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China's Uneasy Relationship with Race and Ethnicity - part 2

Updated: May 25

Part 1 of this two-part series delved into the under-discussed issue of xenophobia and racial profiling of outsiders in China. It looked to put forward explanations for why black immigrants in particular are still disproportionately discriminated against, explore how this discrimination has heightened in the wake of COVID-19, and place responsibility on China’s youth to put an end to existing, outdated attitudes towards race. 

But what about China’s ethnic minority citizens that are born and bred within its borders? As alluded to in Part 1, China is exceptionally homogeneous, with the Han ethnic group accounting for around 90% of its population. That being said, the mainland is home to more than 55 minority groups that have had differing experiences and challenges to contend with as China’s economic ascent has coincided with the emergence of a distinct Chinese national identity. What all of these groups have in common, however, is that they are existing outside the bounds of mainstream society and are all facing an uphill battle to cling onto their identities and prosper in their own rights.

For China’s 110 million ethnic minority citizens, many of whom have called China home for centuries, a surge in Han patriotism has invariably left them marginalised. Their defining feature in their homeland is that they are not Han, rather than that they are Chinese. Thus, minorities are regarded as anything from curious, colourful entities to unruly savages. Local governments readily lean on the traditional customs associated with these groups in order to lure in swathes of gawping tourists - last year I visited Yunnan province, near the Vietnam border, and recall being informed by a fellow tourist that: “these people (a performing local minority group) love getting dressed up and dancing.” The implication was, in equal measure, that China is a remarkably tolerant and diverse nation for allowing these groups to revel in their historical ethnic rituals and, more patronisingly, that their behaviour is in stark contrast to anything the technologically superior people paying to admire them would engage in. 

A minority group in Yunnan Province performs in traditional dress for visiting tourists

Collective aspirations of a national rejuvenation have been carefully cultivated by the Chinese government as a driving force behind China’s modernisation. As a byproduct of the government’s (indisputably successful) push to achieve the so-called “China Dream”, rigid conceptions of ethnicity and what it means to be Chinese have been promoted through education, propaganda and popular culture. An undeniable Han Chinese elitism has come to the fore with China’s president, Xi Jinping, asserting that “blood runs thicker than water”. The majority ethnic group’s dominance in China has become so absolute that “Chinese” may as well be interchangeable with “Han”. Indeed, even Han families who left China to live abroad generations ago are considered part of a coherent national group and are expected to carry the "Chinese Spirit" in foreign lands.

While most Han Chinese have enjoyed a linear upward trajectory in their economic status as China has developed, minority groups have not seen their opportunities multiply in conjunction with their Han compatriots. Reza Hasmath, a professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Oxford, discovered that minority employees in Beijing were getting paid considerably less than their Han counterparts, despite being better qualified and Chinese law ostensibly prohibiting discrimination in employment on the grounds of race or ethnicity. Moreover, Han Chinese improvement in living standards, allied with the galvanising notion of a strong national identity, dictates that Chinese citizens are content to pay fealty to the CCP in the form of falling into line on sensitive political issues. In recent this has taken the form of the turning of a blind eye, and even willingly supporting, state persecution of certain minority groups that it feels are no longer a curiosity but a threat to its iron grip on the country. 

All of the people?

The most sinister case study of the CCP exploiting the centrality of ethnicity to national identity can undoubtedly be found in Xinjiang. Without delving into detail about the modern history of the north-western province (the China Insider intends to publish a long exposé on the current situation) the government crackdowns in the province began in earnest after the killing of two Uyghur Muslims in southern China in 2009 led to large-scale rioting. Since then, the mass surveillance, detention, and forced assimilation of Uyghurs has been justified by the government as “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization”. In reality, it seeks to erase the Uyghurs’ cultural and religious beliefs through a strict diet of brainwashing - sorry, “re-education” - that forces the minority group to make the CCP their primary deity and aspire to be a model Han Chinese citizen - or face grave consequences. 

Most mainlanders aren’t aware of the full extent of the atrocities in Xinjiang and, cautiously broaching the subject with Chinese friends, I would be met with responses ranging between the ambivalent and the downright ignorant. One such friend, who had completed postgraduate study in the UK, told me: “I know [of] the horrible things there but you can’t understand how scared we felt a few years ago (at the time of the Xinjiang riots)”. Another friend, who has never left China, pointed out: “the People’s Liberation Army is doing a great job fighting Muslim terrorism.” It’s needle in a haystack stuff in terms of finding someone in mainland China who will defend their ethnic peers or endeavour to look beyond the government narrative of events in the north-west. This is perhaps unsurprising for two reasons: firstly, unabating government rhetoric on the dangers of Islam has only served to exacerbate existing divisions; and, secondly, being seen to support a separatist cause could lead to severe punishment for regular citizens (see: Hong Kong). 

Uyghur families weep for incarcerated loved ones

Whereas I concluded Part 1 with a positive outlook on the general direction of attitudes towards non-Chinese racial groups amongst China's younger generation, I struggle to feel the same optimism in terms of what the future holds for the country's native ethnic minorities. The CCP has shown in Tibet and Xinjiang that it will come down hard on any groups that have the potential to jeopardise the absoluteness of its rule, maintaining a resolute belief in its own impunity in the face of sanctions from the international community. Facilitating these actions is the Han-centric view of China intensifying amongst around 1.2 billion of its inhabitants. The merging of ethnic and national identities has become so deeply entrenched and such a crucial facet of China’s projection of its power that it’s difficult to see how a period of introspection, in which China expresses collective concern over the marginalisation and persecution of its minorities, could come to pass. After all, why agitate against a system that exists to benefit you and everyone you know when the costs of agitating are so severe?


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