Thinking Aloud: “Contestation and Adaptation: The Politics of National Identity in China”

Apr. 2, 2014 by Darius 

Earlier this week I saw University of London professor Enze Han talk about how China’s ethnic minorities have responded to the Chinese government’s attempt to promote a “national identity”: do they contest it or do they adapt to it?  It was a good talk with several interesting case studies.

China has 56 official minority ethnic groups.  Together, these groups represent 8% of China’s population, some 109 million people.  Some of these groups, such as the Uighurs and the Tibetans, have fiercely resisted the Chinese government’s attempts to portray China as a unified nation-state, while other ethnic minorities have accepted the government’s narrative.  Why?

Prof. Han developed a framework to examine the responses of ethnic minorities.  The important dimensions to consider:

  • Does a given ethnic minority have a substantial kindred population outside of China or some other form of “external kin”?  If not, the minority group will probably assimilate.
  • If the ethnic minority does have an external kin group, is the population of the minority in China better or worse off than its external kin?  If it is better off than its external kin, it may seek assimilation or autonomy.  If it is worse off, it may pursue assimilation or emigration.
  • Does the minority population have outside support?  Outside support can come from three places:  a great power, the external kin’s homeland, or the diaspora.  If an ethnic minority lacks external support, it is more likely to pursue assimilation or emigration, depending on if it perceives its well-being (from the question above) as better or worse than its external kin’s.  If an ethnic minority has external support, it is more likely pursue autonomy (contesting the Chinese “national identity” narrative).

Prof. Han then applied his framework to four case studies of large, geographically concentrated ethnic minorities: Chinese Koreans in Manchuria, Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, Uighurs in Xinjiang province, and Tibetans in Tibet.

There are about two million Chinese Koreans living in Manchuria (which is today northeastern China, bordering on North Korea).  Most Chinese Koreans arrived in the region during the period at the beginning of the 20th century when Japan occupied both Korea and Manchuria.  Chinese Koreans have an obvious external kin:  Koreans in North and South Korea.  Although life is better in South Korea, with wages ten times what they are in China, neither Korea provides Chinese Koreans with very much by way of external support.  Most Chinese Koreans with ties to North Korea fled as refugees, while Chinese Koreans with ties to South Korea are excluded from South Korean legislation aimed at Koreans abroad because their roots in China predate the existence of South Korea.

Chinese Koreans, then, have external kin, and these external kin are generally better off than the Chinese Koreans themselves.  But Chinese Koreans enjoy little external support to challenge the Chinese identity narrative.  Prof. Han’s framework predicts large-scale emigration among Chinese Koreans to their external homeland, South Korea.  And that is indeed what has happened.  Since the 1990s when China and South Korea normalized relations, up to 30% of Chinese Koreans have emigrated to South Korea, both as short-term workers and as long-term migrants.  Leading the wave have been Chinese Korean women, responding to a South Korean program to find Korean wives for rural South Korean men.

Many Chinese Koreans have also migrated internally to large, coastal Chinese cities.  There, South Korean companies have substantial business interests, and many Chinese Koreans work as middlemen between South Korean companies and China.  There is a generational gap at work, too.  Older Chinese Koreans with little education go to South Korea to work menial jobs, while younger, better-educated Chinese Koreans head to Chinese cities to work for Korean corporations.  The result of these trends has been an emptying-out of traditional Korean communities in Manchuria.

Ethnic Mongols in China face a different situation.  Like Chinese Koreans, Chinese Mongols have an external kin homeland, but unlike South Korea, Mongolia is worse off economically than Chinese Mongols.  Additionally, in China itself, Mongols are not especially poorer than their Han Chinese neighbors.  Politically, though, Mongolia is a better place for Mongolians to be than China.

Like Chinese Koreans, Chinese Mongols do not enjoy major external support.  Decades ago, Imperial Japan was a patron for Mongols, and with Japan’s defeat in World War II, support for Mongols dried up.  Mongolia itself turned its back on Chinese Mongols on the grounds that they weren’t “pure” Mongolian anymore.

Because of the economic situation, Chinese Mongols are not interested in emigrating to Mongolia or, lacking external support, in pressing for political autonomy.  Instead, Prof. Han’s framework predicts that Chinese Mongols will assimilate or seek a degree of cultural autonomy but no more.  This has been the case.

China’s Uighurs have responded very differently than both the Koreans and the Mongols.  Uighurs have always had strong ties to Turkic Central Asia; many Uighurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, after a short-lived Soviet-backed republic in the early 20th century.  The Soviet Union was a great power patron to Uighur nationalists; Turkey also provided support in solidarity with the Turkic Uighurs.  There is also a strong Uighur diaspora throughout the world.  Uighurs have definitively and sometimes violently contested the Chinese government’s idea of national identity.

Another facet of the Uighur’s contestation of identity is race.  Chinese Koreans, Mongols and even Tibetans are capable of “passing” as ethnic Chinese, provided they speak Mandarin well enough.  Uighurs are racially distinct.  As such, they would not be accepted as Chinese, even if they wanted to be.

Tibet was a final case study.  Tibet had enjoyed centuries of autonomy under Chinese emperors. Before the People’s Republic of China came to power, China was nominally Buddhist, and Tibet’s Buddhist leaders had a good relationship with China’s Buddhist leadership.  Immediately after the Communists with their doctrine of atheism came to power, Tibet began pushing for independence, believing that its religion-centered way of life would be threatened.  China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, but the rest of the world was focused on developments on the Korean peninsula, and Tibet’s 1950 petition before the UN went nowhere.  However, like the Uighurs, Tibetans have some external support and continue to contest their identity as “Chinese.”

In conclusion, Prof. Han felt that the key to understanding the behavior of China’s ethnic minorities lay not just with the communities themselves but with outside entities capable of providing support to contest the Chinese national identity pushed by the government.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: “Contestation and Adaptation: The Politics of National Identity in China”

  1. ruivolkov says:

    How about the notion that every ethnonational group should have at least one polity? It’s an idea many are easily compelled to, even if so many groups out there don’t actually have their own ethnonationally-defined polities.

    Of course, Bosnian Serbs, Kosovar Albanians, and others have pressed for independence despite each having a preexisting polity defined by their ethnicity. But I feel a group is more likely to want a polity if its kin don’t have a polity anywhere.

    Tibetans and Uighurs don’t have any polity. But Mongolians and Koreans do. Did Professor Enze Hon consider this?

    Rui Volkov

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