Interview with Benno Weiner

This interview is with Benno Weiner, the author of “‘This Absolutely Is Not a Hui Rebellion!’: The Ethnopolitics of Great Nationality Chauvinism in Early Maoist China,” which appears in the October 2023 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Benno Weiner is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. Read the article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

Of course. I am a historian of modern China, Tibet, and Inner Asia whose research focuses on ethnopolitics and ethnocultural frontiers. I am an associate professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. I received my Ph.D. from Columbia University, where, in addition to being mentored by wonderful historians of China, I had the opportunity to participate in what was probably the first program in modern Tibetan studies. This led me to my dissertation field research, which I conducted over about eighteen months in the area of the Tibetan Plateau that Tibetan speakers refer to as Amdo, a vast region that lies mostly in today’s Qinghai Province but also spills into southern Gansu and parts of northern Sichuan. My first monograph, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, was published by Cornell University Press in 2020. It is the first major study to employ significant county-level archival material to explore the Chinese Communist Party’s discourses and practices of state and nation building in a predominantly non-Han region of the early People’s Republic of China—and how they went terrible awry. Along with Robert Barnett and Françoise Robin, in 2020 I also published a coedited volume called, Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold. Before coming to Carnegie Mellon, I taught at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

Your article focuses on the definition of ethnic minority groups, specifically Hui Muslims, in the early PRC. How did you come to focus on this interesting subject?

One thing that I think is important to remember, but often is not, is that “ethnic minorities” were not always “ethnic” or “minorities.” They were turned into ethnic minorities, or “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu)as they used to be called in China, through processes of modern state and nation making. How this happened—how over the course of the twentieth century actors, institutions, and communities that had once dominated their worlds were minoritized and thus marginalized or even eliminated—are questions that my research seeks to explore. What attracted me to the Amdo region in the first place was that it has long been a diverse, complex borderland where the Tibetan Buddhist, Chinese, and Islamic worlds come together. And for many reasons the Hui, sometimes referred to as Sino-Muslims, are particularly fascinating and important part of that mosaic. From the get-go, CCP leaders were insistent that “China” was a historically unified multi-minzu (nationality) state. At the same time, they understood that relations between ethnocultural groups in the Northwest and elsewhere were frequently scarred by deep distrust and bouts of intercommunity violence. They explained this contradiction by pointing to the poisonous legacy of what the CCP called “great Han chauvinism,” the long-term discrimination and exploitation committed by the Han majority against those now defined as minority nationalities. This was a gross simplification. Nonetheless, for CCP leaders the logical solution to inter-minzu disunity was to eliminate great Han chauvinism. To paraphrase an important study by the scholar Uradyn Bulag that essentially anchors my article, the party anointed itself “Good Han” determined to rescue minority nationalities from those it deemed “Bad Han” and thereby overcome the main obstacle to nationality unity. In the Northwest, however, there was a complication. Over the previous decades, power had been held not by an exploitative Han ruling class but by Muslim militarists, the so-called “Ma family warlords.” So, in this article I wanted to explore how the party’s nationalities policies were adapted to the ethnopolitical realities of the Northwest and in particular to the Gansu-Qinghai frontier. In other words, I ask what happens when the “bad guys” are not Han but come from one of the minoritized groups the CCP claimed to be saving from great nationality exploitation.

How does your history of the party-state defining Sino-Muslims as a Hui minority speak to the state-building process of the early PRC?

Well, one thing that I think it does is remind us how monumentally complex were the challenges the CCP faced in the years after 1949. Arguably the party was trying to do something that had never been done before (with perhaps the exception of the Soviet Union): transform the near entirety of a vast, diverse, imperial formation into a consolidated nation-state. Essentially, party leaders needed to find a formula that explained to non-Han communities, previously subjects of the Manchu Qing empire, why they should assent to becoming minorities within a Han-dominated state. Borrowing from the Soviets, the formula they hit upon was the critique of great nationality chauvinism. The Hui are an interesting case study because, as I discuss in the article, along with the Mongols they were the CCP’s first test cases. In fact, the identification of the Hui as a distinct minzu was in part a response to the Kuomintang’s purported insistence that the Hui were not an ethnic minority but a religious minority, which the CCP descried as assimilationist. As always, the reality was more complex. Nevertheless, when in 1941 the CCP’s newly established Nationalities Question Research Office published its first study of a nationality group, it chose the Hui as its subject. Despite admittedly not checking off any of the boxes Stalin had laid out in his definition of a nationality, the study explained that it was in direct response to centuries of discrimination and violence at the hands of the non-Muslim majority that Sino-Muslims gradually coalesced into a distinct minzu. So, I think focusing on the Hui, which is in some ways an outlier, helps us to understand how central the discourse on Han chauvinism was to the party’s efforts to resolve one of the most vexing global problems of twentieth-century state building. As I suggest in the article, it was a creative but ultimately unsuccessful mechanism through which the CCP sought to refit the ethnocultural diversity of the dynastic state into a nation-state form without resorting to ethnic or majoritarian-state violence.

You discuss the party’s flexible United Front policy frequently throughout this article. How was this policy different in the non-Han Chinese Qinghai-Gansu region compared to Han areas in coastal China?

That is a good question, and it is a little difficult to answer only because so little work has been done on the United Front during the socialist period. This is despite how central it was to the party’s program of state and nation building in various settings, including among Han urban intellectuals and entrepreneurs, religious communities, and the various peoples the party would identify as minority nationalities. I recently served as discussant on an AAS panel focused on the United Front during the Mao years, and in addition to getting me excited about the new work that is being done, it helped me to more clearly understand the futility of speaking about the United Front in the singular. Although developing out of the same ideological rationale and maintaining certain core principles, there probably were many United Fronts at many different times and places. The pre-1949 United Front as “revolutionary strategy” is the most studied. But that United Front needs to be distinguished from its post-1949 form, which, as the recently deceased Lyman Van Slyke presciently noted many years ago, was a strategy of national integration. Under Xi Jinping and perhaps even earlier, the United Front has changed again, this time into an institution of state surveillance and repression that, while not unconnected to its past iterations, is largely devoid of the transformative promise its earlier advocates once placed in it. In terms of how the United Front operated differently in the 1950s Qinghai-Gansu frontier versus in Han settings, I think the simplest answer is that in the case of the latter the United Front was an important but perhaps subsidiary component of the party’s operations. In Amdo, at least until it was essentially repudiated in 1958, it was nearly all-encompassing. The United Front was the foundation upon which everything else was to be built. It set the guiding principle for basically all work among non-Han communities. Yet one thing this article shows is that its implementation might vary between different minoritized communities even within the same general geographical settings.

Your article is a fascinating study of ethnic relations in the Qinghai-Gansu Highlands. How did you conduct this research?

Well, as we all know, doing fieldwork and archival research in China has been getting more and more difficult, and it has become nearly impossible in sensitive areas and among non-Han communities. So, some of my sources come from earlier fieldwork, and certainly having spent time in the region helped me conceptualize the project, but a lot of the sources are drawn from materials that are publicly available either because they appear in published document collections or in various online databases. I would love, of course, to have access to the raw archives as I did for my book, but we can’t wait for the archives to open. I would like nothing more than for some scholar to come along and use newly discovered or accessible material to challenge or nuance my arguments, because that will mean that we are getting closer to a more comprehensive understanding of the lived experience of this very complex area during an exceedingly complicated but pivotal historical moment.

Prior works have discussed the formation of ethnic minorities policy in the early PRC. How does your research complicate or complement these prior works?

One of the things I hope it does is to encourage scholars to think locally. For instance, when we talk about the “formation” of ethnic minorities in China, the major English-language work probably is Tom Mullaney’s important book, Coming to Terms with the Nation, which focuses on the ethnic classification (minzu shibie) project in Yunnan. Mullaney shows the complications state ethnographers and party operatives encountered when trying to identify the diverse populations of China’s Southwest and fit them into an ethnotaxonomy that could serve the needs of the new state. Things were different in the Northwest. When People’s Liberation Army forces poured into Qinghai Province in September 1949, for example, they came with a fairly intact notion of who they would find. From the start they spoke of seven minzu:Han, Hui, Tibetans, Mongols, Salar, Tu (Monguor), and Kazakh. These categories were an extension of how Nationalist politicians and ethnographers had described the region and were considered to be more or less unproblematic. In Qinghai, the task was not so much to figure out who people were (although that was necessary in some cases), but to get the various predetermined minzu to act their part, so to speak. For instance, as I write about in a forthcoming article, regional leaders insisted that the development of a Tibetan nationality consciousness had been impeded by “tribal” loyalties. Not until Tibetans discarded these sub-minzu identities and embraced their party-imposed subjectivity as Tibetan (Zangzu) could a pan-minzu “patriotic consciousness” develop. It was different among the Hui. While the party understood that sectarian and other divisions existed within and between Hui communities, they believed that centuries of Han chauvinism, and in particular the horrific violence committed against Northwest Muslim communities in the last decades of the Qing, had created a particular solidarity among the Hui. For regional leaders, this helped explain the Hui masses’ stubborn loyalty to the Hui ruling class, both religious and secular, which was considered a bulwark against a return of majoritarian violence. So, that is just to say that as we continue to work on the development and implementation of minzu policies during the Maoist period, specificity will continue to matter.

One of the main focuses of prior histories of ethnic minorities in the PRC is on the contrast between nationalities policy in China versus in the Soviet Union. How does your study add to this debate on the difference in nationality policies between the two allied nations?

At least in the material I have seen on the Northwest, there is not a lot of direct reference to the Soviet model. Obviously, the Soviet example was immensely important—including the CCP’s adoption of the discourse of great nationality chauvinism—as were some glaring differences, perhaps most obviously that autonomous areas in China were not republics and their titular nationalities were not granted the right of succession. At risk of repeating myself, I am most interested in how policies were enacted on the ground and what effects they had and continue to have on the communities they impacted. Because our access to primary material is so limited in the Chinese case, we are way behind scholars of ethnopolitics of the Soviet Union, who have done some excellent work that has shown, among other things, that Soviet nationalities policies formed at the center were implemented in a myriad of ways and of course changed over time. Moving forward we need to continue paying attention to the policies that came out of Beijing, while really focusing on local settings. And fortunately, I can think of a number of scholars who are doing this for a number of different communities in different parts of the PRC. As their work is published, we will begin to come to a greater understanding of what similarities and differences existed between different areas of China, as well as the variations between the Soviets and the CCP.

You open the article by discussing the assumed “conflict between Marx and Allah” and conclude that these policies left Hui and other Muslim minorities “susceptible to majoritarian-state violence.” How is this reflected in current ethnic relations in China?

The “Marx and Allah” quote is from a contemporary American observer, but it was a sentiment that was more or less shared by the leaders of the CCP in 1949 who considered Islam to be a barrier to both class and patriotic consciousness. What I was attempting to point out is that processes of minoritization, even when accompanied by promises of equality and pluralism, are inevitably accompanied by violence of various types and degrees. Although often honored in the breach, for much of the 1950s the CCP preached that the threat to nationality unity came not from the ethnocultural or ethnoreligious particularism—what the CCP called “local nationalism”—but from Han chauvinism. As several scholars have pointed out, however, the CCP’s ongoing mission to liberate “backward” minority nationalities rests on a pillar of Han cultural superiority that is itself deeply “chauvinistic” and eliminates the right of non-Han groups to make decisions about their own political futures. This has left non-Han communities vulnerable to charges of self-segregation, disloyalty, and treason. We see how quickly and easily the CCP’s paternalistic pluralism was transformed during the 1957 Anti-Rightist campaign into a socialist form of ethnonationalism, which led in subsequent campaigns to tremendous levels of state violence. Of course, this wasn’t limited to Hui communities, but, as in many states with Muslim minorities, in China there is a history of racializing Muslims as particularly insular, untrustworthy, and prone to violence. In recent years Xi Jinping’s government has come to overtly embrace what was once called Han chauvinism, while attacking ethnocultural and ethnoreligious difference in ways that echo earlier criticisms of local nationalism. This has manifested most horrifically in the well-documented persecution of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, but also in attacks on other forms of non-Han identity and expression, including—under the guise of the “Sinicization of religion” —the closing of Hui centers of publishing and learning, the removal of “Arabic-style” domes and minarets from mosques and shrines, the erasure of Arabic lettering from public spaces, and more. It is left to be seen whether or not this rejection of even limited pluralism will finally resolve the “minority question” that has plagued champions of the Chinese nation since the fall of the Qing. But, it seems doubtful to me, and may instead have the opposite effect.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

Yes, this article is something of a bridge between the book, which primarily focused on pastoral Tibetan communities in the 1950s, and my new book project that is looking at the decades-long process spanning the last years of the Qing empire through, say, the early 1960s, during which the greater Amdo region was slowly territorialized and its diverse communities minoritized, and as a result disempowered and marginalized, within an emerging Chinese nation-state. I am particularly interested in how local Tibetan, Mongol, and Muslim communities both responded to and participated in the disintegration of one world and engaged in the violent contest over what would come next.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

Simply put, I hope it encourages the field of Chinese history, and Chinese studies more generally, to more often think beyond the majority Han. Non-Han people may make up only around 8 or 9% of the current population of the PRC, but that is still over 120 million people! And the territories that they traditionally inhabit cover more than 60% of its land mass. The CCP’s success in reconstructing most of the territorial dimensions and demographic diversity of the Qing Empire is among the most consequential accomplishments of the early PRC period. And among the most troublesome problems it has faced since is determining how to best govern these regions and what the relationship should be between non-Han people and the state and nation. These communities not only have been victims of tremendous levels of discrimination, dislocation, and state violence over the past century or more but have different historical experiences and different communal memories than the majority. To put it another way, imagine a volume on the 1960s in the United States that only considers the experiences and vantage point of the ethnic majority and what that would say about what type of histories we value. Well, that still happens in the field of Chinese studies. For many reasons the two cases are not totally analogous, of course, and I am not trying to call anyone out. But I do hope that my work and the work of many of my colleagues reminds us of the importance of including the stories of non-Han people and communities in our explorations of China’s recent past. It is the right thing to do intellectually and the right thing to do morally.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

As alluded to above, it was a study written by Uradyn Bulag, called “Good Han, Bad Han: The Moral Parameters of Ethnopolitics in China,” that spurred me to wonder what happened when the bad guys were not Han, but Hui. I would recommend Bulag’s many writings to anyone interested in thought-provoking and at times challenging discussions of ethnopolitics in twentieth-century and contemporary China. I also was inspired by the subaltern studies theorist Gyanendra Pandey and the work of Janet Klein, who has used Pandey and others to explore minoritization in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. On the history of Sino-Muslims or Hui, the go-to book is still Jonathan Lipman’s Familiar Strangers. Likewise, the work of the late Dru Gladney is still probably the place to start for those interested in thinking through the complex issues that inform notions of identity, community, and place for those Gladney once referred to as the “enigmatic Hui.” But there is now a new generation of excellent scholars focused on Islam in China and Sino-Muslims, particularly during the late Qing and Republican periods, many of whom I cite in the article, as well as recent work on Hui in the Reform and post-Reform eras, including David Stroup’s recent Pure and True. While the Hui under Mao show up in a number of important, larger studies of the Hui, including those by Lipman, Gladney, and others such as Matthew Erie’s China and Islam, there is a notable absence of sustained empirical work on the Hui during the socialist period. A recent exception is two articles by Xian Wang on Hui of southern Yunnan (so recent, in fact, that I was unable to include reference to them in my article). So, I hope my contribution in Twentieth Century China is one small step in a larger process by which we begin to build a historiography of the Hui under socialism and to connect their experiences to the still small but growing literature on non-Han communities in the early decades of the PRC.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

Just that I appreciate Twentieth Century China’s support, not only for publishing the article but also for making it open access and for spotlighting it through this forum. For all the reasons I have stated above, I think it is important that work on non-Han people and areas not be siloed into specialty volumes and journals but rather be read alongside and in conversation with what I guess I would call more mainstream topics and studies of China’s recent past. And thank you to you, Ben, and to the readers as well!