The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

 Twelve major minority groups in China

Disdained by the Chinese majority and harassed by the government, Beijing uses its ethnic minorities to portray itself as a seemingly tolerant and multi-ethnic nation. Now the identity of China’s minorities is threatened by modernization, commerce and pop culture. (Pics)



Residents in millions (a sampling)
  • Zhuang
  • Manchu
  • Hui
  • Miao
  • Uighur
  • Tujia
  • Yi
  • Mongols
  • Tibetans
  • Yao
  • Kazakhs
  • Dai


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 paradisaical 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.

The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

Members of a minority group perform during a traditional festival in the Qinghai province.

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.

The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

Tibetan youth, with long stainless steel needles sticking into their cheeks to ward off illness

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.

The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

A delegate from a Chinese ethnic minority group arrives at the
National People’s Congress in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square

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.

The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

A 13-year-old Miao girl walks on knife points as part of a traditional sport
festival in Guiyang in southwest China’s Guizhou province.

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 Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation?”

The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

Horses fight as part of the traditional festival held by China’s Miao minority
in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region.

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.

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 slaveholders.”

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.

The Fate of China’s Useful Exotics

An ethnic Uighur sleeps as he waits for customers to ride his camel on
Id Kah Square in Xinjiang’s famed Silk Road city of Kashgar

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 self-determination.

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.

Via der Spiegel