war in China ins the not too distant future, especially if economic growth does not continue – and at some point they WILL have a recession and have to face the consequences of bad lending and zombie industries…
    When this DOES happen, the fighting will be as brutal as any other in their history, maybe worse due to more modern weapons. It would not be surprising if the central leadership pulls in other countries to divert trouble from themselves… as the old curse goes "May you live in interesting times"…

  4. My Kazakh wife described to me how, one day, her whole school had to turn out to watch a boy be publicly whipped by the Russian school headmaster – remember, this was in the days of the USSR (really: the Russian empire) – for speaking Kazakh.

    The lesson was clear. Russian only.

  5. I'd offer to disagree using an analogy. In S.Africa the vast majority of the population was black with only a tiny kernel of whites. In China the vast majority are Han with an even more insignificant kernel of non-Han.

    Using a gun, the greater mass of you holds the rifle and the tiny kernel is expelled very fast. In S. Africa the bullet was the whites. In China it's the non-Han.

    In either event, the vast bulk of the people nowadays will overwhelm the smaller. Everything is played on a public stage and we can no longer do what we did all through history in order for one society, however small, to dominate a larger one.

    Some of the lessons of history are a bit like learning about phlogiston and celestial spheres today.

  6. I remember the history I learned of the brutality of the struggle between the Nationalists and the Chi-Coms. Think Bejing would shrink from WMDs to quell outright insurrection? I don't… the question is how much of their warrior heritage does Mongolia retain, if it comes to it? The Soviets never really had control of Afghanistan, long as a Mudj had a rifle…

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