Jul 07

Chinese Ethnic Policies and the Affirmative Action: One Rationale, Two Failures

Written by berlinf on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 8:00 pm
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Recent riots in Urumqi have been attributed by the Chinese government to the instigation of Rebiya Kadeer and her World Uyghur Congress. This may distract from a potential public debate on ethnic policies that badly need reform.

Years ago, in a high school politics class, I heard our teacher tell us a story about a Han soldier in Tibet. When this soldier saw broken pieces of human body being exposed at mountaintop and pecked at by birds of prey, not knowing this is a part of the Tibeten “sky burial”, he chased the birds away to “protect” the body parts. This immediately led to tension between local Tibetans and the Chinese army. In the end, the army gave this soldier the death sentence. This anecdote is an illustration, no longer an extreme one given what happened on the Urumqi streets, of the ugly sides of China’s “minority policies”. Some may think that the Hans are bullying the minorities, which are largely misleading, or misled in the first place. On the contrary, in many cases China is trying to achieve reconciliation between ethnic groups by reversely discriminating against people from larger ethnic groups so that minority rights are protected. Every life is precious, that of a Han and that of a Uyghur. One should not crush one to appease the other. The government should focus more on true equality among peoples, the rule of law, and ways to promote forgiveness and healing. Using preferential treatment for minorities to achieve harmony is like giving kids candies to keep them happy. One day, kids will grow up and blame their parents for rotting their teeth.

Preferential treatment, or reverse discrimination or protection policies, created new discrimination of a more subtle nature affecting more people. In the late 70s and early 80s, Hu Yaoban, then the communist party chief, decided to let the ethnic groups reassert themselves in a series of policies in favor of minority groups, including the notorious 60% rule (in which 60% of the overall quota for college enrollment, job recruitment and military recruitment in these areas go to the minority groups). Hu didn’t know the can of worm he was opening. Since then, the “pax romona” type of peaceful co-existence of ethnic groups in Mao’s time was no more.

Preferential treatments towards the minorities only led to, in the words of David Sacks and Peter Thiel in describing affirmative action in the US, “heightened racial sensitivity”, which then became “a source of acrimony and tension instead of healing.” For instance, if a student applying for college has minority background in China, he or she will get “added grades”. This could make such a difference that in a rather revealing scandal, 32 middle school students in Chongqing forged identities as minorities in the college entrance exam this year. They were then identified and stripped of their “status” as minority students. What would a Han parent think when he or she has to send his or her only child (family planning policy does not apply to minority groups either) to rat races such as the Math Olympics and months of midnight oil just for the benefit of a meager increase of grade in the college entrance exam when a minority child is automatically entitled to such increase?

I do not know whether it is sad or funny, but such treatments are not perceived by minority groups to be doing much good in the long run. Some minority intellectuals have even complained that these policies will lead to mediocrity and a mentality of entitlement among their peoples.

What happened in education is just an example of the many ethnic policies skewed towards the minority groups. In other areas, special treatments are legion. For instance, most minority groups are not subject to the one-child policy that the Hans have to abide by. Criminals with minority background generally receive lighter punishment and this is even legalized through a government mandate in 1984 which says: “for criminals with minority backgrounds, insist on ‘catch fewer and give less capital punishment (than their Han counterparts), and in practice, practice more leniency towards them.” (5th mandate from the Chinese Communist Party, 1984) (中共中央1984年第5号文件:”对少数民族的犯罪分子要坚持’少捕少杀 ‘,在处理上一般要从宽”。) Such policies actually reduce Hans to second-class citizens in a country which is often reputed to be bullying the minorities.  More importantly, this leniency actually rewards certain criminals with minority backgrounds.  Some are known to run the streets stealing and robbing knowing that the police cannot do much about them.  They could be caught, but quickly released.  Otherwise, this criminal issue will be framed into an ethnic issue.   This damaged the very reputation of some minority groups and increased the tension between minority groups and the Hans.   I do not know if politicians know what they are doing!  But based on the recent developments in Xinjiang, I have read that the government is threatening “severe punishment” to rioters, which seems to indicate signs of change in such policies.

Many affirmative action type of policies are well-intended, but can quickly turn sour.    On July 8, 2009, Wall Street Journal carries a major feature article (interestingly next to two photos about Xinjiang’s violence), which also challenges the  affirmative action in favor of  the economically disadvantaged Malays as “risk to Malaysian growth” (Affirmative Action Spurs Asian Debate, Page A1 and A14).

I once asked an American lady why America does not celebrate Women’s Day on March the Eighth and she said, “True equality means you don’t have to be treated differently.” In like matter, if we really want to treat minority groups with respect and dignity, then give what they ask for (actually what we all ask  for): equality. Stop this Chinese version of Affirmative Action which is going on a much larger scale with much more serious consequences, such as frustration, bitterness, and hatred.

President Hu Jintao may have claimed not to “zheteng” (impose whimsical change), but with the rise of ethnic tensions, it’s time to try something else.

There are currently 3 comments highlighted: 42072, 42104, 42221.

59 Responses to “Chinese Ethnic Policies and the Affirmative Action: One Rationale, Two Failures”

  1. Chalres Liu Says:

    Berlinf, thanks for the history lesson. On the other hand Kadeer and WUC called for the 5/3-5/7 protests in Europe, US, and China based these two accusations:

    – Uyghurs were forcibly shipped out of Xinjiang to factories as cheap labors for Hans
    – There are more than two dead Uyghurs in the 2/26 Guangdong factory brawl, and Uyghur factory workers suffered injustice at the Han-majority government.

    I’d like to know where are the evidenc to support these accusations? If these accusatons are inacurrate in any ways, has Kadeer and WUC’s speech then become incitment not covered by principle of free speech?

  2. foobar Says:

    If the discontent former employee got jailed for spreading rumor, I don’t see why not Kadeer. Lucky for her she’s not in China.

  3. foobar Says:

    I think it would help if the author could elaborate on the preferential treatment, besides the extra grades. The meme in the western media (as illustrated by the opinions of many here) is that minorities get spurned in education/employment etc, while the preferential treatment (some written into law, others carried out only in practice) is seldom (if ever) mentioned. Wonder if we can come up with a semi-exhaustive list for both sides.

  4. berlinf Says:

    In June, Chongqing revealed the scandal of 32 students forging identities as minority students in order to get preferential treatment:


    Though I am all for exposing such forgeries, I should also point out that there is true benefit in being a minority.

    As you can also see each year in People’s Congress, there has to be a certain member from each minority group. If someone is an intellectual and has minority background, it is much more likely for him or her to climb the social ladder.

    I have quite a number of friends from minority groups and they are very smart. I don’t understand why they’d need to enjoy preferential treatment. But such policies gave blanket preferential treatment to them no matter what.

  5. raventhorn4000 Says:

    It’s affirmative actions, and it’s temporary remedies.

    Really, after couple of generations, affirmative actions are pointless. A lot of Han Chinese are mixed blooded any ways. (I have some Uighur blood from my paternal great grandmother side.)

    If we trace back far enough (for those of us who luckily managed to save our family geneology tree), we can probably all claim some minority status.

    But affirmative actions are ways to bring the minorities into main stream. Afterall, China has only 5-8% minorities population. It’s not that big of a deal to give them preferential treatment.

    *Another reason is “role modeling”. The theory is, if minorities are preferentially promoted into leadership positions, more quickly, other minorities will be more inspired to follow the “role models”.

    It is psychological, but I can see the point.

  6. Hemulen Says:


    Sure, some Han Chinese kids forged their identities to get ahead of the game. So what? The government gives and the government takes. The so-called system of affirmative action is designed to create assimilated minority elites that are loyal to the system. The central government does not want any strong local elites to appear that give a voice to local concerns and the central government has closed down all higher education in Uighur and Tibetan.

    As you can also see each year in People’s Congress, there has to be a certain member from each minority group. If someone is an intellectual and has minority background, it is much more likely for him or her to climb the social ladder.

    Who cares about a ceremonial institutions? The power is in the hand of the party. You have yet to account for the fact that the CCP is almost completely dominated by Han Chinese men, where it be the central party or in the autonomous regions. The current politburo has one minority member and one woman. More than half of the Tibetan regional CCP secretariat is Han Chinese and no Tibetan has ever been appointed first secretary in Tibet

  7. raventhorn4000 Says:


    “The so-called system of affirmative action”

    so-coined by President John F. Kennedy of US and generally accepted as form of remedy for discrimination.

    “designed to create assimilated minority elites that are loyal to the system.”

    And people call me a cynic.


  8. Hemulen Says:


    I though you were able to read. I’m not talking about the US. And a couple of anecdotes about preferential treatment of Tibetans or Uighurs will not undo the real discrimination they are facing.

  9. berlinf Says:

    Hemulen , I am sure there are discrimination Uighurs are facing. I just hope that we can all look into the causes of such discrimination in a hope for peace and reconciliation. I have given it a try. You might want to let us know too the other side of the story if you know of any that I do not know of.

  10. raventhorn4000 Says:


    You didn’t exactly make any distinctions in your blanket statement about “affirmative action”.

  11. Nimrod Says:

    It is becoming increasingly clear that discriminatory ethnic policies (whichever direction) are more trouble than they are worth. It is simply not the right way to address either past wrongs or to acheive some equalizing objective, as it builds in perverse incentives and moral hazards. In the case of reverse discrimination, you get the type of soft bigotry of low expectations on top of the “heightened” sense of ethnic identity.

    Hemulen wrote
    Sure, some Han Chinese kids forged their identities to get ahead of the game. So what? The government gives and the government takes. The so-called system of affirmative action is designed to create assimilated minority elites that are loyal to the system. The central government does not want any strong local elites to appear that give a voice to local concerns and the central government has closed down all higher education in Uighur and Tibetan.
    You are only half right. The phenomenon you describe exists but the “colonial” motivation that you attribute is not credible. It is to a large extent true that many of the affirmative action benefits have accrued to those who actively participate in the system, and those are or have disproportionally become minority elites — this is almost by definition. However, they were supposed to use their high education and improved access afforded by their privileges to serve their region and their people. It is a sad state of affairs that many of them have become corrupt and nepotistic and out looking for their personal interests to the detriment of minorities in need, as a result of a general trend of unaccountability. To say this is a result of some kind of colonialist policy though, is a far stretch.

    The most we could reasonably say is that this is one downfall of a centralized state. In order to be able to advance directives quickly, local concerns are sacrified to the extent that conflicting directions at the local level — whether through “freedoms” or as reflected through grassroots governance — are not tolerated. When it is mixed with ethnic minorities, things could take on alternate meanings to some people.

    Again, you could argue that this is colonialism if you insist that the central government is equivalent to a Han government, even if all evidence points to it being not a very “good” Han government as in not a very Han-nationalistic one. To you maybe only demographics matter, in which case since greater than 90% of Chinese citizens are Han, there will be no way to convince you of the distinction between what a central government for a multi-ethnic country does and what a Han-nationalist government might do. I happen to think there is not only a theoretical difference but a practical — and visible — difference. However, you may choose to disagree. Maybe ultimately there will not be a successful outcome with such demographics, but we shall see.

  12. Hemulen Says:


    The current government is a pretty Han-nationalistic one for all intents and purposes. It has never supported a local Uighur protest against the Xinjiang government and it openly plays on anti-Uighur prejudice as we speak. But that may change. The CCP leadership is waiting for Hu’s return from Italy and some people speculate that Wang Lequan, the hard-line party secretary of Xinjiang for 15 (!) years, is about to be ousted. I doubt it, but if it happens, it may be a sign that the central government realizes that something is amiss.

  13. MutantJedi Says:

    The kids may blame the parents for the rotting teeth, but they will cry foul when their candy is taken away.

    Affirmative action type policies might look attractive on paper but they only foster negative stereotypes and present yet another hurdle for the individual to cross – tokenism.

    The Chinese policy seems to go way over the line too. A boost on the Gaokao and exemption from the One Child Policy are one thing but the real or perceived leniency in the judicial process is a recipe for disaster. The Han will believe that a minority can get away with murder, which we can see with Han going into the streets to take the law into their own hands. I suppose it is fair enough as the Uighurs believe the Han can cover up murder too.

    Solutions? No idea. But I would suggest perhaps an awaking to the fact that there is racism in China.

  14. Steve Says:

    @ MJ #13: That reminded me of a time many years ago when I was talking to an off reservation Navajo working for Intel about some of the benefits the reservation Navajo received. They had free medical, free dental, they’d be in front of me at the supermarket in Farmington, NM (where I had lived previously right next to the reservation) with the entire cart piled high with steaks which I certainly could not afford, and paid for it with food stamps. I asked the off reservation guy what he thought about it and I’ll never forget his answer.

    He said, “None of that is free. They pay for it with their loss of self-respect. We don’t have much to do with reservation Navajo. We consider them losers.”

    Nothing is free. Lesson learned…

  15. EugeneZ Says:

    I am not sure if affirmative action is the root cause of today’s ethnic problems in China, but those policies do skew things in ways that are long term detrimental. Take the one child policy (for Han but not for some minorities), because of the preferential treatment, the % of minority population has grown significantly over the past several decades. If my memory serves me well, from ~4% to ~8%. Is that something China wants to achieve – to decrease the % of Han population, and if so, what is the logic behind such a goal?

    Another example is crime, in Shanghai, or any other major cities in China, Uyghur thieves really stand out as an issue. Police rarely crack down on them. On one hand, it brings terrible reputation to Uyghur people, one the other hand, it makes the city less safe, and less enjoyable. Again, I am pretty sure the government did not intend to have these outcome.

    I totally agree that these policies need fresh review now.

    However, I do not think removing affirmative actions will address all or even majority of Uyghur grievances. Race issues are very complex. In a capitalist society, which China is in, there is a tendency towards “winner take all”. If a person is less educated, has a lower IQ, and can hardly speak the main language of the market place, where does he end up on the social ladder? Not very high up, unfortunately. We do not have to look far, just look around us in the USA to realize this situation.

    The best China can strive for is to put in place the right set of policies that can prevent this type of deadly violence. Human being, as a whole, has not figured out a way to make all equal.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the high quality discussion of this thread.

  16. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Affirmative Action has been called “paternalistic”.

    But giving Uighurs preferences in job hiring and schools is not the same as giving them money.

    I don’t think China is trying to “decrease the % of Han population”. Most Han people are mixed people anyways. The ethnic definition of “Han ethnicity” is rather nebulous.

    I’m not sure how big of a problem is “Uyghur thieves” in the major cities. I hear rumors, but see no statistics.

    I don’t like such broad stroke characteristics. I have met plenty of honest friendly Uyghurs in my time in Beijing and Tsingdao.

  17. Lee Says:

    You mention that minorities have to get lower points to get into higher education, but you don’t mention what Tibetans and Uighur their language are not considered when applying for higher education. If knowing your language is not worthy of a credit, may be Hans Chinese shouldn’t get credit of know their language.

  18. Michael Says:

    The pros and cons of affirmative action policies are an irrelevance and distraction from the real issues behind the riots. As with the riots in Lhasa last year, the simmering discontent is not related to how many kids you can have, what grades you need to get into a Chinese college or getting lenient treatment from the police. The issues for the Uighurs are the same as those for many other reluctant minority peoples like the Tamils, Kurds and Karen. No quick fix for this one.

  19. BMY Says:


    What you said was partially true. But big portion of so called minorities don’t speak any other language than Han Chinese language. In my uni class, there was a Mongolian boy ,whose family had been living in Beijing for generations. And a Manchu girl, who grew up in ChangChun. They received more advanced education in the big cities than the Han students from rural area and small towns. But they got the extra points on the uni entry exam. 10 or 20 points differences often means one’s life could be turned up or down.

  20. Berlin Says:


    “You mention that minorities have to get lower points to get into higher education, but you don’t mention what Tibetans and Uighur their language are not considered when applying for higher education. If knowing your language is not worthy of a credit, may be Hans Chinese shouldn’t get credit of know their language.”

    Would Spanish or Chinese or a Native American language be given credit if someone applies for a school in the US? No. If for instance, I failed to be accepted by a school, would I blame this school for prejudice? No, I would think what went wrong with my TOEFL, GRE or GPA, or Personal Statement. Such is the mentality most of us grow up with for we do not receive any such special treatment, and we end up not depending on it at all.

    As far as I know, there is no “official” language in the US, but English is the de facto one. Ditto for Chinese. It is not the Chinese is banning other minority languages (as Kurds in Turkey were forced to), some just choose to learn to speak Chinese out of necessity. Some minority groups don’t even have their own written languages to begin with.

    On another note, recently I read that some missionaries helped establish their written languages and translated the Bible into these languages. During this process, some minority groups have their earliest intellectuals.

    Read here for more information:

    I think some Chinese scholars have done something similar to do what we call “rescue” minority cultures and languages. But such effort often go unnoticed while people sensationalize any small conflict into an ethnic conflict.

  21. miaka9383 Says:

    @Berlin #20

    Actually, when applying for universities, by knowing a different language fluently is a plus on your student resume. So yes, universities do give you credit for knowing a different language. Also, when you get into a university, you can choose to opt out on the foreign language credits if you already know a foreign language. Not only that, specifically at my university, we also offer languages such as Navajo, Arabic and other languages besides the standard Spanish, Italian, French and German

  22. MutantJedi Says:

    The funny thing about language here is that a lot of people, Han included, don’t speak standard Mandarin at home. I’m living in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, and there’s a sign near the elevator at my dorm: 普通话方便你我他, “Mandarin is convenient for everybody.” When the cleaning staff or the guards speak amongst themselves, I can’t understand it. It isn’t Mandarin. A good friend of mine is from Gaoyi (a city 30-50km south of Shijiazhuang). When her young nephews came to visit her, I had a heck of a time figuring out what they were saying. A coworker of mine has a hard time understanding his mother-in-law because she has a strong regional accent. Another friend of mine is was joking he needed a translator in Sichuan.

    It took me a while to figure out why my Chinese co-workers kept asking me how do kids learn English in Canada. My answers weren’t quite satisfying their question. Then the penny dropped. A lot of the kids here coming into kindergarten or primary school have to learn Mandarin. They don’t speak Mandarin at home.

    So… if a Han kid from Gaoyi needs to learn Mandarin in school, why would an Uighur kid be different?

  23. pug_ster Says:

    Affirmative action should be reviewed. If someone commits a crime they should receive the same punishment whether that person is a Han or a Uyghur. I’m sure the many Uyghurs commit crimes because of economic reasons, so the government should enforce affirmative action employment laws and create new economic opportunties for Uyghurs.

  24. JXie Says:

    @BMY #19

    In my uni class, there was a Mongolian boy ,whose family had been living in Beijing for generations. And a Manchu girl, who grew up in ChangChun. They received more advanced education in the big cities than the Han students from rural area and small towns.

    Manchus on average are far better educated than Hans (so are Koreans for that matter). Mongolians are slightly better educated than Hans on average. For them to receive AA educational credits is like for Asian students in America to receive preferential treatment, which just isn’t right.

    On the other hand, Uighurs trail the national average quite a bit, and Tibetans are far behind…

  25. berlinf Says:

    There are some innate design flaws in such policies. It does not distinguish between “big minorities” and “small minorities”. Their situations are vastly different. I have found some minority folks in China extremely smart and successful. But making things even easier for them would make worlds of difference between them and their peers.

    In most cases, the minority groups that seem to perform well are actually those who try to assimilate and integrate, those who do not make a big deal of their ethnic background. It may be liberating that way. To put it in some cliche, it frees them from finding excuses for their failure, and encourage them to find ways to succeed.

    The ones who are most enthusiastic about preserving their lifestyles and cultures are often found lacking in their performances not only in schools but also at work. It is hard to figure out which caused which, but generally I believe that preferential treatments have contributed towards an entitlement mentality. It does not reward someone who resort to their own reasons to solve problems. When things go wrong, it may be caused by any number of factors, but some may simply resort to ethnic prejudice or discrimination as a leading cause. Sometimes ethnic difference in treatment is the least of the cause. But China is as bad as the US in political correctness in this area of ethnic prejudice, or worse. A person can get away from discriminating against a Han farmer, but he is in for big trouble if the recipient of the discrimination is, say, Tibetan.

    To get rid of this mentality and to provide true equality, I would love to see that China phase out its dated preferential policies, especially in the judicial system.

  26. JXie Says:

    Berlinf #25

    Mostly agreed. AA policies in the long-term create more problems that they solve. Judicially, a big no-no.

    Ethnicities that have done reasonably well (hence better overall living standards) are those who had already merged into the mainstream culture before 1949. If national unity is a long-term goal, then certain steps (not AA policies), should be taken. Getting those Uighurs jobs in the Shaoguan toy factory was a good thing. In retrospect, wish the local administration and the local polices had had better sensitivity training.

  27. Shane9219 Says:

    @JXie #26

    I agree that AA creates a sense of entitlement among minorities and inequality among the majority. It is better to design specific cooperative programs to benefit minorities on education, housing and job etc, similar to those for people with disability, than a simple blind AA policy.

    Blame of Shaoguan incident should be put on the factory’s management first. After the hiring, local authority actually did an inspection and found no problem, the Uighur labor team also accompanied first by their own officials. But once settled, the daily responsibility is on the factory management, and they knew they have a large minority group and should be sensitive about what was going on. However, this is a private business owned by a boss from HK. They probably don’t have the kind of human resource management in comparable to SOEs.

  28. raventhorn4000 Says:


    Yes, the manager should bear responsibility for what happened.

    If that type of incident happened in US, the private company and the manager would be sued (by all the workers) for negligence supervision for allowing the rumor/slander to spread in the work place.

  29. Shane9219 Says:

    This blog entry covers a stand-off incident between Han and Uighur students in Xian back in 2001

    “When Han, Uighurs duked it out in Dorm 6”


  30. Steve Says:

    @ Shane, that’s a really good article. Seems like not much has changed with both sides still fighting over the same issues. Awhile back someone did a post on whether racism existed in China. I think this pretty much answers that question.

  31. Shane9219 Says:

    @Steve #30

    I would have to take a 50% discount on your comment 🙂

    Among large minority groups, Huis, Mongols and Manchuas did not have the kind of tension with Han similar to that between Han and Tibetan and Uighur, while Huis, Mongols and Manchuas also maintain a distinctive identity and large presence of around many cities in China.

    The deep-rooted mistrust is related to royalty towards China especially during times of hardship. I have to emphasis that Chinese culture are very forgiving and mostly peaceful and inclusive. But once a population group made attempts to break away during time of hardship, their actions are usually not forgiving for a long time. This historical background has to be addressed head-on between Tibetans and Uighurs with Han openly someday, the sooner the better.

    On the other hand, people knew how Huis, Mongols, Han and Manchuas struck together at times of foreign invasion, civil wars and hardships, even though there were kinks among them too.

  32. Steve Says:

    Shane, great post. I agree with everything you said.

  33. raventhorn4000 Says:

    good point, Shane.

    drawing to the history of Manchus, I should comment that Chinese are distrustful of ethnic based “independence” movement, especially considering the history of Japan trying to split off “Manchu Guo” from China.

    Considering the classic strategy of “colonialism” is “divide and conquer”, Chinese have reason to be suspicious of outside support for internal “independence movements” based upon ethnicity.

    Generally speak, ethnicity based “independence” is not a good idea. Instead of having 1 country with internal problems, we end up with 2 or more “countries” that hate each other, separated by guarded borders and mutual discriminations. (India and Pakistan, for example). Instead of street fights and race riots, armies kill each other in grander and more organized fashion, with more civilians caught in the middle.

  34. Shane9219 Says:


    The history of Manchus was troublesome, but Chinese view “Manchus Guo” was forced upon by Japanese not the desire of local population.

  35. raventhorn4000 Says:


    No doubt Imperial Japan attempted to justify the separation of “Manchu Guo” by funding sympathizers for independence assertion.

    Japan managed to pull together an army of 200,000 Manchurians in WWII.

  36. Steve Says:

    @ R4K: I thought they just used Puyi as a figurehead to justify it. What funded sympathizers were involved? Didn’t they just invade?

  37. raventhorn4000 Says:

    It wasn’t just Puyi. There was an entire government of Manchurians around him. And the 200,000 Manchurian soldiers that Japan trained to put down a rebellion in Manchuria.

  38. Allen Says:


    You wrote:

    The deep-rooted mistrust is related to royalty towards China especially during times of hardship. I have to emphasis that Chinese culture are very forgiving and mostly peaceful and inclusive. But once a population group made attempts to break away during time of hardship, their actions are usually not forgiving for a long time. This historical background has to be addressed head-on between Tibetans and Uighurs with Han openly someday, the sooner the better.

    In modern times, I had thought ethnic relations in PRC were pretty good until starting in 1980’s, when China turned capitalistic. In this article, Jian Junbo wrote:

    The idea that all people in China belong to the “great family of Chinese” is not the invention of the communists. This attitude began with the founding father of modern China, Dr Sun Yat-sen, and was supported by early Chinese enlightenment thinkers such as Liang Qichao and Hu Shih.

    In the era of chairman Mao Zedong, the ethnic policy was dictated by his class-struggle doctrine, by which all Han and non-Han working people shared one common identity – socialist labor. The term “labor” meant they were also the owners of the country – constitutionally and ideologically. Capitalists, land owners, serf owners and other “exploiters” – regardless of their ethnic origins – were the enemies.

    This policy successfully surpassed ethnic differences and constructed a shared identity for all working people. To an extent, this policy under Mao united all ethnic groups in the “class struggle” against the “oppressors”. It also made the former elites of ethnic minorities diehard enemies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

    The working poor of China’s ethnic groups gave much support to the CCP government, and accepted their new socialist identity. Han and non-Han people became equal economically and politically, and the idea of ethnicity was gradually faded out by the idea of class.

    The concept of a common class, which gave equality to all people in the same class regardless of their ethnicity, surpassed the idea of ethnic identity and forestalled ethnic conflict.

    But when the class-struggle doctrine was practiced to the extreme particularly during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, it gave the Red Guards – consisting of mostly Hans – the ground to attack China’s cultural and historical heritage – Han as well as ethnic – in the name of the revolution. These attacks tremendously hurt the feelings of ethnic minorities.

    After the Cultural Revolution, apparently as some form of compensation, the Chinese government began to award some privileges and preferences to ethnic minorities.

    For example, the tough one-child policy applies only to Han couples. Accordingly, the birth rate and population proportion of the Han are decreasing, compared to other ethnic groups. Meanwhile, privileges have been granted to ethnic minorities for employment and education opportunities. To boost economic growth, the government in recent years has poured much money into ethnic minority areas.

    Many Han are upset at what they see as discrimination. In the aftermath of the Shaoguan brawl, Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang visited and consoled the injured Uyghur workers, but allegedly ignored the injured Han workers. This angered the Han workers and increased their suspicion of the government’s policy.

    Even as ethnic groups, such as the Uyghurs, complain they are being exploited or discriminated by the Han, many Han accuse the government of doing the same. In the end, as China’s economy advances, political and economic equality between Han and non-Han is being undermined.

    The wealth gap is expanding between the Han, who in general live in rich areas, and those ethnic minorities who live in relatively poorer areas. The economic inequality between different regions is also a case between Han and non-Hans. Although this imbalance of economic development is due to many factors, it’s easy for minorities to feel exploited by the Han.

    As the influence of Marxism as the dominant ideology is diminishing in China, the sense of political equality is also abating. Today, common people aren’t really considered the owners of the country, and laborers are no longer a respected class. Capitalists have become the government’s guests of honor.

    In China, political equality based on class equality has collapsed. For the past 60 years, this idea of class equality was a basis on which all common people, including minorities, could maintain an identity as one member of the Chinese political community.

    Now, the economic and political marginalization of ethnic minorities is destroying the foundation of some ethnic groups’ Chinese identity. At the same time, this marginalization is deeply misunderstood by many of the majority Han ethnic group.

    The shared identity of the Chinese – as socialist labor – is gradually falling to pieces. The resulting riots in Urumqi may be just the start of something much, much bigger.

    Is the 1980’s on considered “bad times”???

  39. Steve Says:

    @ Allen: Reading this article reminded me of a story that one of my friends told me about when she was younger. All the Chinese she knew were very poor and no one had much to eat, but everyone was in the same boat. Friendship was all they had so everyone stuck together, shared with each other, joked and told stories, sang songs and that’s how they stayed happy. She said she missed those days now that people are more unequal and worry more about themselves and their families rather than everyone they know.

    I heard the same thing from Russians who had lived in the old Soviet Union days when everyone was also dirt poor. Friendships were far closer than today and though poor, they shared what they had and talked about history, philosophy, art, music, etc. amongst themselves. They also missed those days.

    However, no one wanted to go back to that time. I guess life is a trade off…

  40. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Sometimes, too much Freedom means merely great isolation of oneself.

    Americans too lament the loss of “family value” in the modern age of convenience.

  41. buru Says:

    May I ask a sensitive question?

    Does Chinas ethnic minorities receive racist taunts/discrimination in Han areas based on their appearance, food habits, behaviour etc?

    This Q is esp for minorities who are pretty distinct from the Han, and who can often be pointed out in a crowd ( eg Tibetans, Uighurs, Kazakhs, Tai), whereas Manchus, Zhuangs, Yaos etc would merge in well.

    Pl dont give politically correct answers, just the truth. I am not trying to judge China:)

  42. Berlin Says:

    Buru, I am not sure whether this can be generalized easily. I, for one of the Hans, don’t see any good reasons to discriminate as I see so many minorities as being rather smart, especially those minorities that cannot actually be distinguished with the Hans. I see no reason why they need special treatment. Yet they do. These cause some slight resentment, and some bitterness that the government is doing this when the context has changed.

    For those like Tibetans, Uighurs, Kazakhs, most Hans in the areas where they do not show up much would feel rather strange, because we don’t know them so well. In most areas, like Shanghai, Shenzhen, I really don’t see a lot of them in contexts that the majority of Hans appear, like businesses and schools. Even if there are some, in most cases they just form their rather closed social circles that Hans do not have opportunities to associate with. So it is hard to discriminate against them if not much about them at all is known to discriminate against or in favor of them. There is much more discrimination in terms of social classes (farmers vs. middle-class people), geographies (Beijing vs. Henan), age (those under 35 are constantly discriminated against in recruitments, and there is no law against such other the constitution) than discrimination in terms of ethnic groups, until recent events bring such tensions into the spotlight.

    But I heard some Han friends who used to live in areas like Xinjiang show they are very bitter, not about these minorities per se, but against what the government in treating the minorities, hence this post. These policies serve only to reinforce any discrimination if it is already there.

  43. Shane9219 Says:

    @buru #41

    There are always slurs calling among ethnic groups, that is plain human nature. This also happened a lot between Hans of different regions.

    In general, people within urban population, regardless their ethnicity backgroud, have been mixing together well. In places like Urumqi, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, people don’t single out someone out or make fun of him/her because of his/her ethnicity. On the contrary, people are usually warm towards each other. This is reason that this Xinjiang riot has come as a huge shock to many local people including Uighurs (many innocent Uighurs got killed as well)

    In recent years, there are some complaints by urban people in big cities about rural Uighur people coming to downtown and doing pocket picking, sometimes even using young boys for this sort of thing. And when they are being confronted on their acts, they may come forward beating up those victims ( I know a guy who was beaten that has to stay in bed for a couple months to get recovered). Law enforcement, on the other hand, often took exception and applied softer punishment towards them because of their ethnicity (must sound stranger to you, I guess).

    So this gives poor Uighur people a bad image among urban population. However, I don’t think people intend to single them out because of ethnicity, actually that is because of what they have done. Similar kind of complaints also once simmered towards Hans of certain regions about young street beggers. This sort of street begging situation with young kids got improved in recent years, however.

    On the other side, urban population do not mix well with rural poor farmers until the later become adopt to urban life and look. But this is a different kind of issue though.

  44. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Most Chinese occasionally use derogatory terms behind people’s back, not openly. (of course, that’s not an excuse. Educated Chinese consider such uses to be a dirty personal habit, like spitting in public, or use of foul language in public.)

    I am however, very troubled by the modern stereotype of Uighurs as “thieves”. My generation of Chinese didn’t see such problems in China when we were growing up. But we didn’t see much of any kind of street beggers back then either.

    The government needs to do some serious investigation of the problem.

  45. buru Says:

    “they may come forward beating up those victims ”

    ..sounds pretty much like India :))..its called public-dhulai here!

  46. raventhorn4000 Says:


    Can you explain this “Public – dhulai”?

    Does it occur very often?

    What’s its actual definition?

    Any laws on that in India?

    I’m very curious.

  47. buru Says:


    actually I said that half in fun. I also think i misunderstood the article. The article perhaps said –sometimes Uighur pickpockets/ethnic teams up and beats the victim. In India usu the public/crowd teams up and beats the pickpocket–sometimes to death if police arrives late.

    Its an informal slang, public=public, dhulai=Hindi for ‘a thorough washing’ 🙂

    I wont say it happens often, but is not rare either:) I am not sure of the law, perhaps it comes under lynching..

  48. raventhorn4000 Says:


    Thanks for the explanation, that was interesting.

    “Public thorough washing” eh?

  49. buru Says:

    #48:In India( and China too i believe), rural/old-style washermen clean clothes by beating the wet clothes out on a flat stone, or beat the dirt out with a heavy stick.That is the imagery behind ‘ public dhulai’ 🙂

    so it roughly translates to ” a thorough washing(beating:) by public”

  50. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Don’t want to judge anyone, but I hope Chinese have moved beyond that.

  51. Satsuki Shizuka Says:


    I’m pretty sure that in the next decade or two, given the shortsightedness of the general populace, that won’t happen. Just look at how the internet responded to the Man from Wuhan who dipped a Uighur pickpocket’s head into a vat of oil in the morning market in 2007!

  52. raventhorn4000 Says:


    Not sure what incident you are referring to.

    But sounds like at least it’s not a “public cleansing”.

  53. too yellow Says:

    That actually rarely happens in China, since people generally would stand and watch (perhaps give verbal support) rather than participate. However, the victim might do crazy thing, and the crowd may or not stop the guy. (The police in China isn’t as efficient as people outside of China may image, they usually just sleep on the side of the road with they helmet visor on… especially on hot days)

  54. raventhorn4000 Says:

    “(The police in China isn’t as efficient as people outside of China may image, they usually just sleep on the side of the road with they helmet visor on… especially on hot days)”

    That’s way too much of a generalization.

  55. buru Says:

    I dont know if Chinese police are ‘ efficient ‘ or not, but if this video is an indication they look pretty relaxed :)) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKp2euGeZ3Q

  56. buru Says:

    The police in India are equally or more ‘efficient’ than their Chinese counterparts http://www.tehelka.com/story_main42.asp?filename=Ne080809murder_in.asp


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