Autonomy in Autocracy: Explaining Ethnic Policies in Post-1949 China

Autonomy in Autocracy: Explaining Ethnic Policies in Post-1949 China
Chao-yo Cheng


In my dissertation, I examine government policies and institutional arrangements toward subordinate ethnic groups in authoritarian regimes. With a focus on post-1949 China, I develop and test a new political logic of ethnic local autonomy (minzu quyu zizhi) to explain how the designation of ethnic autonomous territories (EATs) shapes the governance of non-Han groups and sustains the Chinese Communist Party's rule.

My dissertation speaks both to China studies and to several broad literatures, such as authoritarianism, decentralization, and ethnic politics. I argue that ethnic local autonomy allows the central leader to establish his supremacy over subnational political elites while countering his rivals within the central leadership. Through extensive statistical analysis, elite interviews, and archival research, I demonstrate that ethnic local autonomy is not introduced simply to defuse potential mobilization from non-Han groups. Instead, central leaders create ethnic autonomous prefectures and counties to constrain the power of recalcitrant provincial elites when faced with strong rivals within the Politburo. In a broad vein, I discuss the implications of ethnic local autonomy for state building and national integration in multi-ethnic societies.


Chao-yo Cheng

PhD defended at

University of California, Los Angeles


Social Sciences




National politics