Addressing the annual session of his National People’s Congress last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the minorities in the country to forge “ethnic unity” and called for efforts to help all ethnic groups stay closely united “like the seeds of a pomegranate.” Will Xi’s exhortations make any meaningful, qualitative difference in the life of Chinese minorities?
Observers say communist China has hardly ever treated its ethnic minorities in a manner that they would feel like the proverbial pomegranate seeds. The minorities in the country today account for about 115 million (8.5 per cent) of its citizens. They belong to China’s 55 state-designated ethnic minority groups. Most of them live in southern China, Tibet, Xinjiang or near the borders of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, India, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The largest of these minorities is the Zhuang ( 15 million people). The smallest is the Lhoba in Tibet (just about 2,300). Other major minority ethnic groups are Zhuang (16.1 million), Manchu (10.6 ), Hui (9.8 11 ), Miao (8.9 ), Uygur (8.3 ), Tujia (8 ), Yi (7.7 ), Mongol (5.8 ), Tibetan (5.4 ), Bouyei and Dong (2.9 each ), Yao (2.6 ), Korean (1.9 ), Bai (1.8 ), Hani (1.4 ), Kazakh and Li (1.2 each ), and Dai (1.1 ).
The constitution of China defines the country as “ a united multinational state,” wherein “all nationalities enjoy equal status.” It acknowledges the diversity of the country’s population. It defines a nationality as a group of people of common origin living in a common area, using a common language, and having a sense of group identity in economic and social organization and behaviour.
Operationally, however, the state of China seeks to homogenise its minorities. Its central principle is that ‘backward’ minorities must be directed to ‘modernise’ themselves. In the process, minorities’ religions, languages and scripts are fast disappearing from China. During the Cultural Revolution, all religious practices were banned. The state still considers praying a crime. Members of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet are forbidden to practice any form of religiosity. The state bans all foreign organizations and individuals from spreading religious content online in China.
Since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in the late seventies, the country has progressed a lot in economic terms. China today is the world’s second-largest economy with its $ 13.4 trillion GDP. It is the world’s largest economy in terms of its purchasing power parity. Chinese minorities are, however, still generally very poor. Their income levels are significantly lower than those of some 91.5 per cent of Han Chinese (1.1 billion) in the country. Over 70 per cent of ethnic minorities in southern China live below the poverty line.
( The author is a New Delhi-based journalist )