Xinjiang "Ethnic Unity" Regulation Imposes Party Policy, Restricts Free Expression

February 24, 2010

Following unrest in the far western region of Xinjiang in July 2009, the Xinjiang People's Congress Standing Committee passed an all-encompassing regulation on promoting ethnic unity, effective February 1, 2010, that promulgates Communist Party policy on ethnic issues and imposes far-reaching controls on freedom of expression. The legislation appears to be the first provincial regulation in China devoted to ethnic unity. The regulation comes amid an array of other measures―in both law and practice―to impose ethnic unity education in the region and restrict free expression on issues perceived to relate to ethnic unity. The regulation contravenes provisions in international law that limit the circumstances under which the right to freedom of expression may be restricted.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) People's Congress Standing Committee passed the XUAR Ethnic Unity Education Regulation on December 29, 2009, effective February 1, 2010, that promulgates Communist Party policy on ethnic issues and imposes tight controls on freedom of expression, with implications in areas such as academic freedom, educational curricula, and commercial decisions. The regulation follows unrest in July 2009 that underscored deep tensions in the XUAR and rifts between Han and Uyghur communities. While the regulation includes such stated aims as promoting equality, taken as a whole, the regulation represents a far-reaching and intrusive tool for imposing Party policy on XUAR residents, placing them at risk of violating vaguely worded prohibitions that restrict free speech. XUAR officials have described the regulation as a way to codify ethnic unity education into law especially after events in July (see, e.g., remarks of Eligen Imibakhi and Shawket Imin via Tianshan Net, December 30). The regulation also follows the release of national directives in late 2008 and 2009 on promoting propaganda and education on ethnic policies and on ethnic unity education in schools. After the release of the national directives―which followed 2008 protests and riots in Tibetan areas of China―localities throughout China have reported taking renewed steps to promote ethnic unity campaigns and education. (See, e.g., a January 19 report from China Ethnicities News, January 18 report from the Qingdao Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau, via the State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC), October 13, 2009, report from the Guizhou Ethnic Affairs Commission, via SEAC, and September 9 opinion from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Education Department, available as a download via the Inner Mongolia Medical Institute.)

While localities throughout China have bolstered ethnic unity campaigns, the XUAR legislation appears to be the first recent effort to create a formal regulation on unity education. Key features of the new regulation include:

  • Aim of the Regulation. Stating that "ethnic separatism" is the main danger to stability in the XUAR, the regulation describes strengthening ethnic unity as citizens' "sacred duty" and "glorious obligation" (Article 5). It also notes that citizens have a "right" and "responsibility" to receive ethnic unity education (Article 6).
  • Scope of implementation. The regulation spells out the responsibilities of various government offices, Party organizations, and other institutions in incorporating ethnic unity education into their work and describes intended recipients of such education (see generally Section 2 of the regulation). The regulation charges educational institutions (Article 12), the judiciary (Article 15), human resources offices (Article 16), religious affairs bureaus (Article 17), commercial and industrial agencies (Article 18), and social organizations like trade unions and women's federations (Article 19), among other groups, with including unity education in their work and spreading ethnic unity education to various segments of the population. Educational institutions' tasks include promoting unity education at the kindergarten level, which is lower than the grade level mandated in the national circular on unity education in schools.
  • Controls Over Free Speech. Provisions in the regulation call for supervision of artistic and cultural venues (Article 13) and oversight of the publishing market (Article 14); forbid "contents and acts not beneficial to ethnic unity" in commercial activities (Article 18); and call on academic research institutions in philosophy and the social sciences to research "ethnic unity theory and major achievements in practice" and provide "scientific theory guidance and support" for ethnic unity education (Article 22). Other articles also carry implications for academic freedom. Article 12 forbids anyone from using forums or platforms at educational institutions to disseminate speech "not beneficial" to the "unity of the motherland, ethnic unity, and social stability." Article 23 lists a range of subjects as components of unity education, including the history of Xinjiang and "history of ethnic minority development," against a track record of politicizing academic analyses of the region and censoring historical analyses that deviate from state-sanctioned positions. (See the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2009 Annual Report, page 147 and accompanying footnotes, for more information.)
  • Punishments. The regulation details repercussions and penalties for "words and acts" (Article 36) and for disseminating speech (Article 37) "not beneficial" to ethnic unity. Under Article 37, spreading such speech can carry the possibility of administrative punishment or, where the violation constitutes a crime in the PRC Criminal Law, the possibility of criminal penalties.

The regulation violates international human rights protections for freedom of expression, which limit the circumstances under which this right may be restricted. Article 19 in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed and has committed to ratify, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), provide for a right to freedom of expression. Both the ICCPR (Article 19, paragraph 3), and the UDHR (Article 29) allow officials to limit this right, but only if such restrictions are "provided by law" (ICCPR), or "determined by law" (UDHR), and "necessary" for (ICCPR), or "solely for the purpose of" (UDHR), respecting the rights or reputations of others or protecting national security, public order, public health or morals, or the general welfare. General Comment 10 to Article 19 of the ICCPR notes that restrictions on freedom of expression "may not put in jeopardy the right itself." Without clearly articulated provisions elsewhere in law narrowly tailored to meet the necessity of upholding the rights or interests set forth in these documents, the regulation violates the provisions in international law.

The regulation also comes amid an array of other steps―in both law and practice―to impose ethnic unity education in the region and restrict free expression including on issues perceived to relate to ethnic unity. In October 2009, a XUAR official described plans to add new curricula on ethnic unity to XUAR schools, according to an October 12 Xinhua report, while Urumqi schools have made questions on ethnic unity 20 percent of students' grades on their school exams in politics, according to an October 21 Xinhua report. See also a Legal Daily report (via SEAC, October 15) on ethnic unity education at the college level. For information on other recently promulgated regulations from the XUAR that address ethnic unity and affect free speech, as well as examples of people detained for exercising this right, see additional CECC analyses (1, 2). Most recently, XUAR authorities reported placing XUAR residents into criminal detention or imposing administrative punishments for spreading "harmful" information by text message and phone calls, including information that "destroys ethnic unity," according to a February 7 Tianshan Net report. Based on abbreviated names of those involved, the people penalized appeared to include both Han Chinese and Uyghurs. Earlier in the year, authorities described punishing three other people also for spreading "harmful" information through text messages, "bringing about social panic and influencing social stability and ethnic unity," according to a January 25 report from the XUAR Public Security Department, via Xinhua, January 26.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV―Xinjiang in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.