The demographics and social structures of China are unique among world’s major countries. Close to 90 percent of the Chinese population is derived from the Han ethnic stock. The rest is comprised on small minority groups spread across China. Though the majority of Han Chinese share a common culture, their language is again quite varied, with scholars identifying as many as seven prominent dialects of Mandarin that are in use. But the standardized mandarin language, called the Putonghua, is based on the Beijing dialect (Hu & Salazar, 2008). With the Han Chinese dominating major political, judicial and military institutions of the country, it would be interesting to study the status and prospects of minority ethnicities. The rest of this essay will delve into this issue and ascertain if inter-racial and inter-ethnic discrimination exists in China; and if so, to what extent.
Often, the concepts of race and ethnicity are used interchangeably. But there is a subtle difference between the two. Race is a broader term for classifying a group of people using their biological similarities such as skin color, hair, and other physical characteristics. Moreover, race can only be understood as a loose term, as there is no concrete scientific method to ascertain an individual’s race. Ethnicity, on the other hand is more compact in its scope, as it defines the particular linguistic, religious and cultural qualities shared by a community of people. Usually, there is less variation in terms of cultural practices and physiological differences among members of the same ethnicity, whereas one could find broad ranging variation between members of the same race (Schue, 2008)
In the case of China, since nearly all of its inhabitants belong to the racial group “mongoloid”, the discrimination and prejudice is often ethnic and not racial. One of the most publicized cases of oppression within China is that of Tibet. After China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, the latter has come under political control of Beijing. While the Chinese government can boast of achievements such as the Trans-Tibetan railway, the infrastructure development in Tibet, etc, the Tibetan community is still disgruntled. As a token of their refusal to recognize Han Chinese domination, many Tibetans have fled their native land and are now living in exile in India and elsewhere (Hu & Salazar, 2008). Since most of the Internet users in China belong to the “great Han people”, it is only their point of view that gets expressed to the international community. Moreover,
“The ideology of political power based in the central plains of China and nationalism has impacted the ‘great Han people’. These factors have shaped the thinking of the Han people and have also alienated China’s other races. In the eyes of many Han people, the ethnic minorities in their conventional costumes are viewed as having violent tendencies, uncivilized ways and uneducated minds. Hence, the Han rulers were strengthened in their ancient idea – ‘Let those who comply with me thrive and those who resist me perish’.” (Schue, 2008)
This kind of collective attitude on part of the Han majority has exacerbated the grievances and disgruntlement of Tibetans, Hui and Uygur minority groups. Of all the ethnic minorities in China, these three groups have a sizeable population and hence the Han leadership cannot ignore their protests. These minority groups “inhabit remote regions and hold unique religious beliefs, and are therefore unable to easily assimilate to the Han lifestyle, customs, racial characteristics and culture” (Atwill, 2003). This is seen as a threat to the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership, which believes in the superiority of Han cultural heritage and attempts to impose it on all citizens. While there is a semblance of truth to the assertion that individuals from ethnic minorities engage in unlawful activities, robbery, petty crime, etc, such reports in the news media are scaled up disproportionately, giving the misleading impression that such qualities define the entire minority community. Seen in this context, the political unrest in the form of riots, public demonstrations and political subversion is quite understandable (Atwill, 2003).
Given the persistent occurrences of political unrest in China, it is important for the CPC leadership to see this crisis as an opportunity for renewal and national consolidation. There are several such precedents in Chinese history to encourage its political leaders. For example, the 1989 political unrest, manifested by the Tiananmen Square shootings, revealed the cracks inherent in the political system and as a result brought about refreshing new ideas of organizing society. In fact the ascendency of China as an economic superpower is in no small part due to the “freeing up of the imaginative power of many China scholars and popular commentators” in the aftermath of 1989 unrest. In the constructive scholarship that emerged during the 1990s, it was identified that the “ resources, as well as obligations, were being decentralized from the central to local governments and argued that the increasing level of resources available to local governments was moving China toward what has been termed regionalism” (Yang, 2002). Political scientists and commentators further warned that the great Chinese republic would break down into smaller states like the one witnessed in Yugoslavia. The CPC leadership heeded to the warnings and remedied the situation in the 1990s and the 2000s. Now the new crisis that is brewing is not so much about decentralization of the economy as it is about localization of politics. Unless smaller ethnic groups are given due representation in the CPC cadre and leadership; and are not given a degree of autonomy in the realm of culture, language and religion, the situation would only worsen (Yang, 2002).
Atwill, D. G. (2003). Code, Custom, and Legal Practice in China: The Qing and the Republic Compared. China Review International, 10(2), 411+.
Hu, X., & Salazar, M. A. (2008). Ethnicity, Rurality and Status: Hukou and the Institutional and Cultural Determinants of Social Status in Tibet. The China Journal, (60), 1+.
Yang, D. L., & Wei, H. (1996). Rising Sectionalism in China?. Journal of International Affairs, 49(2), 456-476.
Yang, G. (2002). Civil Society in China: A Dynamic Field of Study. China Review International, 9(1), 1+.
William Schue, Ethnic discrimination in China, retrieved from <http://www.upiasia.com/Society_Culture/2008/07/10/ethnic_discrimination_in_china/8663/> on 6th April, 2010