Useful Exotics: The Fate of China's Minorities

By Stefan Simons

Disdained by the Chinese majority and harassed by the government, Beijing uses its ethnic minorities to portray itself as a seemingly tolerant and multiethnic nation. Now the identity of China's minorities is threatened by modernization, commerce and pop culture.

According to a tourism brochure, China's southwestern Guizhou province is "blessed with the supernatural beauty of limestone karst cliffs, spectacular views and attractive cultural minorities." The guidebook recommends: "Drive to a Miao village and visit a local family. Admire the traditional architecture -- houses on stilts. Experience the local lifestyle, and delve into the secrets of their folklore."

The guidebooks promote the paradisiacal conditions in parts of China far removed from Chinese civilization, in the subtropical south, on the roof of the world, along the Silk Road or on the steppes of Inner Mongolia. Beijing's state tourism authorities wax lyrical over regional peculiarities, while tour operators rave about traditional robes and original handicrafts, even offering overnight stays in guaranteed authentic environments -- with traditional dance and music included.

Even before the People's Republic assumed its role as the host of the 2008 Olympics, the regime had long adorned itself with the diversity of the country's ethnic minorities, portraying it as an added bonus to a Chinese civilization that is thousands of years old and steeped in history.

A collection of Tibetan mud-brick and half-timbered dwellings, wooden houses with carved roof beams and Mongolian yurts is being built along the perimeter of Beijing's enormous sports facilities -- an open-air museum that is part Disneyland and part folkloristic model village, a project designed to portray China, to the millions of foreign visitors it expects, as an ethnically correct nation, and one in which 55 minorities live together in harmony under a great national umbrella.

China's Minorities
Residents in millions (a sampling)
Zhuang 17.2
Manchu 11.4
Hui 10.4
Miao 9.5
Uighur 9.0
Tujia 8.6
Yi 8.3
Mongols 6.2
Tibetans 5.8
Yao 2.8
Kazakhs 1.3
Dai 1.2
Nowhere else is this illusion cultivated as studiously as in Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities. The showy, 13-story building may be showing its age, but the museum's claim to fame has remained unchanged since the early days of the People's Republic, when the prestigious structure was built. The museum describes itself as "the focal point of all nationalities" and as "a microcosm of the great family of various peoples that make up China."

Museums are not the only places where the Chinese parade their ethnic minorities. Light-skinned women in colorful robes, wearing fur hats over their angular faces, and broad-shouldered men in riding boots and wool coats are consistently on full display in the front rows at meetings of the National People's Congress and at Communist Party conventions. The exotic delegates adorn the cover stories in newspapers and serve as telegenic actors on the government's nightly TV propaganda programs. But like the other representatives of the people, they too are little more than interchangeable cheerleaders, brought in to nod through laws presented by the authorities. Their role is mostly symbolic.

China describes itself as a "united socialist multiethnic state" -- united under the umbrella of the dominant Han people. Their name stands for a majority of close to 92 percent, the group referred to abroad as Chinese. But eating habits and social customs also separate Sichuanese from their fellow citizens from Canton, Shanghai or Qingdao. The seven or eight main dialects are at least as different from each other as German and Danish.

China's minorities are characterized primarily by their native tongues. But the ethnic minorities, which together account for 112 million of the country's 1.3 billion people, remain a neglected and negligible entity. Even the Zhuang, who live along the southern border of the People's Republic and are the country's largest minority, include only 17 million people. This is less than the population of greater Shanghai.

These minorities only acquire political significance when they live in strategically important border regions, especially in areas rich in natural resources. Regions like Xinjiang along China's western border with the former Soviet Union and Pakistan, where the People's Republic maintains its nuclear test site. Xinjiang is home to 9 million Uighurs, 1.32 million Kazakhs and 160,000 Kirgiz. In the country's northwest (Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai), at least 6 million Mongols serve as a population buffer against the territory of the former Soviet bloc.

The roughly six million Tibetans are concentrated on the roof of the world in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is much smaller than it once was. Unified by language, religion and their opposition to Chinese oppression, they constitute, in the eyes of the Beijing government, relatively unreliable neighbors to the Indian subcontinent.

Ethnic groups like the Yi, the Dai, the Miao and the Yao, some of them outnumbering the Tibetans, live in the southern provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan. And the region along the country's verdant jungle border with Burma, Laos and Vietnam is home to two dozen smaller ethnic minorities. According to government statistics from the year 2000, the Luoba, a group living in southeastern Tibet, consist of barely 3,000 souls, making them China's smallest minority.

Although the roughly 2 million Koreans in northeast China are considered a minority, it is only because many still communicate in their own language. The Manchu, descendants of invaders and of the man who was forced to abdicate in 1912 as China's last emperor, are usually recognizable only by their first names today. Beijing also counts the Chinese-speaking Hui as a separate ethnic group, because they are Muslims.

The Threat of Cultural Extinction

Although China's "autonomous" regions, districts and counties cover an impressive 64 percent of the country's territory, Han Chinese are usually in the majority, even in minority regions. They treat their backward neighbors with a mixture of condescension and indulgence, or they are resentful of the minorities' special right to have more than one child. Despite this exception to the one-child-per-family rule, minorities face the threat of cultural extinction.

The allure of the country's economic miracle, the appeal of its booming cities and the dominance of the Chinese language in film, radio and on television are wearing away at minorities' distinct identity. More than all inept propaganda slogans, the consumer society and pop culture are becoming a true steamroller that flattens all traditions. Nomads in Inner Mongolia and Qinghai are becoming sedentary while shepherds are switching from horses to motorcycles. The pull of the dominant Chinese culture has thoroughly infiltrated the daily lives of the country's minorities. This dominance stems from the concept of a natural hierarchy with the Han on top, as political leaders, social role models and even as a "civilizing" force.

This places the socialist People's Republic squarely within the tradition of its feudal past. Imperial China consistently saw itself as the "Middle Kingdom" and claimed the sole right to unity "under heaven." Other ethnic groups were left with little choice but to assume the role of vassals required to pay tribute to the dominant Chinese.

"Early on, the farming Han despised the nomadic and hunting peoples surrounding them, who were culturally and technologically inferior to them -- or so they believed," says Thomas Heberer, a political science professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. Heberer discovered this civilized condescension in historian Sima Quian, who described China's neighbors 2,000 years ago as "barbarians" with "no control over their passions," who gave free rain to their emotions and behaved "like wild animals."

Because of sentiments like these, the scholars of subsequent dynasties recommended, in addition to military subjugation, the integration of uncultivated peoples into the framework of Confucian values -- a practice that the Communist Party adopted centuries later. "China's traditional ideas were very compatible with the historic and materialistic worldview," says political scientist Heberer, author of the standard work "China and its National Miniorities: Autonomy or Assimilation?"

The experiences of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and the Red Army on the legendary "Long March" of 1934 and 1935 were also filled with tales of confrontation with unfamiliar ethnic groups. Soldiers wrote that they shuddered to think of their first encounters with primitive mountain tribes, "who were naked to their belts and armed with spears" and descended on the advancing columns like "hornets." It wasn't until later that the party managed to win over the aggressive savages for its cause.

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