Shifting Signals in the “Two” Chinas

On July 11, 2015 several foreign tourists connected to a South African humanitarian aid organization were arrested in Ordos, Inner Mongolia on suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.  Local authorities claimed the group, which included visitors from Great Britain, South Africa and India, was watching propaganda videos in their hotel room.  However, the guests, who were in the midst of a 47-day excursion throughout China, maintained that they were reviewing a documentary about Genghis Khan in preparation for a visit to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum located near Ordos.[1]  After some negotiation between British Consular officials and Chinese authorities, the local government freed those detained on July 17.[2]  In a press release, members of the group characterized their incarceration as a “misunderstanding” due to, perhaps, confusion caused by “unfamiliarity with the English language.”[3] Chinese authorities have not officially commented on the situation.  This example highlights the complexities and contradictions that may arise when dealing with the Chinese government, which, despite its totalitarian character, does not always speak with one voice or reflect a common stance as it wrestles with maintaining its power and authority amidst rapid economic and social change.

This essay explores the complexities of efforts to interpret the actions of the Chinese state.  It draws on Stern and O’Brien, who have asserted that investigating China’s government actions from the perspective of everyday politics allows analysts to uncover their fragmented nature. That situation in turn is exacerbated by the blurry boundaries of jurisdictions in the nation’s law, which make it difficult to know what behaviors and activities are and are not permissible at various locations in the country.[4]  The disjointed character of the authoritarian Chinese state, combined with the recent emergence of a variety of modes of resistance throughout the country, have prompted Stern and O’Brien to conclude that, “there are at least two Chinas:  the stable, high-capacity juggernaut familiar from the headlines and a hodgepodge of disparate actors.”[5]  The curious dichotomy of China’s identities can be examined by investigating and contextualizing the geographical location in which the tourists were arrested and by understanding the political ideology that drives state and society relationships throughout the country.

Autonomy Means Loyalty

The dualistic character of the Chinese state was evident in the establishment of Inner Mongolia in 1947 as the first of China’s five ethnic minority provinces.[6]  The Chinese Communists created the administrative category, zizhi qu, which literally means “self-rule,” as a means of coaxing members of minority groups to identify with the emerging state. The regime’s leaders hoped that establishing autonomous regions would create an “expectation of belonging” in which ethnic minority groups could also enjoy ownership of land.[7]  However, in reality, the relative autonomy declared as part of the official name of Mongolia was meant foremost to encourage its residents to align with Mao and the Communists, thereby preventing possible collaboration with the Nationalists or foreign external powers, such as the Soviet Union.  The Chinese government never really intended that Inner Mongolia, or any of the other ethnic minority areas of the nation would enjoy true political independence. Instead, the state’s course enabled it to construct what Anderson has called an “imagined community” of belonging by, “… stretching the short tight skin of the narration over the gigantic body of the empire” so that Mongols could view themselves as a part of the Chinese nation.[8]

Do not (even appear to) disrupt Social Harmony

For China’s government, an “expectation of belonging” implies that all citizens will adhere to the national identity the state has assiduously promoted. These efforts have included the promotion of the hexie shehui (harmonious society) ideology.  Hu Jintao, former president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reintroduced this construct, rooted in Confucian thought, as a socio-economic vision in 2005.[9]  He coupled this construct with the idea of a harmonious society characterized by minzu tuanjie (ethnic unity), thereby allowing all those living in China to be one nation.  The antithesis of this term is minzu fenlie (ethnic separatism).  And the government has drawn the line between these ideas very sharply. Put simply, those who are viewed by the state as disrupting unity run the danger of being termed separatists.  The suppression of separatism has become an essential political tool by which the state justifies its ethnic policies in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.[10]  By framing any civil unrest in the country’s minority regions as evidence of divisiveness, the regime is able to signal other groups in the country that aim to disrupt “societal harmony”[11] of the challenge they will face from authorities if they protest the existing order.

Indeed, authorities in Inner Mongolia have been on alert for hints of social unrest in that region for the last few years due, in part, to the ongoing ethnic tension that erupted in Tibet just months prior to the 2008 Olympic Games and in Xinjiang in July 2009.[12]  Social discord in other areas of China has prompted government officials to remain on the look out for social unrest in ethnic minority regions such as Inner Mongolia. In recent years, the PRC has confronted resistance led by the religious sect Falun Gong, been the target of sharp criticism by artist turned human rights activist Ai Wei Wei and seen itself accused of religious persecution because of its decision to raze a Christian church in Zhejiang province.[13]

In May 2010, just a year after widespread minority group unrest had occurred in Xinjiang, protests erupted in Inner Mongolia in response to the hit and run death of a Mongol shepherd.  Since that time, there have been other demonstrations throughout the region concerning issues of internal colonization, the state’s aggressive assimilation policies and environmental degradation.[14]  While residents have complained about the environmental destruction occurring in Inner Mongolia for many years, Western media are now reporting on the issue, adding a new dimension to the government’s challenge.[15]

This tense situation has prompted the Chinese state to watch carefully for potential threats to its desired “harmonious society,” because external actors, who include kin and those with ethnic ties to residents, are often mobilized to act on behalf of a particular ethnic group suppressed by the state.  Han has argued that outside actor involvement is tied closely to a group’s ability to mobilize politically against the regime.[16]  This is particularly true with Tibetans and Uyghurs who have a large diasporic network.  While Mongols do not have a strong diaspora from which to draw, there are other interested actors—namely human rights organizations—that pose a potential threat to the Chinese state.  Thus, ethnic unrest combined with global criticism of the PRC’s human rights record and the environmental degradation arising from its aggressive economic development efforts has created a tense ethnopolitical environment in Inner Mongolia.  This has left the government concerned with how to prevent unrest in the province from escalating to the same level it reached previously in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Chinese State:  Ambivalent and Ambiguous

This situation brings the argument back to the arrest of the foreigners with which this essay began. When I discussed the news of their detention with colleagues, the first question many asked me was, how did the authorities know what the tourists were watching in the privacy of their hotel room? While the specific details of how the state obtained its information are unknown, the reality is that the Chinese government maintains strict control over much of what happens throughout the country. The state exerts even more power in Inner Mongolia because of its concerns about the restive minority ethnic population there.  What video the group was watching was not as important to the state as the potential threat that the visitors posed to the maintenance of social harmony.  From the regime’s perspective, a group of tourists from three different nations, connected to a humanitarian organization traveling and for a prolonged period of time throughout the country, posed a risk.  As such, although the visitors claimed they were not doing anything “wrong,” local authorities still found a way to expel them from China.

This situation highlights why the shifting nature of the Chinese state has prompted Western scholars to use terms such as “ambiguous” and “ambivalent” to describe the complexities arising from efforts to interpret PRC responses to different situations.[17]  Those living in and visiting China are often taken by surprise by the dual nature of the Chinese state.  For even the most skilled expert, the regime’s signals can often be contradictory and, in any case, are almost always difficult to read. The group of tourists highlighted above planned to visit one China, the country well known in the media and global politics.  But, they inadvertently found themselves confronting the other China, a nation whose state lurks in every dimension of society and where watching a movie in the “privacy” of a hotel room can result in expulsion.


 [1]Staff, “Introduction,” The Mausoleum of Genghis Khan Website, Accessed August 12, 2015,

[2]Staff, “All British and South African Tourists Detained in China Now Released,” July 17,2015, Accessed September 17, 2015,

[3]Chun Han Wong, “Foreign Tourists Held in China Over Terror Video Say They Watched Genghis Khan Film,” Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2015, Accessed September 16, 2015,

[4] Stern, Rachel E. and O’Brien, Kevin J.  “Politics at the Boundary:  Mixed Signals at the   Chinese State,” Modern China, Vol. 38, No. 2 (March 2012):  175.

[5]  Stern and O’Brien, Politics at the Boundary, 190.

[6] Uradyn Bulag, “Inner Mongolia:  The Dialectics of Colonization and Ethnicity Building,” in Governing Chinas Multiethnic Frontiers, ed. Morris Rossabi, (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2004), 90.

[7] Uradyn Bulag, The Mongols at Chinas Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 9.

[8]  Dru C. Gladney, Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities, and      Other Subaltern Subjects, (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004), 16.

[9]Shi Li, Hiroshi Sato, Terry Sirular, Eds, Rising Inequality in China: Challenges to a Harmonious Society, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press), 2013.

[10]  Many scholars address the Chinese state’s use of “separatism” in minority policies:  Mackerras, Chinas Ethnic Minorities and Globalisation;  He Baogang, “The Power of Chinese Linguistic Imperialism and Its Challenge to Multicultural Education,” Eds. James Leibold and Yangbin Chen, Minority Education in China: Balancing Unity and Diversity in an Era of Critical Pluralism, (Hong Kong:  Hong Kong University Press, 2014), 64.

[11]  Chas Morrison, “Tibetan Self-Immolation as Protest Against Chinese State Repression,” in Conflict, Violence, Terrorism, and their Prevention, eds. J.M. Ramirez, C. Morrison, and A.J. Kendall, (Newcastle upon Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 89.

[12]  See:  Robert Barnett, “The Tibet Protests of Spring, 2008:  Conflict between Nation and State,” China Perspectives, No. 3, (2009) and Shan Wei, “The Urumqi Riots and China’s Ethnic Policy in Xinjiang,” East Asian Policy, (2011).

[13]  See:  Andrew Jacobs, “China Takes Dissident Artist into Custody,” The New York Times, April 3, 2011, Accessed September 16, 2015,; Staff, “Protests in Tiananmen Square,” The Economist, January 25, 2001, Accessed September 17, 2015,;  Ian Johnson, “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” The New York Times, May 29, 2014, Accessed September 21, 2105,

[14]  The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center chronicles the ongoing protests that take place in Inner Mongolia.  See:

[15] Tim Maughan, The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust,” BBC News, April 2, 2015, Accessed September 16, 2015,

[16] Enze Han, Contestation and Adaptation: The Politics of National Identity in China, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013), 9.

[17]   See: O’Brien and Li, Rightful Resistance in Rural China, 63;  Guobin Yang, The Power of the Internet in China, 188; Ching Kwan Lee, “Workers and the quest for citizenship,” in Reclaiming Chinese Society: The New Social Activism, eds. You-tien Hsing and Ching Kwann Lee, (New York: Routledge, 2010), 51; Guobin Yang, “Contention in cyberspace,”131.




Baogang, He. “The Power of Chinese Linguistic Imperialism and Its Challenge to                 Multicultural Education.” in Minority Education in China: Balancing Unity and                Diversity in an Era of Critical Pluralism. edited James Leibold and Yangbin                      Chen, 45-64.  Hong Kong:  Hong Kong University Press, 2014.

Barnett, Robert. “The Tibet Protests of Spring, 2008:  Conflict between Nation                  and State.”  China Perspectives, No. 3.  (2009):  6-23.

Bulag, Uradyn “Inner Mongolia:  The Dialectics of Colonization and Ethnicity                     Building,” in Morris Rossabi, ed, Governing Chinas Multiethnic Frontiers,                          84-116.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2004.

Bulag, Uradyn Erden. The Mongols at Chinas Edge: History and the Politics of                 National Unity.  Lanham:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Han, Enze. Contestation and Adaptation: The Politics of National Identity in China,          New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.

Gladney, Dru. Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities, and Other               Subaltern Subjects. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Jacobs, Andrew.  “China Takes Dissident Artist into Custody.” The New York Times, April  3, 2011.  Accessed September 16, 2015.  ;

Johnson, Ian.  “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” The New York             Times, May 29, 2014, Accessed September 21, 2105.    around-a-toppled-spire.html

Lee, Ching Kwan.  “Workers and the quest for citizenship.” in Reclaiming Chinese Society: The New Social Activism, edited by. You-tien Hsing and Ching Kwann  Lee, 42-63.  New York: Routledge, 2010.

Li Shi, Sato Hiroshi and Terry Sirular, eds. Rising Inequality in China: Challenges to a Harmonious Society. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Mackerras, Colin. Chinas Ethnic Minorities and Globalisation.  London:  Routledge, 2003.

Maughan, Tim.  “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust.” BBC News, April 2, 2015.  Accessed September 16, 2015.

Morrison, Chas.  “Tibetan Self-Immolation as Protest Against Chinese State Repression.” in Conflict, Violence, Terrorism, and their Prevention, edited by J.M. Ramirez, C. Morrison, and A.J. Kendall, 102-118.  Newcastle upon  Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

O’Brien, Kevin J. and Li, Lianjiang. Rightful Resistance in Rural China, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Staff.  “All British and South African Tourists Detained in China Now Released.”  July 17, 2015.  Accessed September 17, 2015.    detained-in-china-now-released-516224461.html

Staff.  “Introduction.” The Mausoleum of Genghis Khan Website.Accessed                  September 12, 2015.

Staff.  “Protests in Tiananmen Square.” The Economist.  January 25, 2001. Accessed September 17, 2015.

Stern, Rachel E. and O’Brien, Kevin J.  “Politics at the Boundary:  Mixed Signals at the      Chinese State,” Modern China, Vol. 38, No. 2 (March 2012):  174-198.

Wei, Shan.  “The Urumqi Riots and China’s Ethnic Policy in Xinjiang.”  East Asian         Policy.  (2011):  14-22.

Wong, Chun Han.  “Foreign Tourists Held in China Over Terror Video Say They Watched Genghis Khan Film,” Wall Street Journal.  July 18, 2015.   Accessed September 16, 2015.

Tong, Yanqi and Lei, Shaohua. Social Protest in Contemporary China,  2003-2010: Transitional Pains and Regime Legitimacy. New York:  Routlege, 2014.

Yang, Guobin. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.


Jamie SanchezJamie N. Sanchez is a fourth year Ph.D Candidate in the ASPECT Program at Virginia Tech where she teaches in the Department of Religion and Culture.  Her research investigates ethnopolitics, identity, cultural anxiety, and modes of resistance in Northern China.  She has a forthcoming article in the Journal for Northeast Asian History.  Prior to staring her doctoral work, Jamie worked in Northern China for more than eight years.  Her professional experience includes business consulting, business start up and management, personnel training, and teaching.



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