China must utilise the linguistic and cultural links of its ethnic minorities with neighbouring countries to help develop its poor border areas, but also guard against an infiltration of extremists, a senior official wrote in an influential journal.
China has 55 officially recognised minorities, from larger communities like Tibetans and Mongols to tiny groups such as the traditionally shamanistic Evenki. Many languish in poverty.
While they are guaranteed legal protection for their languages and cultures, they are often marginalised and treated with great suspicion by Beijing, which views them as potential separatists living in sensitive border areas.
Lack of development has been seen by the government as one of the main causes of unrest in places like Xinjiang, home to the mainly Muslim Uighur people and which borders Central Asia.
Wang Zhengwei, head of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, said the time had come to promote the economic advantage China has with its minorities.
“Minority areas must develop their own advantages,” he wrote in the latest issue of bimonthly Communist Party magazine Qiushi. “Many minorities who live on the borders are linked by common mountains and rivers with neighbouring states, speak the same language, have similar cultures and customs.”
He said eight countries on China’s borders are nations made up of groups that also live in China, and that the cultural connections go even further.
“In Xinjiang, Ningxia and other places there are many Muslims, just like in Arab countries. In Tibet and Yunnan there are many Buddhists, just like on the Indochina Peninsula,” Wang wrote.
“This can become a bridge for communication between the peoples of different countries along the periphery and a beneficial condition for promoting the construction of ‘one road, one belt’,” he said, referring to China’s master plan to build a new Silk Road.
Wang also mentioned Beijing’s long-held concerns about its minorities, that the periodic unrest which affects Tibet, Xinjiang and other areas is being provoked by ethnic kin outside China.
“We must … resolutely prevent and crack down on in accordance with the law infiltration, damaging, separatist and subversive activities by enemy forces at home and abroad,” he wrote.
“We must … prevent extremist thoughts and forces from creating divisions between different cultures.”