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The Afterlives of Empire in Contemporary China

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At first blush, recent events in China’s far northwest region of Xinjiang and in Hong Kong off its southeast coast might seem to have little in common. Citizens in Hong Kong have taken to the streets to protest the erosion of the former British colony’s special rights, while in Xinjiang the state has implemented an unprecedented regime of securitization, surveillance, mass imprisonment, and forced labor intended to erode the cultural identities of indigenous Muslim communities and assimilate them into the Chinese national body. Despite their differences, each highlights the difficulties that the Chinese state has encountered convincing diverse peoples on the edges of former empire(s) that they have a stake in the Chinese nation.

The same can be said of Tibet which has been the site of three major anti-state uprisings since 1949. Following the most recent in 2008, over 150 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule. As in Xinjiang, the immediate causes of unrest in Tibet involve a host of intertwined issues, from restrictions on religious practice to economic and social dislocation, demographic transformation, ecological degradation, and fears of ethnocultural annihilation. However, as I demonstrate in my book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, they must also be understood in the context of seven decades of failed efforts to fully integrate these regions and their populations into first the socialist and now the post-socialist Chinese nation.

Empire, Amdo, and the United Front

The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier focuses on the multicultural borderland region known to Tibetan speakers as Amdo (largely present-day Qinghai and southern Gansu provinces). In the 18th century, Amdo was incorporated into the expanding Qing Empire (1644-1912). However, as in most imperial borderlands, imperial oversight was generally light and rule was exercised indirectly through local powerbrokers and religious leaders. After coming to power in 1949, this was the challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced in Amdo and other non-Chinese regions of the former Qing Empire: how to transform loosely governed imperial possessions into component parts of a unified, consolidated nation-state.

After coming to power in 1949, this was the challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced in Amdo and other non-Chinese regions of the former Qing Empire: how to transform loosely governed imperial possessions into component parts of a unified, consolidated nation-state.

What I was surprised to discover is that Party leaders initially understood this challenge. They realized that nation-building could not be achieved through force alone. Instead, it required the construction of narratives and policies capable of convincing Amdo Tibetans of their membership in a wider political community. The CCP therefore adapted imperial strategies of rule, collectively referred to as the United Front, as means to “gradually,” “voluntarily,” and “organically” bridge the gap between empire and nation. At the onset of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, however, the United Front lost out to revolutionary impatience that required more immediate paths to national integration and socialist transformation. This led to rapid communization, large-scale rebellion, and its brutal pacification. Tens of thousands were arrested; many thousands were killed. Rather than a voluntary union, Amdo was integrated through the widespread and often indiscriminate use of state violence, a violence that lingers in the living memory of Amdo Tibetans and many others.

Ethnocultural Violence and Historical Memory

With the ascension of Deng Xiaoping’s reformist regime in 1978, the CCP faced a daunting task that demanded it bolsters the legitimacy of CCP rule while attending to the widespread violence that had been committed in its name. To do so, many of the victims of Mao-era political campaigns were exonerated, including most of those implicated in the Amdo Rebellion. In Amdo, however, the Party faced a different type of crisis of faith than it did in predominantly ethnic Chinese regions—one that not only brought into question the legitimacy of the CCP but also the terms under which the region was included in the modern Chinese nation-state. The United Front had been designed to integrate Amdo Tibetans and others not just physically into the socialist state but also psychologically into the Chinese nation. In its place, the Party has been unable to erase the memory of the violence committed during its incorporation in 1958, nor articulate a narrative that effectively convinces Tibetans of their membership in a multi-ethnic Chinese nation.

In its place, the Party has been unable to erase the memory of the violence committed during its incorporation in 1958, nor articulate a narrative that effectively convinces Tibetans of their membership in a multi-ethnic Chinese nation.

Although Xinjiang, which like Amdo was brought into the Qing Empire in the 18th century, has its own distinct history, the parallels to Tibet are clear. And one would have hoped that the lessons would be as well. While ethnocultural violence can be an effective tool of state-making, rarely is it a successful means of nation-building. Hong Kong, with its ethnic Chinese majority, might seem like an outlier. Yet, here too the legacy of empire is central. Hong Kong was not “returned” to China in 1997, as is often claimed. It was a British colony that had never been part of the Chinese nation-state. While many Hong Kong citizens are glad to have escaped British imperialism, they do not necessarily identify as Chinese nationals. The Party’s strategy should have been to convince them of their stake in joining China. By resorting to coercion, it instead runs the risk of reinforcing Hong Kong’s distinct identity while creating generations who view China as a new imperial power, much as do many Tibetans and Turkic Muslims.


Benno Weiner is Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University where he teaches classes on China, Tibet and Inner Asia. He is author of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier and co-editor of Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History Under Mao Retold.

*Featured image is courtesy of Ute Wallenböck

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