CHINA'S ETHNIC DIVISIONS ARE SHOWING UP AND COULD CAUSE TROUBLE
by Dru C. Gladney *
SUMMARY: China's supercharged economic growth and the spread of modern commercial, communication and transportation links are widely supposed to be further integrating the country. Yet this dynamism has the potential to aggravate ethnic and linguistic divisions that are becoming increasingly apparent. (International Herald Tribune, february 22, 1995)
Officially, China is made up of 56 nationalities: the Han majority plus 55 minority groups. The peoples identified as Han comprise 91 percent of the population and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese and other groups. The Han are thought to be united by a common history, culture and written language. Differences in dress, diet, customs and language are regarded as minor and superficial.
The 55 official "minority" nationalities are mostly concentrated along China's borders, like the Mongolians and Uygurs in the north and the Zhuang, Yi and Bai in southern China near Southeast Asia. Other groups, such as the Hui and Manchu, are scattered throughout the country.
A state-sponsored program assists official minority cultures and promotes their economic development. The outcome, according to Fei Xiaotong, China's preeminent sociologist, is a "unified multinational" state.
But even this recognition of diversity understates the divisions within the population, especially the wide variety of culturally and ethnically diverse groups within the majority Han population. These groups have recently begun to rediscover and reassert their different cultures, languages and histories.
A strong, centralizing Chinese government has often tried to impose linguistic and political uniformity. The state has tried to unite its various peoples with transportation and communication networks and an extensive civil service. In recent years these efforts have continued through the controlled infusion of capitalistic investment. Yet even in the modern era, such integrative mechanisms have not produced cultural uniformity.
Han peoples differ in many ways. They speak eight mutually unintelligible tongues. Even these linguistic subgroups show marked internal diversity.
China's policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy and efforts at control. The official minorities have an importance for the country's long-term development that is disproportionate to their size. Although amounting to only just over 8 percent of the total population of 1.2 billion, they are concentrated in resource-rich areas spanning nearly 60 percent of China's landmass. In counties and villages along many border areas of Xinjiang, Tibet Inner Mongolia and Yunnan, minorities exceed 90 percent of the local population.
While autonomy seems not to be all that the word might imply, it is still apparently a desirable attainment for minorities. Between the 1982 and 1990 censuses, 18 new autonomous counties were established, three of them in Liaoning Province for the Manchu, who previously had no autonomous administrative districts and were long thought to have been assimilated into the Han majority.
Besides the 18 new counties and many autonomous villages whose total numbers have never been published, at least eight more autonomous counties are due to be established.
The increase in the number of groups seeking minority status reflects what may be described as an explosion of ethnicity. It has become popular in Beijing for people to "come out" as Manchu or other ethnic groups, acknowledging that they are not Han. While the Han population grew by 10 percent in the eight years to 1990, the minority population grew by 35 percent overall in the same period, to 91 million from 67 million.
With the economic rise of South China, southerners have begun to assert cultural and political differences. Cantonese rock music, videos, movies and television programs, all heavily influenced by Hong Kong, are now popular throughout China.
Comedians used to make fun of southern ways and accents, but southerners now scorn northerners for their lack of sophistication and business acumen.
Rising self-awareness among the Cantonese is paralleled by the reassertion of identity among the Hakka, the southern Fujianese Min, the Swatow and a host of other peoples now empowered by economic success and embittered by age-old restraints imposed from the north. Most of these southern groups traditionally regarded themselves not as Han but as Tang people, descendants of the great Tang dynasty (618-907).
In the south, ethnic and economic ties link wealthy Cantonese, Shanghainese and Fujianese (also the majority people in Taiwan) more closely to their relatives abroad than to their political overlords in Beijing.
Provincial governments in Guangzhou and elsewhere resist paying taxes to Beijing and restrict the transshipment of goods across provincial lines. There has also been an extraordinary expansion of toll roads, again indicating greater interest in local control.
Huge migrations of people estimated to total more than 100 million now move across China seeking employment in wealthier areas. Crime, housing shortages and lowered wages are frequently attributed to such people.
The result of all these changes is that China is becoming increasingly decentered. This is a fearsome trend for those holding the reins in Beijing.
* The writer is an associate professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.