Touting ‘Ethnic Fusion,’ China’s New Top Official for Minority Affairs Envisions a Country Free of Cultural Difference

Last October, China’s top officials convened the once-every-five-year congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to determine the leadership and political trajectory of the country for the next half decade. Xi Jinping secured a precedent-breaking third term as paramount leader of the Party, confirming expectations that the congress would cement his authority and concentrate power in a single person to a degree not seen since the Mao era. Several high-profile promotions and demotions signaled that officials’ political survival depends on personal loyalty to Xi, and that aggressive implementation of his policies is key to career advancement. Among the officials garnering Xi’s support is Pan Yue, who was elected as a full member of the Central Committee of the CCP.

Since last June, Pan has been head of the State Council’s Ethnic Affairs Commission, which is responsible for policy concerning China’s “minority nationalities,” the 55 officially recognized ethnic groups who collectively represent around 8.9 percent of the total population. For decades, the CCP’s ethnic policies have oscillated between multiculturalism—recognizing and even celebrating distinct ethnic identities—and assimilationism—denying and destroying them—with significant variation at the local level. The Chinese term “minzu” (民族) captures this policy range: it refers both to individual “nationalities” or ethnic groups, like Han, Uyghurs, and Tibetans, and to the overarching “Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu, 中华民族), which comprises all 56 (55 minorities plus the Han majority) groups.

Pan’s election to the Central Committee suggests that the Xi administration’s hard turn toward assimilationism will likely continue and perhaps intensify. Pan is the second Han official in a row to head the Ethnic Affairs Commission, which for nearly 70 years had been led by a Party member from a non-Han nationality. Since the beginning of Xi’s second term in 2017, measures related to “managing” ethnic minorities have run the gamut from destruction of what officials deem “foreign” architectural elements such as mosque domes and removal of Arabic signage on restaurant awnings and storefronts to the imposition of Mandarin as the sole language of instruction for certain subjects in some schools. Repression has been most severe in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the local populations have been subjected to extreme restrictions on movement, constant surveillance, mass internment, and as has been reported of Uyghur women, forced sterilization.

Pan did not initiate these policies, but he is poised to extend and expand them. Over a winding path to the center of Chinese political power, in a career spanning official media, economic restructuring, and environmental policy, as well as a stint in the United Front Work Department, he has repeatedly staked out bold policy positions. He is a talented politician and an effective communicator who has long espoused assimilationist views, even before it was politically fashionable to do so. If Xi were looking for a lieutenant with the vision and policy entrepreneurship needed to guide and accelerate assimilation in his third term, he has found one in Pan.

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To the extent that Pan is known outside of China, his renown is due to the public profile he cultivated as an official in China’s environmental protection agency from 2003 to 2016. He won accolades from foreign media outlets and organizations for terminating development projects with powerful political and business support for their violations of environmental standards. He is regarded as the architect of the “Green GDP” system, which incorporated environmental harm into metrics for economic growth. The Hu Jintao administration endorsed this scheme in 2004 but ultimately abandoned it, reportedly due to opposition from provincial officials who resented the additional performance criteria it entailed. When Pan missed out on a promotion in 2007 and was ousted from his position as spokesperson for the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2008, some observers speculated that he was being sidelined due to his zealous regulation.

But his stint as an environmental crusader had come only after a long and well-connected career in official life. Born a “princeling” in Nanjing in 1960 as the son of a senior military official, Pan began his career with several years of military service. During the 1980s and early 1990s, he held editorial positions at official outlets including Economic Daily and China Youth Daily. His networks in Chinese officialdom came through his own lineage as well as through a former marriage to the daughter of the powerful General Liu Huaqing. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Pan held posts in the Economic Restructuring Office of the State Council and the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, helping manage China’s transition from a planned to a market economy. Like many Chinese officials seeking to distinguish their resumes, Pan pursued an advanced degree, receiving a Ph.D. in history in 2002 from Central China Normal University.

Pan has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to make a name for himself through bold and controversial policy proposals. After the attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Pan organized a conference of fellow princelings to formulate a strategy to secure CCP rule. The resulting manifesto, “Realistic Responses and Strategic Options for China after the Soviet Upheaval,” which Pan helped produce, called on the Party to focus on ensuring social stability, exert greater control over state assets, and guard against emerging dangers including radical economic reform and ethnic separatism. Pan elaborated some of these ideas in another piece in early 2001, which circulated among high-ranking officials, on the need for the CCP to adapt and evolve from a revolutionary party to a ruling one. Later that year, he penned an essay criticizing the Party’s doctrinaire hostility to religion, for which he was censured.

Pan’s tenacity has been politically costly at times, but never fatal. His career slumped following the failure of the Green GDP initiative but has bounced back under the Xi administration. In 2015, Pan was again promoted within the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the following year he became Party secretary and executive vice president of the Central Institute of Socialism, a ministry-level department, where he introduced new programming on Chinese civilization and launched a curriculum dedicated to promoting a unified national consciousness. He also held high-level positions in the United Front Work Department, the CCP bureau responsible for building relationships with and controlling groups and institutions outside of the Party, and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the government agency in charge of cultivating ties with the Chinese diaspora, before his appointment as director of the Ethnic Affairs Commission last June. Last summer, he joined a handful of other top officials accompanying Xi Jinping on a trip to Xinjiang.

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We can only speculate as to why Pan’s political fortunes improved so dramatically since Xi came to power. One possible factor is that both men appreciate the political utility of Chinese tradition for constructing a unified and confident national identity. The use of culturally resonant symbols to frame political claims and mobilize the masses has long been a technique of Communist power and is common to many political systems around the world. But self-styled revolutionary regimes must balance appealing to tradition and transforming society. Throughout the Maoist period, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP cast traditional culture as backward and oppressive. Since then, and especially under Xi, however, the Party has forsaken much of its older Marxist rhetoric for a discourse of Chinese civilization, rebranding itself as a champion of tradition and celebrating once-abjured icons like Confucius.

Pan was an early advocate of using Chinese tradition to secure CCP control. The manifesto “Realistic Responses and Strategic Options” noted the diminished appeal of Communist ideology among the Chinese people and called for the creative adaptation of traditional Chinese culture to safeguard China’s socialist system. In his 2001 essay on reforming the Party’s religious policy, Pan similarly advocated harnessing religion to reinforce political control. In addition to theorizing the political utility of engaging with Chinese tradition, Pan has modeled what such engagement should look like. During his years of service in the environmental sector, he wrote extensively on the importance of the environment in classical Chinese philosophy. He synthesized his interpretation of Chinese tradition into the concept of “ecological civilization,” a state of harmony among individual humans, society, and the natural world, which he touts as one of China’s historic contributions to humanity.

But there is a dark side to what often reads as a humane exegesis of Chinese tradition: an intolerance toward local cultures and peoples deemed alien and resistant to it, and a corresponding mandate to assimilate them through “ethnic fusion” (minzu ronghe, 民族融合). The term “ethnic fusion” connotes the adoption of Han customs, institutions, and language by other ethnic groups. It has always been part of the CCP’s lexicon but has mostly been understood as an inevitable outcome of long-term socialist development, not the immediate objective of current policy. In important speeches on ethnic work in the 1990s and 2000s, Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both affirmed the “long-term nature” of ethnic identities. In the early 2010s, calls for “ethnic fusion” and “ethnic blending” grew louder in some circles as part of a larger debate on “Second-Generation Ethnic Policy” focused on promoting a unified Chinese identity over individual ethnic ones. Since becoming president and leader of the Party, Xi Jinping has elevated “forging a common Chinese national consciousness” (in some iterations, “forging a sense of community of the Chinese nation”) as a primary goal of “ethnic work” and more recently has stressed the need to promote “ethnic unity and fusion.”

As with his embrace of Chinese tradition, Pan was early in his unqualified endorsement of “ethnic fusion.” He elaborated this concept in his 2002 dissertation, “Research on the History and Actual Situation of Migrant Settlement of China’s Western Region,” a proposal to settle 50 million Han from eastern and central China in western China over the following half century. Pan argued that large-scale migration would address multiple crises China faces: easing the pressures of overpopulation in the country’s eastern and central regions, facilitating exploitation of natural resources while advancing the country’s sustainable development, and eliminating the national security threat of ethnic separatism by eroding the differences between ethnic groups and promoting “ethnic fusion.”

Pan devoted two chapters of his dissertation to identifying precedents for his proposal. He stressed the need to learn from the experience of other countries, citing the benefits reaped from large-scale migration: anti-desertification in Israel, resource exploitation in Russia, and skyrocketing agricultural production, transportation capacity, and geopolitical power in the United States. “Westward expansion,” he writes, “not only allowed America to tentatively complete its modernization but also led it to become a great power playing an increasingly important role in the world. . . We absolutely can draw on some of America’s policies and measures as a reference. . . We must, as quickly as possible, formulate a migration strategy with Chinese characteristics.” Pan also found ample precedent for his proposal in Chinese history, from the westward expansion of the ancient Han dynasty to the Qing dynasty’s conquest of Xinjiang. Pan linked his proposal to a longer tradition of Chinese colonization by frequently using the term tunken (屯垦), a classical reference to settlement through troop garrison and land reclamation.

There is a certain ambiguity to “ethnic fusion” in Pan’s writings. On one hand, it is an inevitable outcome of history. He declares in his 2001 essay on reforming the Party’s religious policy that “no matter the strength of foreign religions, whenever they enter China, they will all be integrated [xiang rong, 相融] into Chinese culture, without exception.” On the other hand, not all cultural and religious traditions are equally assimilable. On this point, Pan is particularly critical of Tibetan Buddhism and Islam, both of which he describes as “unreformed,” theocratic, and irrational. He sees Islam as especially dangerous. As he writes in his dissertation,

Religions originally possessed a rather strong exclusionary character. Even today, the exclusionary character of Islam, which has not undergone religious reform, remains extraordinarily fierce. They still believe in fundamentalism. From the spiritual to the material, from behavior to appearance, all the way to etiquette, diet, and so forth—their standards are completely based on ancient doctrines and admonishments. They are suspicious of everything, refuse to integrate with other cultures, and do not trust any foreign political authority or external collectivity.

Many scholars attribute ethnic tensions and unrest in Xinjiang to a combination of factors, including state repression, state-backed Han immigration and settlement, employment discrimination against Uyghurs and other non-Han peoples, and the dominance of extractive industries in the local economy. These factors exacerbate economic inequality and unemployment and in some cases may enhance the appeal of militancy and violent extremism against the local security apparatus as well as civilians. For Pan, however, the problem is Islam itself, which he views as stubbornly unreformed. He presents the problem as especially acute in areas where Muslims are highly concentrated, in spite of what he sees as the benevolent policies of the country’s leaders:

Since the country’s founding [in 1949], the central government has extended extremely favorable treatment to minority nationalities; however, when it comes to Islam, no matter how many advantages it provides, and no matter how favorable its treatment may be, the results have been far from ideal, and ethnic separatist activities remain incessant. On the other hand, wherever Han people are concentrated in large numbers, there is little unrest, such as in northern Xinjiang; by contrast, wherever Muslims are concentrated in large numbers, unrest is greater, as in southern Xinjiang.

Pan casts Islam as a spatial and demographic problem as much as a cultural or ideological one. It is unsurprising, then, that his proposed solution involves resettlement on a massive scale.

If Islam and Tibetan Buddhism are problems in Pan’s framework, so too is the system that has permitted them to persist unreformed and unassimilated. In his dissertation, Pan takes direct aim at what he characterizes as the shortcomings of the Party’s conventional approach to ethnic affairs. He elaborates the damaging consequences of what he sees as excessive respect for linguistic diversity, criticizing the creation of writing systems for nationalities that previously lacked them—once a point of pride for the Party: “Our goal is to strengthen ethnic unity and fusion; rather than spending energy creating ethnic scripts that never existed, it would be better to promote Putonghua [standard Mandarin], which is used throughout the country.” He also warns of the demographic danger posed by the implementation of family planning regulations (such as the one-child policy), which often exempt “minority nationalities” from limits on childbearing.

Pan saves his sharpest criticism for China’s system of ethnic territorial autonomy. Under this system, “minority nationalities” ostensibly enjoy representation in local government and certain cultural rights, including the official use of their native language, in areas where they are a local majority or are relatively populous, such as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, among others. The CCP historically has touted the system of territorial autonomy as proof of its egalitarian rule. But Pan regards the institutionalization of cultural and demographic distinctions inherent in autonomous administration as a driver of ethnic separatism and threat to national security. While Pan acknowledges the system’s important contributions to ethnic equality and development, he unambiguously affirms the necessity of moving beyond it, stating that “the system of ethnic territorial autonomy is not the optimal system, less still one that can be a permanent system.”

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Pan’s appointment to lead the Ethnic Affairs Commission and his promotion to the Central Committee mark the convergence of his long-stated views on ethnic fusion and the more recent assimilationist turn in Chinese ethnic governance. Of course, what Pan wrote in his 2002 dissertation will not necessarily determine how he will handle ethnic governance today. But there is good reason to believe that Pan remains committed to “ethnic fusion” and is continuing to promote it as he moves toward the inner ring of Chinese political power. In a 2019 speech at the Central Institute of Socialism, Pan reiterated nearly word-for-word his 2001 assertion of the inevitability of assimilation, stating that “no matter the strength of foreign religions, whenever they enter China, they will all be integrated into Chinese civilization.” In one of his first published statements since the 2022 Party congress, he called for promoting “contact, interaction, and blending” among ethnic groups, adopting language regarding ethnic policy codified in the CCP’s top journal. Recently, the Ethnic Affairs Commission has also partnered with the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce to launch the “Private Enterprise Advances Toward the Frontier” initiative, meant to fulfill the Party’s directive of securing China’s frontier by encouraging privately owned companies to invest in the border regions, deepen cross-region contact, and “create a platform and vehicle for promoting contact, interaction, and blending of all nationalities.”

The colonial character of this initiative is stunning, yet also familiar in light of Pan’s earlier writing. We must wait to see how the project develops; the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is almost certainly making the implementation of any preconceived plans more complicated. But time and again Pan has demonstrated a willingness to think big and take bold action—the darker side of the environmentalism for which foreign observers have repeatedly praised him. As we watch him take his next steps, journalists and China scholars need to grapple with the fact that a celebrated environmentalist is now at the center of one of China’s most notorious policy arenas, and to imagine the chilling possibilities of ethnic governance at ecological scale.