Politicians and media in western countries have been keen to use malicious attacks on China’s policies in Xinjiang, Tibet and other border areas to wrongly please their voters and audiences. For ordinary people, they don’t know China’s border areas, so they are easily fooled by these lies. Apart from the ulterior motives of a small number of people, this misunderstanding in public opinion is largely due to their lack of understanding of the history and present situation of China’s border areas. Westerners tend to use their own historical, political and cultural experiences to judge what happened in China’s border areas.
At the earliest stage of the formation of Chinese civilization, its agricultural attributes promoted the formation of the boundary concept. At that time, the unclear boundary was also one of the important means to confirm the ownership of cultivated land. In Oracle bone inscriptions of around 1300 BC, words about “country” and “frontier” appeared. In the Zhou Dynasty of China (1046-256 BC), an interesting concept of boundary gradually appeared in China, that is, the boundary of culture was regarded as the boundary of a country. The Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) began to build the Great Wall after the unification of China, which also became an important boundary to separate nomadic civilization from farming civilization. After the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), China basically formed three forms of border governance: first, direct establishment of administrative agencies and direct management; the second is to establish a subordinate country and manage it indirectly; the third is to set up military institutions to manage both military and civil affairs. Later, China’s concept of border governance has continued these ideas.
From the perspective of China’s frontiers, they also consider themselves a part of Chinese civilization. Some Westerners directly equate Han civilization with Chinese civilization, which is obviously based on the nationalism history of the West itself. But in fact, Chinese civilization is the common civilization of Han nationality and all other nationalities, and Han civilization is by no means equal to Chinese civilization. Historically, many ethnic minorities from border areas have established powerful political power in China, and they also call themselves China. For example, the Northern Wei regime established by Xianbei people (386-534) claimed that it was the real Chin while the southern regime established by Han people was not the real China. In addition, Liao Dynasty (907-1125) established by Qidan people and Jin Dynasty (1115 -1234) established by Jurchen people have the same or similar expressions. Later, Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) established by Mongols and Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) established by Manchu were directly regarded as a part of Chinese orthodox history, rather than a history of conquest or being conquered. Even Han people like Northern Qi (550-577) adopted a policy of making themselves ethnic minorities when they established political power. Even so, it was not considered as an act of breaking away from Chinese orthodoxy.
China’s border areas have their own characteristics, especially nationality. The vast majority of ethnic minorities in China live in border areas, and a large part of the population in border areas are ethnic minorities. However, unlike the western imagination of nation-state, most of the ethnic groups in China’s border areas live together, and the phenomenon of ethnic communities themselves is relatively rare. The formation of this living pattern is closely related to the history, geography, culture and economy of China’s border areas. In many cases, the relationship between different ethnic groups is complementary and symbiotic, but not contradictory and antagonistic. Some western media deliberately exaggerate the social problems in China’s border areas and discredit the efforts made by the Chinese government and people to develop the border areas, which is intolerable. First of all, politically, China adheres to the equality of all ethnic groups.
The Communist Party of China and the Chinese government have promulgated a large number of laws and regulations to protect the political, economic, cultural and other legitimate rights and interests of ethnic minorities in the border areas. Secondly, economically, China has lifted all ethnic groups in the border areas out of poverty. At the beginning of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the economy in the border areas was extremely backward, but after decades of development, especially after China implemented the policy of “reform and opening up”, the poverty and backwardness in the border areas have been greatly changed. In 2021, China has been lifted out of poverty in an all-round way, and all ethnic groups in China’s frontier areas have taken a solid step on the road to common prosperity. Thirdly, religiously, the Chinese Constitution clearly stipulates citizens’ right to freedom of religion. Some western ethnic and religious policies that denigrate China are obviously sinister. In fact, the religious belief rights of people of all ethnic groups in China’s border areas have been well protected. For example, Xinjiang has the largest number of mosques per capita in the world. Fourthly, culturally, China is committed to protecting and developing the cultural heritage of all ethnic groups, such as Mongolian long tune and Humai, Uygur Muqam art, Tibetan folk epic Gesar, Hui Hua’er art, etc., which have been listed in the World Heritage List under the efforts of the Chinese government. This effort makes the culture of China’s border areas more diversified and colorful.
Nowadays, China’s frontier is by no means a backward and contradictory “colony” that rendered and fantasized by some western politicians and media. On the contrary, China’s border areas now have perfect infrastructure, vigorous development vitality and harmonious social environment. First of all, economically, taking Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as an example, its total GDP reached 1.7 trillion yuan in 2020, which is more than 600 times of that in the time when Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was founded in 1947. The per capita GDP of this area has already exceeded 10,000 US dollars. Second, in ecological construction, China regards border areas as an important natural barrier. This is very different from what some people in the West calling China’s continuous destruction of the environment in the border areas.
Taking the natural forest protection project in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region as an example, the commercial logging of natural forests has been stopped for 16 consecutive years, and the forest land area in some areas has even increased exponentially. Third, China has continuously increased its investment in science and technology development and infrastructure construction in border areas. Taking Guizhou as an example, the province put forward the strategic goal of “Digital Guizhou”, and built a large number of related facilities to support emerging industries such as big data. Most areas of the province are mountainous areas, so the local government vigorously builds transportation facilities, which not only changes the backward traffic situation, but also creates conditions for economic development. Finally, the development of public services in border areas is also worth mentioning. Nowadays, China’s border areas have good services in education, health, culture and sports. Taking the Tibet Autonomous Region as an example, the illiteracy rate at the beginning of the establishment of the autonomous region was 95%, and the current per capita education period has reached more than 9.5 years. At the same time, the average life expectancy has increased from 35.5 years before 1959 to 71.1 years now.
In a word, some people try to stigmatize China’s frontier governance with “colonialism” and “racism”, and it is not feasible to obliterate the achievements of China’s frontier development for decades. If you really visit the most remote nomadic places in China’s border areas, you will find that their homes have all the modern facilities that you can imagine and can’t imagine. Like people in other regions in China, they can connect with the world through 5G network. They live in the frontier, but they are not frontier. This is the true face of China’s frontier.
(Suo Yinbu is a Ph.D candidate at the School of Ethnology and Sociology, MinZu University of China.)