One Country, Uniform and Indivisible? —by Jinny Batterson
The People’s Republic of China celebrates its national day on October 1. This holiday commemorates the official launch of this new-old country’s most recent government. On this day in 1949, Chinese guerrilla fighter turned government leader Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed from Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace that, after over a century of turmoil, China had finally “stood up.” During the 65 years since then, the P.R.C. has consolidated its rule over much of China’s extensive territory, gaining international recognition as China’s official government. But problems remain. I’ve had more chances than many to experience some of the diversity and potential for divisiveness in China during travels and teaching in her hinterlands.
China’s population is about 92% “Han,” the dominant ethnic group. However, the 92% Han figure tends to mask the diversity even within Han-dominated regions—the P.R.C. officially recognizes over 50 non-Han ethnicities. China’s most heavily populated regions tend to be east and south, from Shandong Province down through Shanghai toward Hong Kong. Here, Han citizens far outnumber other groups. In contrast, large expanses of territory in China’s north, west, and southwest are more sparsely peopled, with substantial numbers of non-Han inhabitants. In some areas, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and parts of Yunnan and Guangxi, other groups have historically outnumbered the Han. Intense resettlement and tourism efforts have increased the proportion of Han residents and visitors in these regions, but it is still possible, walking down a street in Kashgar or Lhasa, to feel one is no longer in China.
Any country with a continuous written history as long as the current expanse of China will have had periods when the unity of the country was tested. Depending on the accounts you read and the length of your historical time line, you may have some doubt that China’s periods of “unity” are of longer duration than its periods of disunity. China is not, and never has been, a monolith, Western myths of uniform “yellow hoards” notwithstanding. How to deal with the diversity that exists in many of its most strategically sensitive, resource-rich regions is a problem that has vexed successive Chinese governments for millennia.
My lengthiest exposure to the diversity of China came during the school year 2006-2007, when I was a foreign English teacher in Ala’er, Xinjiang. I’ve been told that the town’s name means “jewel of the desert.” This small oasis town depended heavily for its existence on the glacier-fed Tarim River that came down from the mountains surrounding the Taklamakan Desert (the largest in Asia). The river supplied drinking and irrigation water to parts of that vast bowl-shaped depression before drying up near the desert’s eastern edge. I taught at a smallish “desert reclamation university” which had been founded during the 1950’s with the twin goals of securing China’s borderlands and taming the desert. Its ambition was to reclaim as much land as practical for productive agriculture or forest buffers against fierce windstorms and encroaching sands.
When I was in Ala’er, the non-student population of the town was predominantly Uyghur, a mostly Moslem pastoral group believed to be related to Turks, with a history of several centuries of nomadic subsistence in the area. The university was more heavily Han, though as many as 40% of its students came from non-Han groups. I was lucky that little of the sporadic violence that periodically mars relations between Han and non-Han inhabitants of the region occurred during my stay. There were even some attempts at cross-cultural understanding—the end-of-Ramadan holiday of Eid al-Fitr was officially observed by Moslem students the year I was there, and several Han faculty members joined in the feasts and dancing.
The country of my birth, the United States of America, is poised to become a “majority minority country” within the next generation, with no single ethnic group predominating. As we struggle with our own diversity, may we have some compassion and understanding for the “minorities” (and the majority) within China.