Loose Change

Ethnic diversity and China’s Great Leap West

Posted in Geopolitics, History by Raj on 05/22/2010

The majority of Westerners are aware of only one of the many (officially, 56) ethnic minorities in China: the Tibetans. Lately, because of the recent anti-Han rioting in Urumqi, some media attention has also been focused on the Uighurs. However, Westerners still remain largely unaware of the existence and status of other ethnic minorities in China. The official discourse focuses on the Han majority not only due to their overwhelming numbers but also because of the fact that the history of modern China, from the communist revolution to leaps in industrial development is largely a story of Han accomplishments.

This page gives a simple two-paragraph introduction to the history of ethnic minorities in China. Short verbal descriptions of the different groups can be found here, and here and some excellent portraits can be found here (an example is shown below).

To understand the emerging geographical patterns of China’s development, especially in its west, it is increasingly important to consider the role played by its ethnic minorities. The map below shows the geographical distribution of China’s minorities grouped roughly into six ethnolinguistic groups (five if you only wish to consider the mainland).

The provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Guizhou, Yunnan, Qinghai and Shaanxi, the municipality of Chongqing, the tiny, “autonomous” province of Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang together covering more than two million square miles account for more than half of China’s land area but only one-quarter of its entire population (source: The Economist; needs subscription). Even in 1998, the population of East China alone was almost twice the population of West China (source: The Westward potential of the Chinese Economy; MS-Word document). Per capita GDP in 1998 showed a similar inequality (4029 RMB in the West as compared to 9521 RMB in the East; source: The Westward potential of the Chinese Economy). It is important to note that these regions of China possess most of its oil and mineral reserves (source: Go West, Young Han).

In 1999, the Chinese government launched its high-profile ‘Go West’ campaign, officially called the China Western Development Program, aiming to level these regional disparities. Among the initiatives launched in this program was the development of roads, airports, railroads, hydropower plants and gas pipelines. In Chongqing alone, the government aims to pump in $200 billion dollars in the next decade to develop various infrastructure projects (source: Westward Ho!). The goal is to replicate the development model of Shanghai: turbo-charging the local economy will stimulate industry and lead to the creation of a new middle-class which will further fuel spending and boost industry.

Although the government’s investments have started to show some positive results (for instance, GDP increases of as much as 30% in Xinjiang and Guangxi), it is important to remember that there is another side of the coin — the government encourages large-scale migration of the Han majority to these areas. By some estimates, around 250,000 Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang annually in recent years (source: Go West, Young Han). Critics allege that most of the economic benefits of development efforts are reaped by these newly-migrated Han Chinese (source: Robert Barnett’s passages extracted from Steve Lehman, The Tibetans: Struggle to Survive). What makes this more ironic is that the government claims that one of the primary benefits of the development program will be to raise the living standards and income levels of the numerous ethnic minorities that populate this region.

By some accounts, not only does the government downplay the visibility of minorities in the already ‘developed’ part of the country, it intentionally highlights the profile of minorities in these regions to whitewash its own agenda. For instance, statistics show that even in predominantly ‘minority’ provinces such as Yunnan, the Han are already a preponderant majority due to resettlement policies followed by the government since the 1950s. In addition, as much as a quarter of the minority population of these regions may already be on the move as part of China’s growing migratory workforce:

The main characteristic of China’s western region, in the view of most observers, is its ethnic character. They reference the following statistics in this regard: all 5 autonomous regions (zizhiqu), 27 out of 30 autonomous prefectures (zi-zhizhou), and 83 out of 120 autonomous counties (zizhixian) are located in western China; and the region is home to 46 out of 55 of China’s ethnic minorities. Some talk about “an invisible line” going through China, partitioning the country along economic, social, climatic, and ethnic cleavages. A different picture of China’s ethnic patchwork emerges, however, when other official statistics are considered. To begin with, numerous ethnic minority populations inhabit the east, northeast, and other regions of China. Minorities live in all of China’s “developed” coastal provinces: there are 134 ethnic minority townships (xiang) in Liaoning; eighteen in Zhejiang; seven in Shandong; seventeen in Fujian; one in Jiangsu; six in Guangdong; and twelve on Hainan island. In fact, there are only two administrative areas in the whole country where there are no registered ethnic minority compounds: Shanxi Province and the Shanghai municipality. Chinese media reports and academic research reveal that in the 1990s about 24 million ethnic minorities — about a quarter of the entire minority population — did not live in autonomous areas or were on the move elsewhere in the country. At the same time, the population of the majority Han group has been growing in the western provinces since the 1950s when the government started exercising resettlement of the Han into the western region. In Xinjiang, for example, the Han population grew from 30 percent in 1968 to 41 percent in the 1990s. More recent official statistics indicate that the Han population rises twice as quickly as the Uyghur, leaving aside “floating workers” from the East. Government-produced statistics reveal that even in predominately minority areas the Han nationality dominates. In Yunnan, which is home to twenty-five of China’s ethnic minorities and where autonomous areas occupy 70 percent of the province, the ethnic minority population comprises only one-third of the province’s population. Therefore, labeling the western region as the “minority area” does not reflect the actual ethnic distribution in China. What it does instead is brand ethnic minorities with derogatory characteristics associated with life and economic conditions in some parts of the western provinces. This creates an artificial geographical division not only between ethnicities, but also between lifestyles, social conditions, and ultimately between the “eastern Han part” and the “western ethnic minority region.” By emphasizing the ethnic minority character of the western region and by stressing ethnic minorities’ “rootedness” and their belonging to the western region, the prevalent discourse localizes ethnic minorities within a rigidly defined territorial and social niche and perpetuates their subjugated position in the Chinese nation-state — however much the official rhetoric refers to the region as “liberated.”

Source: Barabantseva, V.E. (2009) Ethnic Minorities in China’s Official Discourse on the Western Development Project, Crit. Asian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 225-254.


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