Written by Colin Mackerras

Among China’s 55 state-recognised ethnic minorities, the Tibetans and Uyghurs get most media attention. Mostly negative, its focus is repression and human rights abuses.

However, relations among China’s other ethnic groups are good. Social hostilities are generally based not on ethnicity or race, but on other factors.

The minority ethnic groups (shaoshu minzu 少数民族) are just under eight percent of the national population (2010 census). The two most populous are the Zhuang, most living in Guangxi, which borders Vietnam; and the Hui, who are ethnically Chinese but Muslim by religion. Most of the minorities have their own language and culture.

The effects of modernisation and the rise of China are the increasing dominance of Chinese language and culture in the public sphere.

Official policy advocates favourable policies (youhui zhengce 优惠政策) towards the minorities. State policy encourages the use of their languages and cultures, there are quotas for university entry for minorities, and they are less subject to population control than the Han.

In the last decade or so some trends have affected China, including the minorities. The main one is summed up as China’s rise. The impact on the minorities is extensive. On the whole, this is positive, but there are also negative aspects. The main positive effect is that the minority areas are growing more prosperous. Extreme poverty has traditionally affected minority areas disproportionately, and the eradication of absolute poverty does likewise. So extreme poverty among the minorities, though still existing, is enormously less than it once was.

The rise of China and the strong leader Xi Jinping has increased a sense of Chinese nationalism. Though this is not racial, ‘Chineseness’ has grown in influence at the expense of minority cultures.  A good illustrative example is language use. It is still policy that in minority areas the local language should be used in the public sphere. Every single note in Chinese currency, from RMB100 yuan down to 10 cents, has “The People’s Bank of China” written in Chinese characters, in pinyin Romanisation, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang. In many areas instruction in primary school should be in the local ethnic language, and in some there is a “bilingual” policy to ensure this. I attended a conference in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, in the middle of 2017, where an official spokesperson emphasised that the government was trying to promote the use of the Mongolian language in the educational system. Official statements in minority areas should be both in Chinese and the local ethnic language.

The reality, however, is that most ethnic languages are now in decline. Only a few are in active use, including Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, Yi and Korean. In terms of school instruction, these languages are used less and less. An example is the language of the Yi of southwest China. There is an active movement arguing that Yi culture is the forerunner, even progenitor, of Chinese culture and that the Yi language is among China’s most ancient and influential. Yet even this language is used less and less in favour of Chinese in schools and the public sphere. These languages will likely survive in the private sphere. But the effects of modernisation and the rise of China are the increasing dominance of Chinese language and culture in the public sphere.

What is the effect on minorities? Do they want to secede to form their own country or join up with another country? Separatist movements among minorities, other than the Tibetans and Uyghurs, are weak or non-existent. Only very few, e.g. the Mongolians, the Miao, have sponsors overseas that push such separatist movements, and they cannot threaten Chinese unity. I doubt very much that many wish to secede from China. Most are much better off in China in terms of material welfare, and even culturally, than trying to secede.

A case in point is the Mongolians. Late in 2017 there was an argument at a United Nations forum in Geneva during a discussion on Inner Mongolia. An active South Mongolian Human Rights Centre (based in the United States) argued with a Chinese representative over the status and livelihood of Mongolians in China. “South Mongolia” is the nationalist name for what the Chinese call “Inner Mongolia”, as it’s only Inner from China’s point of view. Nothing came of the argument. Very few Mongolians in Inner Mongolia are interested in joining the Republic of Mongolia. It is not nearly as prosperous economically as China.

What about ethnic relations? Disturbances outside the Tibetan and Uyghur areas have been vey few and not necessarily ethnic. For instance, in September 2017 a violent brawl erupted at a toll booth in Hebei Province, north China. Local Hui in scull-caps broke windows and computers at the booth, believing that their imam had been treated unfairly. Local police reacted mildly in restoring order, but angry Chinese netizens complained about the country’s “partial policies toward Muslims for the sake of social stability.” Why should a Hui escape the censure that would certainly be meted out to a Han? The core of this disturbance was religious, not ethnic.

The situation with China’s other ethnic minorities overall is quite unlike Tibetans or Uyghurs. We should not overlook the improving life among most minorities in China. They are not falling over themselves to secede. The average Zhuang, for example, is perfectly happy to share in the rising prosperity and international influence that characterises China today. I don’t suggest the situation is lovely or as good as Chinese official propaganda would have us believe. But the bleak picture of repression and human rights abuses found in much Western media is also unfair. In international terms, China has not done too badly in handling ethnic problems.

Colin Mackerras, AO, FAHA, is professor emeritus at Griffith University. He has written widely on China’s minority nationalities, including many books, book chapters and peer-reviewed articles. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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