China’s ethnic policy chief slams ‘ignorance of history’ in Xinjiang assimilation claims


China’s top ethnic policy official has dismissed claims that Xinjiang is being “assimilated” into Chinese culture as “ignorance of history”.

Pan Yue, director of the National Ethnic Affairs Commission, made the remarks during a keynote speech on Wednesday at an international forum in Kashgar, a city in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region that was once part of the ancient Silk Road.

His comments come as Beijing continues to promote its new ethnic integration policies and defend measures taken in the vast western region home to the mainly Muslim Uygur minority.

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“There is an inaccurate narrative in the international community that separates Xinjiang culture from Chinese culture and even sets them against each other. But a large amount of archaeological evidence tells us that Xinjiang has been an important part of the Chinese cultural sphere since ancient times,” Pan said.

“There is also an international narrative that contradicts the facts and portrays Xinjiang’s relationship with Chinese culture as ‘assimilation’. This is ignorance of Chinese history.”

The people of ancient western regions far from central China – some small states ruled by nomadic peoples rather than the Han Chinese who later became the majority of the Chinese population – “have also been co-creators of Chinese culture”, Pan said.

These regions include what is now the Xinjiang region, as well as the Tibet autonomous region to its south and parts of central Asia.

After thousands of years of “migration, settlement, trade and marriages”, “Xinjiang and central China [now] eventually belong to a single political community”, Pan said, adding that Islamic culture represented only one part of Xinjiang’s “diverse religious culture”.

Xinjiang has a population of about 26 million, close to two-thirds of which is made up of ethnic minorities, including Uygurs and Kazakhs.

Ethnic tensions, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet, have been a challenge for the government. Controversial governance measures in place in Xinjiang since 2016, in response to once-frequent violent attacks there, have led to allegations of human rights abuses, which Beijing denies.

Pan’s comments were in line with Beijing’s push over the past decade for a “sense of community for the Chinese nation”.

The concept was introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2014. At a meeting in 2021, he said that building this sense of community should be at the heart of all ethnic minority policies and urged local authorities to take more proactive measures.

The measures include promoting the use of “standard spoken and written Chinese”, meaning Mandarin, and reinterpreting Chinese history to say that China’s 55 ethnic minorities had created civilisation with the Han Chinese majority since ancient times.

The International Forum on the History and Future of Xinjiang, which opened on Wednesday, was jointly organised by several universities in Beijing and Xinjiang.

Official media reported that more than 100 experts from China, the United States, Australia, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Egypt, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other countries attended the event in Kashgar, where the remains of a third century Buddhist temple were discovered recently.

Archaeologists said the Buddha statues unearthed at the site bore the characteristics of those from central China, a claim in line with Beijing’s historical narrative.

A university textbook edited by Pan, published in February, has been described by experts as the most direct articulation of China’s ethnic integration policy as laid down by Xi a decade ago.

The book argues that all ethnic groups have accepted the concept of zhonghua, or Chinese culture or civilisation, since ancient times. It also cites political divisions and “social cleavages” in the West to justify Beijing’s policy of ethnic integration.

“Neither the harmonising ‘melting pot’ policy nor the ultra-diverse model of ethnic governance works,” the book says.

Similar views were expressed in Pan’s speech. He said China had not experienced “religious wars”, “colonial expansion” or “cultural export” for thousands of years, and could “maybe provide a reference for the ethnic and religious conflicts that still exist in the world today”.

In recent years, the Xinjiang government has also sought to improve its international image through outreach efforts.

It has frequently hosted visits by foreign envoys, media delegations, religious figures and academics, and sent officials to promote the region in Central Asia and Africa.

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