Talking Point

Minority report

China’s ethnic groups are in the headlines. Here’s what you need to know

Ethnic Uighurs start to leave a mosque after Friday prayers in Urumqi in China

It’s like discovering a population the size of Japan’s. Maybe it’s easier to miss the existence of 120 million people when they are part of much larger – 1.3 billion – group.

Or perhaps the perception of the Chinese culture as a vast monolith, carved in the stone of a shared written language, as well as thousands of years of civilisation, makes its differences easier to overlook. The Chinese even built a great wall to keep everyone else out, after all.

But the reality turns out to be somewhat different: there are tens of millions of “minorities” with official Chinese nationality.

Most of us have heard of the Tibetans. Some will now know about the Uighurs too, after the events of this month.

But these two peoples make up only around a tenth of the 120 million minority peoples, spread across 55 recognised groups and making up 8% of the total population.

The Zhuang (16 million, largely from Guangxi province in the south), the Manchu (10 million, from the northeast) and the Hui (9 million, Muslims from the northwest) are far bigger minority cultures.

Others will have heard of the 5 million Mongols. There are even 2 million ethnic Koreans with Chinese nationality.

Are they treated the same way as the Han majority?

The constitution guarantees equal rights to all ethnic groups. There are also autonomy laws, and autonomous regions of government, for some.

In practice, most of the minority communities are worse off than their Han counterparts. They earn less, are less well educated and are far more likely to be living in rural, impoverished conditions.

Yes, ethnic restaurant chains now figure in most cities, and ethnic art and style has become much more popular. Both trends suggest a rising awareness of minority identities amongst the dominant Han population.

But does the recognition of diversity extend much beyond costume or cuisine? Minority groups seem to figure disproportionately at major annual events, like the CCTV Spring Festival Gala – a widelywatched programme broadcast at Chinese New Year – and some claim that they are there primarily as totems of national inclusiveness.

But don’t some minority peoples get preferential treatment too?

Ask many Han Chinese, and they will tell you that the minorities have little to complain about.

They enjoy widespread dispensation from the one-child policy, for instance. There are quotas for minority students to enter universities (even when they lack a qualifying gaokao score), as well as hiring advantages for minority applicants for jobs in local government. There is less of a tax burden, and more days of holiday. There is even a “two restraints and one leniency” policy, which allows for a more relaxed response to criminal offences.

With these types of privileges, many local commentators argue that the minorities have little to feel sore about, and there is certainly little sympathy on the internet message boards for any notion of disadvantaged communities.

Indeed, there is a fairly large and vocal group of Han Chinese netizens who go further. They angrily point out that if the minorities are falling behind it is because they are less hard working than the Han, less good with money and have a less ingrained respect for learning – and are hence less well-educated.

Such people feel the government has done more than enough – and that they, the Han majority, are the hard-done-by ones.

So why do some call for independence?

This is a misconception. Even in Tibet and Xinjiang, calls for self-government are for fuller autonomy rather than complete independence. And most minority groups remain completely unpoliticised.

That is not to say that they are disavowing their ethnic identities. Dru Gladney, a US academic writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, also points out that more Chinese are now choosing to tag themselves with the “minority” label.

Between 1982 and 1990, the Han population grew by 10% but the number classified as ‘minorities’ grew 35%.

Gladney argues that this reflects more than a higher birthrate; instead people have been choosing to “category-shift” (which is allowed for the offspring of inter-ethnic marriages) from Han to minority status.

Take the Manchus: long thought assimilated into the Han majority, they actually more than doubled in number to 9.8 million in the eight year period.

So minority populations still seem keen to assert their identity. Government policymakers might argue that “category-shifting” seems to run counter to some of the claims that ethnic communities are discriminated against.

But are they sharing in China’s economic progress?

This has been a key topic in the Xinjiang coverage all week, with the state newspapers all suggesting that the local population has gained materially from its Chinese nationality.

For Xinhua, the proof is in the statistics: the average annual incomes, the access to electricity and gas, the percentage of households with televisions, and so on. Whichever metric Xinhua chooses, it says the outcome is the same: the minorities have made tremendous economic progress.

Living standards in China in general have been raised by 30 years of economic reform. Almost everyone is better off than they once were, including the minorities.

But, in relative terms, many of the minority groups are losing ground.

In part this is simply because many live in the southwest and far west – regions that have fallen behind the richer coastal provinces.

Even within these regions, however, many feel that their Han Chinese neighbours are better off, and in many cases the gap really is widening. The Financial Times reports this week that even the official figures show an increase in income disparity in Xinjiang, between urban areas (more Han) and rural ones (more Uighurs).

The international press has been much quicker to link this uneven economic and social progress to this month’s riots than its Chinese counterpart. It also thinks provincial tensions were exacerbated by the increase in Han migration into minority areas, and their associated economies. Many of the migrants have gone on to flourish, and this has generated some local resentment, as well as talk of official discrimination against the indigenous communities.

Yi Xianrong, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, acknowledges that the level of language and education amongst many minorities means that some are prevented from progressing up the social ladder. But this is different from direct discrimination, he says. All the same, minorities in resource-rich areas (like those in Xinjiang) feel that they are missing out on the exploitation of their own natural resources, which are being channelled off to other parts of the country. (Then again, this is not unique to China. The Scots, for example, have long felt bitter that ‘their’ North Sea oil has been ‘taken’ by England.)

On the other hand, the Han Chinese have been dismayed that the minorities are almost universally portrayed as the ‘victims’ in the foreign media – in spite of the fact that it was mostly Han who were killed in the Xinjiang riots. And the more nationalistic see this as the perfidious West at its worst. Worried about China’s rise, ‘foreign influences’ would like to weaken the country by encouraging its break-up.


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