Ethnic Minority Elites in China’s Party-State Leadership: An Empirical Assessment


In the wake of the recent unrest in Tibet, ethnic tensions in China are in the spotlight of the international media. The overseas torch rally for the Beijing Summer Olympics, which was supposed to promote China’s prestige and influence, met with worldwide protests over China’s treatment of Tibet, reinforcing the fact that the Tibet issue has severely damaged China’s public image on the world stage. Ethnic conflict in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is, of course, not limited to the Tibetan region. Relations between the central government and several other ethnic minority groups in the country, most noticeably Uighurs, the largest Turkic Muslim population in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang, have also been beset by a great deal of trouble in recent years. In the spring of 2008, for example, the Chinese authorities announced that they had uncovered two terrorist plots involving kidnappings and a suicide bombing planned for the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Officials claimed that both were linked to the Uighur Muslim separatist movement. These developments suggest that the Chinese government now has a pressing need to address ethnic tensions in the country, which have increasingly become a major liability for China’s development. At a time when Hu Jintao and other top leaders have publicly placed priority on enhancing social harmony, the frequent occurrence of ethnic-related riots and other incidents in the country significantly undermines the central leadership’s claims to be building a “harmonious society.”

One strategy for reconciling ethnic tensions in Han-dominant China has been to recruit more ethnic minority elites into the political establishment. Chinese authorities have, in fact, made a concerted effort to promote ethnic minority elites to leadership positions. For the first time in PRC history, all of the governors of China’s five provincial-level ethnic minority autonomous regions—the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region—have ethnic minority backgrounds. At the recently held 11th National People’s Congress (NPC), Yang Chuantang, a Han leader who previously served as Party secretary of Tibet, was designated to become the new minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission. At the last moment, however, the Chinese top leadership decided to change this appointment because it was deemed politically inappropriate for a Han Chinese to hold this position. Instead, Yang Jing, a Mongolian and former governor of Inner Mongolia, was nominated and confirmed for this position.

At the same time as it has appointed minority leaders to top posts in the ethnic minority regions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also maintained its firm control over these provinces by giving the most important leadership posts—the Party secretary positions—to cadres who come from Han Chinese backgrounds. Indeed, none of the Party secretary posts in any of the five provincial-level minority autonomous regions are currently held by an ethnic minority leader. Wang Lequan, a Han Chinese member of the Politburo, has served as Party secretary of Xinjiang since 1994. His tenure as provincial Party chief has already far exceeded the 10-year term limit regulated by the Organization Department of the CCP. Also of interest is the fact that, with the exception of Xinjiang, where all of the vice-governors are CCP members, each and every one of China’s 31 provincial-level governments has a vice-governor who is a non-CCP member. These facts perhaps reflect Chinese authorities’ serious concerns about the separatist movement in Xinjiang; and they have to make sure that the provincial leadership in this ethnic minority region is absolutely in line with the CCP policy.

A review of the status of ethnic minority leaders in China, especially in minority autonomous regions, can help shed light on the dilemmas that the top leadership confronts with respect to ethnic tensions. While the Chinese authorities need to recruit and promote more non-Han leaders to carry out the Party-state’s minority policies and demonstrate Chinese affirmative action to the public, they also want to make sure that Han Chinese leaders are firmly in charge.

This article offers an empirical assessment of ethnic minority elites in China’s Party-state leadership at both the national and provincial levels, beginning with an overview of the growth of the ethnic minority population in the PRC and the changes in major ethnic groups in recent years. It then examines the minority policies of the Chinese leadership and the changes in ethnic representation in some of the most important leadership organs of the Party-state, such as the CCP Central Committee. The article analyzes the composition and characteristics of those ethnic minority elites, some of whom are in their 50s and early 60s and are members of the so-called fifth generation of leaders.