Can any description of China's ethnic minority policies be completely balanced?

Dancers in Kazakh village near the Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang. (Credit: Kendrick Kuo, author, 2012)

Dancers in Kazakh village near the Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang. (Credit: Kendrick Kuo, author, 2012)

At the IHT's blog Latitude, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore has a piece on China's portrayal of its ethnic minorities titled, "China's Ethnic Song and Dance." She paints a largely accurate picture of how Chinese media show ethnic minorities in a stereotypical fashion--singing, dancing, costumes--that promotes the popular vision of China as a harmonious multinational country. Sebag-Montefiore points out that ethnic minorities do enjoy some benefits, such as tourism and exemption from the one child policy. Yet at the same time, in the more restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, they face discrimination in the workplace.

This article was picked up on China Digital Times and by Richard Burger of The Peking Duck blog. While "China's Ethnic Song and Dance" draws attention to an important issue, it can potentially be misleading to readers who are not familiar with the topic. So let me make a few suggestions that don't contradict what Sebag-Montefiore wrote, but hopefully adds needed nuance.

1. Do ethnic minorities in China face a racism or caste system of some sort?

But when minorities attempt to venture outside the zones of tourism and entertainment, many hit a wall, a problem exacerbated in more restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.
A Uighur acquaintance of mine living in Beijing told me this week: “I went to college. I got a degree. I speak Mandarin. But if I apply for a job in Urumqi they don’t want me.’’ He was referring to the regional capital of Xinjiang, his native city. “I was born in the city and the other candidate is from somewhere 2,000 kilometers away. Why not me? Why him? Because he’s Han.”

This question can't be answered without heavily qualification on all fronts as I'm sure everyone who has lived in China has a variety of anecdotal evidence for "yes" and "no". But what this quote leaves unsaid is that companies in Xinjiang are incentivized to hire Han for tax break purposes. Readers may finish reading this section and think that there is some racial discrimination going on. Again, though such discrimination may occur, it may not be the only answer for why this Uighur individual did not get the job. Yes, "Because he's Han," but what about him being Han? Is it racism or simply economics? [ed.--incentivized hires can still be considered racism, the point being this might not be the result of "Han chauvinism"] We don't know, but we need to consider both sides of the story.

2. Is the 56-nation model another example of authoritarian social engineering?

There are 55 state-defined minority groups in China; the dominant Han Chinese make up the large majority. But just over 60 years ago many of the minority groupings as we know them today — which make up roughly 8 percent of the population — did not exist.
The purpose of defining ethnic minorities, a process that began in the early 1950s, was to unite China behind the Han Communist leaders. More than 400 separate groups applied for minority status but many were lumped together. The official line states that it was during this time that ethnic minorities “won emancipation and personal freedom and became masters of their homelands and their destinies.”

Yes and no. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted a multinational model for the Chinese polity, whereas Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist party supported a classic nation-state model where all people in China comprised one nation, the Zhonghua nation. In the early 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party conducted a national census. The census asked for information common to all censuses--name, age, gender, etc. But when it came to nationality, instead of multiple choice, people were allowed to self-classify. in which people were allowed to choose their own nationality. This is where the 400-plus number comes from. But some of these ethnicities/nations actually had miniscule populations. There was even a nation with just one person!

The idea of "ethnic minority" or "nation" is translated minzu, which came into the Chinese language via the Japanese, who in turn were influenced by Western nationalism. Being a neologism, those who filled out the census were new to the term and some must have misunderstood its full meaning. This created a political crisis for the CCP since having more than 400 representatives recognizing a minority of the population, one for each ethnic group, was unrealistic on multiple levels. So from 1953-4, the Chinese Communist Party launched the Ethnic Classification Project to figure out how to classify these 400-plus groups into a manageable number.

Without going into details, this number was whittled down based on a theory of ethnicity based on linguistics. Linguistic affinity was the taxonomic principle. This is important since it's common to understand that this was a purely top-down, politically-driven process that got China the magic number 56. For a full account, I highly recommend Thomas Mullaney's Coming to Terms with the Nation, which I reviewed previously.

No doubt, as Mullaney details, political considerations influenced the ethnic classification process. But ethnologists and their theories drove the train.

3. Do the Han Chinese imbibe the official line?

According to the deputy governor of Xinjiang, Shi Dagang, the region’s Muslim Uighur population is far too busy treating guests “to meat and wine, with song and dance” to create any problems. In fact, Shi insisted to reporters this week, “The ethnic minorities are simple-hearted and honest, very kind and unaffected. They love guests.”

With these "song-and-dance minority troupes" broadcast over state television and official statements such as the one above, do the Han Chinese actually believe it? Again, anecdotal evidence is everywhere, but we don't have rigorous empirical evidence to make any sweeping claims. From my personal experience, the bag is definitely mixed.

Based on my time in the Xinjiang region, you definitely see a contrast between the cities. Xinjiang is a vast territory and so the cities each have their distinct cultural and political milieu. Urumqi has a high concentration of Han Chinese, while Kashgar and other cities closer to the borders tend to have less Han Chinese and more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities. Hence, Han Chinese perceptions of the Uyghurs and other resident minorities will also differ geographically.

The most common sentiment I noticed was confusion about why there are Uyghurs who agitate against the government when they should be grateful that Beijing has directed the economic development of Xinjiang and its attendant rise in standards of living. This sentiment was even expressed by my Han Chinese tour guide.

At the same time, I would assume, again based on anecdotal evidence, that most Han Chinese residing in Xinjiang don't see themselves as part of a Sinicizing conspiracy. Rather, they are quick to affirm the multinational character of China. They even can take on a lecturing tone, as if all Chinese citizens should know this about their country. This multinational character should be taught and celebrated.


Can any description of China's ethnic minority policies be completely balanced? I reluctantly say no.

Talking and writing about China's ethnic minorities policy is always tricky because it requires balance and nuance, and at times striking that balance or putting the correct words to that nuance requires intensive wordsmithing. And even then, someone is going to find some reason to point an accusatory finger of covering up some detail or not including something. Some may say that this very post is an accusation of this sort.

We can all agree that ethnic minority policy is an important part of U.S.-China relations. Let us similarly agree that our accounts of said policy should be marked by diplomatic care that sheds more light than heat.