Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Fate of China's Minorities

August 11, 2008

By Stefan Simons
Spiegel (Germany)
August 6, 2008

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.

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.

Sweeping Ethnic Conflicts under the Rug

After prevailing over the nationalists, the Chinese communists' next
step was to show the "backward minorities" the path to socialism. It
was understood that it was up to the party to decide which customs
and practices were compatible with the noble goals of the revolution.
And after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, it was
quickly forgotten that the Communist Party, at its second convention
in 1922, supported the possibility of independence -- together with
the offer of a voluntary federation -- for Tibet, Turkestan and Inner
Mongolia. A proposal Mao made in 1945, in which he supported the
right of self-determination for all nationalities, was also forgotten.

 From then on the focus was on unity, combined with the promise of
legal equality, independence of language and freedom of religious
expression. But even these established principles were soon more or
less discarded. Although Beijing invested in education and healthcare
for minorities, a separate university was established for the
training of loyal administrative cadres. As early as the 1950s,
minorities were classified according to the class model, and their
leaders were mercilessly persecuted -- to eliminate a "society of

Resistance stirred along the perimeters of the giant country. The Yao
rebelled in Guangxi, and there was an uprising by the eastern Tibetan
Khampas before the Dalai Lama fled to Tibet in 1959. In southern
China, the Dai fled to Burma and Laos and, in 1962, 80,000 Kazaks
fled to the neighboring Soviet Union. Muslims in Xinjiang also tried
to rebel against the massive resettlement, promoted by the central
government, of Chinese who brazenly dominated the local population,
usually without even bothering to learn their language.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), ethnic annexation
acquired the "extreme form of forced assimilation," says political
scientist Heberer. During the conflicts, the faithful and religious
leaders were killed or placed into reeducation camps, while temples
and mosques were converted into warehouses or demolished. It wasn't
until the early 1980s, when a policy of reforming and opening up
China came into effect, that the leadership chose a more pragmatic approach.

As a result, the 1982 constitution and the 1984 Law on Autonomy
granted minorities extensive rights for the first time. Any divergent
rules and edicts are null and void, as long as senior officials in
the administrative hierarchy permit such exceptions. This reduces
legal claims to the point of insignificance, because the judiciary
functions as a direct lever of the party. And raw political autonomy
-- of the sort the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama have demanded -- remains taboo.

The long-neglected zones have also benefited from economic expansion.
Natural resources like oil, natural gas and precious metals, as well
as cheap labor, have turned these regions into a reservoir for
China's unbroken growth. But the boom happening in the coastal
provinces has also brought along the dark sides of the economic
miracle, such as the destruction of natural resources and air and
water pollution by coal mines or factories. Finally, the Chinese
breed of capitalism has, ironically enough, brought astronomically
rising real estate prices and brutal expropriation to the poorer
regions. Although endemic corruption is seen as a curse of the
Communist Party leadership nationwide, minorities perceive organized
government fraud principally as a Chinese characteristic. With almost
all of the corrupt officials in senior positions being Han Chinese,
this attitude isn't terribly surprising, either.

An Informal Apartheid

As a result, the almost religiously invoked harmony among the peoples
of China has yielded to growing frustration and social envy. Despite
double-digit growth rates, the gap is widening between the wealthy
coasts and the poor backyard of the People's Republic. According to
recent statistics, about 60 percent of China's poor live in ethnic
minority regions. The social consequences are not surprising. Poverty
and unemployment are accompanied by disaffection and crime.

Now that television has transmitted the images of glittering cities
to even the most remote villages and the propaganda machine even
touts Chinas' red millionaire as socialist role models, resentment is
growing over the sudden wealth of the resettled Chinese and their
economic dominance. In minority regions like Tibet or Xinjiang, a
sort of informal apartheid has developed, with the Chinese living in
their own neighborhoods, sending their children to the better schools
and reserving the best jobs for their fellow Chinese. The phenomenon
is reinforced by the arrogance of a class of government bureaucrats
whose members are often willing to accept transfers to the supposed
hardship posts within the People's Republic, in return for higher pay
and tempting career promises.

It comes as little wonder, then, that the ethnic people the economic
boom has missed blame all the injustices, failings and crimes on the
Chinese, and for the drug deals and child trafficking, and the
kidnappings of young women who are carried off to other countries to
work as prostitutes or sold off to Han farmers as wives.

Where linguistically and religiously homogeneous ethnic groups like
the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are defying the central
government, the resentment has already taken on critical mass, as it
did recently in Tibet, where people vented their hatred for the
Beijing regime by attacking Chinese or Muslim merchants. Trouble is
also brewing in Xinjiang, a western border region in the tense
triangle surrounded by Afghanistan, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan, where fury
over the advancing Chinese has turned into violent attacks again and
again. Muslims are still slightly in the majority here, but that too
is changing.

The desert province is notorious for a chain of prison camps,
euphemistically referred to in legal jargon as places that offer
"reeducation through work." But the inmates there are not just
Chinese criminals or political prisoners. In 2005, 18,000 local
Muslims were locked up for agitating for self-determination, alleges
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress.
Beijing consistently refers to the members of the underground
opposition group as separatists or terrorists.

Ethnic conflicts are currently being swept under the rug. The
minorities' resistance to Beijing dominance isn't exactly compatible
with Olympic advertising and the hymn to a unified world power. At
the same time, the belief in the superiority of the Chinese race
doesn't do much to promote the recognition of different cultural
identities or even an understanding for the desire for limited

Even where minorities are permitted to present their folklore, they
remain reduced to the role of exotic extras. In the travel brochures,
Dai girls mimic the allure of nature while Mongol herdsmen perform
warlike games on horseback. But the true beneficiaries of the influx
of deep-pocketed visitors are the Chinese tour operators, the ones
providing the buses, hotels and tour guides.

And where commerce prevails, even cultural sites are defined as
"economic development zones" and expanded into profitable tourist
destinations, without consideration for cultural taboos. In addition
to buying Buddhist prayer wheels and shawls, tourists in Tibet can
spend substantial dollar sums to attend so-called "sky burials," in
which bodies are cut into pieces and fed to the vultures.

China's minorities are being turned into objects in the Chinese
tourism industry -- to be gawked at like animals in a zoo.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank