“The Fine Line between Assimilation and Exclusion”

Sino-Global Discourse has a post about ethnic relations in China over here. Nothing entirely new, but a good refresher on some of the dimensions of China’s ethnic problem:

Upon coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist government proclaimed that its stance toward ethnic minorities – who comprise approximately nine percent of China’s population – differed from that of previous regimes and that it would help preserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of the fifty-five official “minority nationalities.” However, minority culture suffered widespread destruction in the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, and minority areas still lag far behind Han (majority) areas economically. Since the mid-1990s, both domestic and foreign developments have refocused government attention on the inhabitants of China’s minority regions, their relationship to the Chinese state, and their foreign ties, but in reality, how much has changed?

Ethnicity has even been incorporated into views about Chinese nationalism. Pioneering, early 20th century, Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen described China’s main ethnic groups—the Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongolian and Tibetans—as the “five fingers” of China. With one of these five fingers missing the Chinese feel their nation is not whole—a view aggressively promoted today by the Communist Party.

Although the country’s policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy and unofficial efforts at control, China’s rapid economic transformation has not improved the lives of ethnic minorities overall. Instead, there continue to be sharp inequalities in basic social services, such as education and health, while income and unemployment comparisons show that persons belonging to ethnic groups fall behind national averages and those for Han Chinese. The costs of inequitable development are high for those living in rural areas, and political exclusion from the process means that solutions are not necessarily made in the best interest of local ethnic minorities. Han Chinese settlers now dominate the urban public sphere in autonomous regions, making it difficult for minorities to maintain distinct cultural identities. Decreased use of local languages in the public sphere, as well as the imposition of Mandarin, means that ethnic minority children have limited access to their native language or cultural education. Political leaders of many minority regions are usually Han Chinese that cannot speak the language of their ruling area, and therefore minorities are excluded from the political sphere as well as many other domains of the public sector.

Despite several efforts to assimilate ethnic minorities in China, there is a fine line between assimilation and exclusion, something which the Chinese government has not quite figured out. The preservation of different cultures whilst simultaneously incorporating ethnic minorities into the dominant culture (Han) has not been completely successful, as assimilation is not simply a one-way street. The immersion of Han culture in regions of minorities has been warmly welcomed and even encouraged by the government, yet the reverse has not occurred. Ethnic minorities in China still remain ostracised, and until true assimilation occurs, China will always be recognised as having an ethnic minority problem, rather than being a multicultural society.

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