View From the Wall

Waves of History

Thoughts on China’s Ethnic Minority Issue

Spring Festival is a time for family reunions. Government officials from the Center to the local levels host a series of receptions and celebrations, inviting representatives from all walks of life. This tradition has continued uninterrupted for the past five decades. The only differences between each of these annual occasions are the slogans and content of the speeches reflecting the social, political and economical environment of the time. Despite the variations in political rhetoric, however, one slogan—”ethnic unity”—will always remain.

What makes ethnic unity such a weighty issue? Looking at a map that shows the distribution of China’s ethnic populations makes the answer clear. The Han Chinese comprise 92% of China’s total population; all of the other nationalities combined comprise only eight percent. However, this eight percent occupies more than 65% of the land—most of this in the border regions surrounding the heartland where the Han Chinese are concentrated. (See map, p.3.) These provinces boast rich natural resources—forests, minerals, water and others that are crucial to the economic development of China. In addition, numerous small communities of minorities can also be found in other provinces where Han Chinese have traditionally been the majority.

Due to the gravity of this political issue a special government organ, the State Nationalities Affairs Commission, has been created to manage minority affairs at all levels. In some regions the Nationalities Affairs Commission is combined with the Religious Affairs Bureau and called the Nationalities-Religion Commission (ming-zong wei). The Nationalities Affairs Commission comes under the leadership of the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFD). Together, these two entities decide the quota of minority representatives in the People’s Congresses and Political Consultative Conferences at all levels, as well as the National People’s Congress (NPC).

In addition to these political arrangements, the Chinese government has established five autonomous regions at the provincial level and over 100 autonomous counties. A number of minority colleges train minority youth to become minority officials.

With the exception of Tibet, in each of the other four autonomous regions, the Han comprise the majority of that region’s population. Fifty years of ethnic unity policy has literally made the minority group the “minority” within its own autonomous region. Within the government structures of each of these areas there is no shortage of minority officials, yet those in key positions are almost all Han. Considering the power structure and the composition of the general population, how much autonomy do the minority people enjoy? The imbalance in thought and aspirations between the masses of minority people and their officials is obvious.

In addition, most minority regions are in border regions, concentrated in China’s deserts, snow-covered mountains, or frozen wastelands. These areas suffer from harsh geographic and environmental conditions worsened by underdeveloped transportation and communications. They are backward in terms of education, culture, medicine, health, and business. In the economy of China they are exporters of natural resources. Coastal areas use these resources to manufacture goods which are then sold back to the minority regions. Over many years these regions have become the “third world” of China and the gap in economic development between them and the coastal areas has increased. The majority of the 80 million people in China who live below the poverty line are from the ethnic minority areas. The government has a special term, lao-shao-bian-qiong—“old-minority-frontier-poverty areas,” to describe such regions.

If the minority areas’ current political and economic structures were changed, if more minorities were promoted to leading positions, if the political controls over these areas were loosened and investment in these areas were increased, would these measures be sufficient to solve China’s minority problem? Once Beijing loosens its grip on the minorities and they become more wealthy, the contradiction of China’s minorities will only become more acute, increasing the chance that China could eventually fragment.

Three factors account for this phenomenon:

First, the policy of regional autonomy for nationalities is the root cause leading to national independence and the disintegration of the country. This policy was learned from Russia and carries a strong Leninist/Stalinist color. Its essence is allowing minorities to have their own relatively independent “autonomous regions,” a piece of territory they can call their own, giving the appearance of realizing equality with the mainstream. This strengthens the sense of national minority identity rather than blurring it, as evidenced in the post-cold war decade that has seen an unprecedented tide of new national independence movements throughout the world.

This tide of national independence movements has heightened the spirits of activists who desire independence for minority groups inside China—although they cannot pursue their goals openly. Their strategy is to reuse the slogans that the communists used to promote minority issues; act within the legal spectrum; negotiate with the central government; bargain for authority, funding, and favorable policies; and fortify the power of their respective groups. Ironically, the leaders who are standing up to the central government are those who were groomed by the communist party during the last few decades. Their motives are quite simple, for only when a minority group gains local independence can these leaders become the rulers of their land in the real sense and gain the greatest personal benefit. The most powerful weapon in their arsenal for struggling with the central government is the “minority national autonomy” policy itself. As long as all the issues at stake are wrapped up in “minority regional autonomy” their grab for power and resources becomes legitimized morally and gains the support of the minority masses.

Second, a minority’s religion and culture cannot be replaced. When the communists replaced Confucian tradition and religion with Marxism and atheism, for the Han Chinese it was merely an issue of religious freedom. However, for minority groups, their religion is not only their system of faith but also the vehicle for preserving their historical traditions and culture. During the past 50 years, communist policy on religion has been proven to be devastating to minority groups. Due to the basic contradiction between Marxist philosophy and religion, it is a given that the issue of religion will further complicate the already troubled relations between the minorities and the Han Chinese and between the minority regions and the central government.

Third, the saying, “Division never lasts very long before union is desired, and vice versa,” is a historical rule. Throughout imperial times there were many cycles of division and reunification. This is the balancing mechanism for solving the political and economic contradictions in the process of China’s social development. In the relationship between the central and local governments and between the Han and the minorities, this mechanism manifests itself every time the central government is weak or the internal contradictions among the Han intensify, the result being that the minorities seek to break away. Afterward, when China is strong and prosperous, the central government can successfully balance internal contradictions and control society, and the problems among the minorities tend toward resolution with each minority leader submitting to the central government.

China today is in a period of social transformation. The redistribution of wealth and political power brought about by economic reform directly influences the relationships between the central government and local authorities, between the Han and minority groups. Whether China in the future erupts with ethnic clashes that eventually split the country or becomes stronger and, to a great degree, united will depend on the minority policy Beijing adopts and the way internal conflicts develop. The minority problem will continue to exist as a latent powder keg, with an ever-present potential for explosion.

The rise and fall of ethnic groups and of nations are never-ending waves on the river of history. Without them, the water would be still and old, and the scroll of history would be drab and colorless. The future of the Chinese nation will follow its own logic, whether divided or united.  Let us wait and see what God has in store for this nation in the new millennium.

Translated by Brent and Jasmine Fulton and Ping Dong.

Image credit: Pearl Falls by P Bibler via Flickr.
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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio