Recent news that China’s global power status will be cemented when it overtakes the US and EU in the near future as a science superpower has set alarm bells ringing in the West. While its status might hold true in the field of natural sciences – and it surely brings dynamism to the Chinese economy – a reverse trend in some other areas is destabilizing Chinese society and undermining China’s superpower ambitions.
Research about ethnic minorities, their cultures, societies and histories in China has been constricted by a narrow, politically defined conceptual framework that leaves little space for alternative, innovative and critical voices. Serious social problems among ethnic minorities have become sensitive subjects to study because of their political nature. The possibilities to engage in critical empirical research and dialogue about ongoing social changes have become ever more difficult, as social and ethnic tensions have increased in Xinjiang and Tibet in China’s western regions. Since the mid 1990s, rapid economic development, extensive migration of the Han Chinese (majority population) to Xinjiang and Tibet and the consequent impoverishment and marginalization of the local non-Han peoples have led to dissatisfaction, social instability and desperation in these regions. Distrust between Han Chinese and non-Han peoples is also deepening. After the Kunming knife attack on 1 March 2014, Uyghurs have become linked with terrorism in the public’s mind.
Social instability and various extreme events are repeatedly blamed on foreign malign influences, mainly caused by foreign Islamic terrorist movements and pro-Dalai Lama actors. This analysis of the situation is used to legitimize harsh measures against ethnic minorities in the western regions. Academic publications mainly provide advice on how to combat separatism and how to establish control. Studies that discuss how to establish a “harmonious society” (currently the overall political goal) in the western regions lack genuine concern for the interests of non-Han peoples. These approaches prevent a thorough analysis of the various reasons for instability and rule out any possibilities to develop plans that could effectively address the twin problems of unequal socio-economic development and ethnic polarization.
The prohibition of free empirical research in politically sensitive ethnic issues is undermining China’s superpower ambitions. A strong natural science capacity does not help much when domestic society is frayed at the edges.