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 (more…)