In 2012, after being named the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping gave his first public address in front of the 18th National Congress and declared that the party’s main duty was “to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation.” It’s an ambitious statement that has induced much debate, not only because it defined a new vision for China’s future but also because it’s an exceedingly hard phrase to translate. The Chinese version is “zhonghua minzu weida fuxing.” The important part is “zhonghua minzu” – which has been translated as “the Chinese nation,” “the Chinese people” and even “the Chinese race.” The problem isn’t really the phrase’s lack of an English equivalent but that, even in Chinese, its meaning is ambiguous. And considering Xi has made renewal of the zhonghua minzu the cornerstone of what he calls the “Chinese Dream,” it’s an enormously important ambiguity.
On its own, “minzu” can translate as “nation” or “ethnic group.” The word doesn’t originate from the Chinese language; it comes from the Japanese “minzoku,” a combination of the Japanese words for people (“min”) and for tribe (“zoku”). Minzoku has no English equivalent. It can’t be reduced to “shared culture” or “blood ties” – it includes and transcends these ideas at the same time. Minzoku, like the German word “volk,” has a primordial, racial connotation. The use of these terms was part of the emergence of Japanese and German fascism, whereby the community took precedence over the individual, and the dominant ethnic group was seen as superior to all others.
There has been some debate over when and how minzu was first used in China. By the 1880s, Han Chinese elites were regularly using the word to denote their struggle against the ethnic Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty and their desire to restore China to its rightful place in the world. For a moment, it appeared as if minzu might develop the same way minzoku and volk did. But instead it took on a more egalitarian meaning. Zhonghua minzu, despite its origins among the Han Chinese, became a broader concept in the newly formed Republic of China in 1911, one that represented the unity of the Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui and Tibetan peoples. Rather than exclude people based on ethnicity, the new Chinese nation would be inclusive and seek to reclaim China’s political dignity on the world stage.
Still, some traces of Han chauvinism remained in the phrase. For example, the use of the word “zhonghua.” It can be translated simply as “China,” but the suffix “hua” – literally meaning “flourish” – is a rhetorical embellishment that subtly emphasizes the importance of the people (specifically, the Han people) over the state. Zhonghua was chosen instead of “zhongguo,” which also translates as “China.” Here, the suffix “guo” means “state” and generally refers to a regime’s control over a territory. Chiang Kai-shek, who came to power in 1928, adopted zhonghua minzu, thinking that China’s ethnic groups all descended from the Han. (In reality, roughly 80 percent of China was Han in 1912. Today, it’s closer to 90 percent.) It wasn’t until the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and the subsequent Sino-Japanese War, that a more inclusive Chinese nationalism would truly take hold, in part as a result of contact with the more aggressive, exclusionary Japanese ideology, and in part because the survival of China itself was at stake.
After World War II and the Chinese civil war, Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party took over. For Mao, Chinese nationalism was a necessary step on the way to achieving a communist state. As he saw it, China’s ethnic diversity was a symptom of class conflict, and once that conflict was resolved, ethnic distinctions would disappear. But China was not quite ready for that yet, so in the meantime Mao tried to use nationalism to the country’s benefit. The party increased the number of government-recognized minzus, from 38 in 1953 to 53 a decade later. Even by the late 1950s, though, Mao thought China was ready for its Great Leap Forward, and, for him, that meant the country was on the verge of becoming a truly communist state and that ethnic minorities were on the verge of obsolescence. Ironically, as China increased the number of recognized minzus, it began an aggressive and sometimes violent attempt to assimilate them. A mythology of national genesis emerged that portrayed the northern Chinese Communists as the rightful heirs to Han China’s unifying culture and millenniums-old civilization. Ultimately, Mao’s Great Leap Forward was a failure. Far from overcoming nationalist ideology and ethnic differences, it ushered in a new era of Chinese nationalism, one that emphasized the pre-eminence of the Han in the zhonghua minzu.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the Communist Party adopted a softer approach to China’s ethnic minorities. The reason was simple: The Soviet Union and China’s economic backwardness posed a larger threat than anti-Han sentiments did. China responded by normalizing relations with the United States and opening up to the global economy. This was, in effect, a repudiation of communism, and the emphasis on destroying class distinctions gave way to a renewed sense of nationalism, one that tolerated minorities so long as they saw themselves as part of the broader Chinese nation. Now that China was not fighting for the universal proletariat, but for the advancement of the Chinese people, it became easier to accept ethnic differences. (Since 1984, official Chinese policy has been to grant minority communities a certain degree of autonomy and some benefits, such as tuition subsidies, preferential access to employment and tax breaks.) Moreover, China’s global prestige began to grow, which had been one of the goals of the zhonghua minzu’s first Han proponents in the late 19th century.
Some officials and academics used the phrase “zhonghua minzu” during this time, but since taking office, Xi Jinping has revived the term – as well as the debate over its true meaning. A 2017 Financial Times article claimed that zhonghua minzu is a “race-based idea of national rejuvenation,” in effect giving voice to the fear that China didn’t avoid fascism, but rather was simply a century behind others. According to this line of thinking, China will eradicate non-Han elements of Chinese society and use zhonghua minzu for its expansionist aims, such as uniting Taiwan with the mainland or projecting Chinese rule wherever those of Han blood reside. Other experts dispute this interpretation, seeing zhonghua minzu as inclusive and politically defined – similar to the American melting pot that unites citizens of many ethnicities through their loyalty to the same political system. Still others note that in practical terms, little has changed in China’s ethnic policies. As one East-West Center study put it, Xi’s rhetoric is not indicative of “yellow supremacism” but of a relatively cautious politician hoping to use a benign form of Chinese nationalism to bind the country together.
It’s impossible to know which of these interpretations is correct – but the recent evidence doesn’t inspire much hope. Xi’s rise to power followed one of the most intense periods of ethnic conflict in China’s recent history. It included the 2008 riots in Tibet that targeted Han and Hui citizens and their businesses; the 2009 Shaoguan incident in which migrant Uighurs and Han Chinese clashed over the alleged assault of a Han Chinese woman; and the 2009 Urumqi riots, which at least one study has referred to as “China’s 9/11,” and which resulted in the deaths of between 197 and 1,000 Chinese citizens. No doubt these episodes are seared into Xi’s memory. Just as he was about to take power, the country’s ethnic minorities seemed to convulse with a seething resentment that can only have heightened his awareness of the dangers his presidency would face.
Subsequent changes introduced by Xi have given some indication of his intent. He has made Confucius required reading for Communist officials, an action that would have been unthinkable under Mao, whose ideology was predicated on China’s throwing off the shackles of its past. Harkening back to a sixth- and fifth-century B.C. philosopher’s “national moral thinking,” originally adopted by the Han dynasty, might be thought of as the Chinese equivalent of the National Socialists’ worship of Teutonic knights in the forest. Since his speech in 2012, Xi has further articulated his Chinese Dream, describing it as filled “with glory, hardship, and sacrifice,” and as a rival to the American and European dreams. The insistence that the Chinese Dream is unique because it promotes “world peace and development” fails to distract from the expansionist components of Xi’s vision for China: He wants to lead the country not just to become a powerful nation but to reclaim its status as the Middle Kingdom, the center of gravity for global affairs.
But perhaps most unsettling are the recent Chinese policies toward Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Over 1 million Uighurs have been detained in “vocational training centers” and “re-education camps.” According to the Chinese government, these are facilities devoted to preventing the spread of extremism in Xinjiang. There’s no doubt China has cause to fear Islamist extremism, and perhaps that’s all there is to it. Perhaps the Uighur camps are China’s version of Japanese internment in the U.S. during World War II and not a sign of re-emerging Han chauvinism. Or perhaps the forced detention, re-education and ideological cleansing of people based on their ethnicity and religious beliefs is simply so incomprehensible to this analyst after the horrors of World War II that it strains the bounds of credulity and leads to wishful thinking that it couldn’t possibly be a replay of dark times long past.
When in doubt, I have found it best to take someone at his word. Xi has said China has struggled continuously since 1840 – when the First Opium War began and Britain humiliated the Middle Kingdom – and that it is now closer to achieving its “objective” than it has been at any other time in history. (What that objective is exactly is also up for debate.) Xi has said too that this dream “reflects the comprehensive interest of the zhonghua minzu” – and that the fate of the people will hinge entirely on “the future destiny of this minzu.” At the very least, it seems clear that when Xi looks at China, he does not see 56 ethnicities, or five races, but a single Chinese people – and that it is the Communist Party’s job to unite them under one rule. Xi has also insinuated that Han China will play a dominant role in defining how the unified Chinese people should think. And according to the government, this vision of “renewal” is one in which U.S. materialism and European colonialism are replaced by “world peace and harmony.”
All would-be global powers rely on a sense of exceptionalism to justify the sacrifices necessary to enhance their global status. Zhonghua minzu may well be China’s. Observers can only hope that it will not go the way of the minzoku and the volk and that instead it will lean toward inclusivity, as it did in the early 20th century when the phrase was last in vogue. But China’s current trajectory and ambitions are unlike anything it has experienced before, so perhaps no hope can be taken from its past. As for the meaning of zhonghua minzu, the best translation the English language can give us right now is “Chinese nation” – not in the sense of a country, but in the sense of a people with shared language, culture and values. The deeper question is whether the Communist Party can survive the great renewal of the zhonghua minzu. If Confucius, Uighur concentration camps and dictatorship are the best it has to offer, I confess I am more pessimistic about the party’s survival and more optimistic about the minzu question than I was when I began.