China’s Stateless Nations
Photo by Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash

China’s Stateless Nations

Aaron Sarin
Aaron Sarin
11 min read

I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to.
~Frances Hui

Maps of the global nation-state system show us a simplified picture of the world: “a totalizing classificatory grid,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously put it.1 We need this grid for convenience, but we should always remember that it began as the colonial equivalent of an accountant’s ledger books. National maps provided reassurance to imperial powers that their territory was “bounded, determinate… countable.”2 The real world is much messier, and sometimes it changes in ways that no traditional map can show. China’s borders, for example, will soon bear no resemblance to reality.

The Communist Party has begun expanding the concept of the nation, attempting to create a new type of global entity. But back home, large numbers of people within the country’s borders no longer see themselves as Chinese at all. From Kashgar to Causeway Bay, millions of citizens are beginning to define themselves in direct opposition to the status that appears on their passports. Today we find that the very notion of a “Chinese” identity is being alternately stretched and compressed, warped and concertinaed, and our old classificatory grid provides us with no meaningful guide.

First, the expansion. The Chinese authorities are looking to win recruits to their hyper-nationalist cause, and so Party propaganda now preaches a new China—a China that includes not only the 1.4 billion citizens living within the country’s borders, but also the huaqiao (Chinese citizens living overseas) and the huaren (ethnic Chinese with foreign citizenship).3 “The unity of Chinese at home requires the unity of the sons and daughters of Chinese abroad,” according to a CCP teaching manual for United Front cadres. The Party hopes that by appealing to these vast groups, it can “awaken their ethnic consciousness,” in the semi-mystical words of He Yafei, deputy chief of the Party-run Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO).

And so the huaqiao and the huaren are told that their blood connects them to the motherland, no matter what it might say on their passports. The message is a loud one: Beijing now enjoys total control of virtually all Chinese-language media in Australia, as well as most Chinese community and professional associations in Western Europe and the United States. Future generations are being recruited too, at summer camps for young Chinese organised by the OCAO.4 We are witnessing the attempt to construct a global identity—one that straddles all borders, proudly representing Beijing on every continent.

The Communist Party has its eye on new land as well as new citizens. This is most obvious in the case of Taiwan, which has spent decades under threat of invasion from the mainland. But Beijing has also hinted at long-term plans to annex other neighbours. In 2017, Xi Jinping told Donald Trump that the Korean peninsula was formerly part of China—a dubious claim at best, but one that we are likely to hear again in the coming years. The invention of history has always come naturally to the Communist Party, and on occasion this habit is deployed for geopolitical purposes. There is a good chance that Xi was preparing the ground for future territorial claims. “A country can never invade itself,” explains sinologist John Fitzgerald. “China’s leaders believe that by claiming to be recovering ‘lost’ territories they can never be accused of invading anyone.”5

The same principle extends beyond the PRC’s Asian periphery. Back in 2003, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao told the Australian parliament that Ming dynasty sailors had settled Australia in the 15th century. They “lived harmoniously with the local people, contributing their proud share to Australia’s economy, society, and its thriving pluralistic culture.” China-watcher Clive Hamilton suggests that this fantasy was designed to send a clear message: Australian history only began when the Chinese arrived and engaged in “the symbolically meaningful and, in CCP thinking, legally significant acts of naming, mapping, and settling the land.”6 Who controls the past controls the future, in Orwell’s timeless formulation,7 and so the Party was reaching its long arm into Australia’s past to write a new, China-centric narrative—a narrative uncluttered by evidence. Certain Australian politicians were so impressed by Hu’s story that they immediately called for the history books to be updated.8

It might seem far-fetched to imagine the Communist Party of the future going so far as to claim chunks of Australia. But this is a regime that takes its cue from the imperial dynasties of the past, and many of those dynasties were aggressive expanders. They invaded Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, they tried to invade Korea, Vietnam, and Burma, and they cultivated a protective web of vassal states in the surrounding lands, installing puppet rulers and sending military expeditions to put down rebellions. Xi Jinping sees himself in the mould of these ancient emperors.

His pretensions, however, are greater—in fact, they are global: he has publicly stated that mankind needs “a Chinese approach” in order to solve its many problems. Xi has already begun arresting the citizens of Western countries, implying that as far as he is concerned, they all fall under his jurisdiction. Certain cities in Cambodia have been effectively colonised in the wake of the Belt and Road. Sihanoukville, for instance, is now widely referred to by its Chinese name: Xigang. If the planned invasion of Taiwan goes smoothly, then no one in the Southern Hemisphere will be safe, and that includes Australia.

While China’s leaders look ever outward, they may be losing loyalties closer to home. The residents of the “Special Administrative Region” of Hong Kong and the “Autonomous Region” of Xinjiang have seen brutal treatment at the hands of the central government in recent years—state-mandated mob violence, concentration camps, cultural and demographic genocide—but these traumas have also been birth pains. Persecution is reinforcing identity like no positive stimulus ever could. In a twist not anticipated by the Communist Party, new nations are threatening to hatch from the vast chicken-shaped sprawl that our maps still identify as “China.”

Last year two million Hongkongers took to the streets for the biggest protests in the region’s history, and while plenty of them supported the patriotic notion of “One Country, Two Systems,” the protests were also shot through with an unmistakeable tone of secession. Three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds in the region now described their identity exclusively as “Hongkonger,” with fewer than one-in-10 identifying as Chinese. “If you ask me: ‘Would you die for Hong Kong?’ I say to you ‘yes,’” one 21-year-old girl told expat teacher Peter Baehr. The city has technically been part of China since 1997, but it was not the parent nation for which this 21-year-old and others of her generation were prepared to sacrifice themselves. Instead, it was a new and entirely separate identity, and even an ideal. “Hong Kong” stood for free speech, the rule of law, individual rights—a way of life to be defended against the creeping influence of the mainland, which represented everything these Hongkongers hated and now defined themselves against.

This new identity was boosted by the creation of a new national anthem. Shortly before the extradition bill and the mass protests, Hong Kong’s legislature had been ordered to pass a law to “promote respect for the [Chinese] national anthem.” This respect was to be promoted via the threat of three years in prison. Any alteration of the song’s lyrics or score was banned, along with any “distorted or disrespectful” performance (the bill passed in June 2020). There can be little doubt that this heavy-handed approach played its part in expanding the aims of the pro-democracy movement, introducing a strong new element of identity. By August 2019, an alternative anthem had been penned entitled “Glory to Hong Kong.”

We pledge: No more tears on our land
In wrath, doubts dispell’d we make our stand
Arise! Ye who would not be slaves again
For Hong Kong, may Freedom reign.

It was quickly adopted by protesters, with observers at the Los Angeles Times noting its “indigenous, electric, unifying effect” when compared to earlier songs used by the movement.

By June 2020, the National Security Law had wiped out the last vestiges of independence in the region. From the outside, Hong Kong appeared to have become just another Chinese city. But Hongkongers had moved in the opposite direction—away from China entirely, and towards a new national consciousness. They had long had their own passports, their own government, and their own laws, but in the dramas and street battles of 2019 they found their identity. Hong Kong was now a nation unhoused in a state.

Something similar has happened 2,000 miles north-west, in the border province of Xinjiang. The region has been inhabited for centuries by the Uyghurs—a Turkic-Islamic group viewed by successive imperial dynasties as troublesome barbarians at the edge of the empire: sometimes to be ignored, sometimes to be subjugated. Xinjiang came under the rule of the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century, but there were regular uprisings after this. The Uyghurs briefly wrested control from the Chinese in 1933, establishing the first Republic of East Turkestan in southern Xinjiang. This ended the following year when government troops sacked Kashgar, the new republic’s capital. East Turkestan rose again in 1944 with a second republic—this time backed by the Soviets—but five years later the Communists came into power, and Xinjiang was swallowed back into China.

Today’s separatists continue to promote the creation of an independent state called East Turkestan (partly inspired by the post-Soviet independence of neighbouring Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), and their cause has taken on a new urgency thanks to Xi Jinping’s campaign of religious repression. Sixteen thousand mosques have been destroyed or damaged in Xinjiang over the past three years, along with 58 percent of the region’s Islamic shrines and cemeteries. Only 8,000 undamaged mosques still stand—the lowest number since the 1960s, when China was razed by the apocalyptic chaos of the Cultural Revolution. 75 percent of the remainder have been either padlocked or repurposed as cafés and public toilets. Qur’ans (“illegal religious books”) have been burned in the street, and more than a million Uyghur Muslims have been herded into concentration camps.

Outside the camps there is constant surveillance of all Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz—anyone who might conceivably be Muslim. As the journalist Bernhard Zand described it after going to see the situation for himself, “Nowhere in the world, not even in North Korea, is the population monitored as strictly as it is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The dissident Xu Zhiyong has gone so far as to compare life in the province to the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. State media makes no apology, brazenly broadcasting the Party’s intention to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.”

This extraordinary oppression is bound to backfire. Prior to the camps and the crackdown, Xinjiang had actually been the scene of a small religious revival. From the 1990s onwards, Uyghur families were crowding into the mosques and signing their children up for Muslim schools. The fact that those mosques and schools are all empty today doesn’t mean the psychology behind the revival has simply ceased to exist. The Communist Party sees the world in simple terms—it sees religious passion as a tumour and “re-education” as the surgical knife. But this cold arithmetic betrays a poor understanding of human behaviour. China’s leaders know all about the power of fear. They seem to know nothing of the energy that comes with righteous indignation, or the twists and turns of psychology that might lead a man to die for a cause, or the sheer visceral hatred that will act even in the face of complete hopelessness. Sure enough, former camp detainee Omurbek Eli says that the authorities are “planting the seeds of hatred and turning [prisoners] into enemies.” He suggests that “the majority of people in the camp feel the same way.”

Will we see a new generation of jihadists? This fear has already been expressed in Malaysia and Indonesia. As Muslim-majority states within the PRC’s immediate radius, they would certainly face some of the fallout in the event of a Chinese holy war. But while religious radicalisation is possible, the consolidation of a new national identity across Xinjiang is almost certain. In attempting to quell the threat of separatism, the Party has only made Uyghurs feel more separate. And separation is really the only option left to them now, because safety cannot be found anywhere—even in total obedience to the Party. According to Adrian Zenz, (perhaps the world authority on the Xinjiang concentration camps):

There is already a generation of Uyghurs who pursued… integrationist strategies and were still met with persecution and internment. The fact that Beijing did not even trust those who willingly opted for economic, cultural, and even political integration has sent one overarching message to the Uyghur communities: they will never be trusted, and they will never be accepted as equal.

East Turkestan, says the German footballer Mesut Özil, has become “the bleeding wound of the Ummah” (the global Islamic community). A few short years ago the word “Uyghurs” would have drawn blank stares throughout much of the world (as indeed would the phrase “East Turkestan”), but today it is instantly and easily associated with concentration camps, forced abortions, and religious oppression. The idea of the Uyghur Muslims as a robbed and ruined people is one that circulates the globe, both inside and outside the Islamic Ummah. China’s leaders cannot make this problem simply vanish into the sands of the Xinjiang desert. They have lost control of the narrative—there are many people around the world who will refuse to forget the tragedy of East Turkestan, and who will now always think of the Uyghurs as a distinct, non-Chinese people.

Perhaps the Communist Party should have learned from its mistake in recent decades, when state oppression of Falun Gong practitioners transformed an obscure Chinese religious group into a heavily politicised international organisation. The same principle applies to the Uyghurs, but with the added components of ethnicity and ancient history, a national identity is likely to explode into consciousness. The right ingredients have always been there. Now the momentous events of Xi Jinping’s tenure may prove the spark.

Other regions of China will see a vision of their future in Hong Kong and East Turkestan. All across Tibet, monasteries have been demolished and monks and nuns have been evicted, Buddhist prayer flags have been destroyed as part of a “behavioural reform” campaign, and lands and herds have been confiscated by the state. So-called “vocational schools” have been established to correct the thinking of Tibetan pastoralists, farmers, and nonconformists as young as 10. Lest we forget, “vocational schools” was also the euphemism of choice for the Xinjiang concentration camps. And indeed, the two sets of camps have the same man at the helm—Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, the CCP’s very own Reinhard Heydrich. With its long non-Chinese history, its largely non-Han population, and these new grievances, Tibet would seem a good candidate site for an emerging national consciousness.

Meanwhile protests recently flared in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia when ethnic schools were ordered to replace their Mongolian-language textbooks with Mandarin teaching tools. The authorities painted these protests as separatism, and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi gave instructions to police to clamp down severely. Of course, Inner Mongolia has been under Chinese rule for longer than Tibet, and ethnic Mongols make up a smaller percentage of the population in this region than Tibetans do in their own region. But secession is in the air now. A Southern Mongolian independence movement is gaining traction, complete with a ready-made national flag—the “Holy Blue Sky”—and a long list of accusations concerning the eradication of Mongolian identity by the Communist Party.

The geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan famously prophesied the future splintering of China (and other countries) in his 1994 essay The Coming Anarchy. In his vision, the 21st century would see the centre fracture, the old national borders vanish, and in their place “a jagged-glass pattern of city-states, shanty-states, nebulous and anarchic regionalisms.” In its early stages, of course, the century has defied his predictions. The Chinese state has only grown stronger. But it may be that this state is quietly corroding inside, with new post-Chinese nations waiting for the centre to finally fracture so that they can step onto the world stage and begin their own history.


1 Benedict Anderson – Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, London, 2006 edition, orig. 1983), p184
2 Ibid., p184
3 Clive Hamilton – Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Hardie Grant, London, 2018), p36
4 Clive Hamilton & Mareike Ohlberg – Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World (Oneworld Publications, London, 2020), pp. 120-1
5 Quoted in Hamilton, 2018, op. cit., p22. Hamilton cites John Fitzgerald – “Handing the initiative to China,” Inside Story, 19 January 2017
6 Ibid., p23
7 “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin, London, 1989 edition, orig. 1949), p260
8 Hamilton, 2018 op. cit., p23. Hamilton cites Timothy Kendall – Within China’s Orbit?: China Through The Eyes of The Australian Parliament (Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2008)

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Aaron Sarin

Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, currently focusing on China and the CCP. He regularly contributes to