Most of the news reports about China’s ethnic minorities in the “free media” focus on the “tensions”, “unrest”, “discrimination”, “suppress”, “restrictions on religion”, etc. Is it true that ethnic minorities in China are living like in the hell? Occasionally, you can still find the truth if you are careful enough. For example, in this WSJ article China’s Ethnic Fault Line (don’t be fool by the title), you would read something quite different:
Surprisingly, it has now become popular, especially in Beijing, for people to “come out” as Manchus or other ethnic groups. While the Han population grew 10% from 1982 to 1990, the minority population grew 35% overall—from 67 million to 91 million. The Manchus, long thought to have been assimilated into the Han majority, added three autonomous districts and increased their population by 128% from 4.3 million to 9.8 million. The population of the Gelao people in Guizhou shot up an incredible 714% in just eight years. These rates reflect more than a high birthrate; they indicate “category-shifting,” as people redefine their nationality from Han to minority or from one minority to another. In inter-ethnic marriages, parents can decide the nationality of their children, and the children themselves can choose their nationality at age 18.
Why is it still popular to be “officially” ethnic in today’s China? This is an interesting question given the riots in Xinjiang recently and in Tibet last year, not to mention the generally negative reporting in the Western press about minority discrimination in China. By the mid-1980s, it had become clear that those groups identified as official minorities were beginning to receive real benefits from the implementation of several affirmative action programs. The most significant privileges included permission to have more children (except in urban areas, minorities are generally not bound by the one-child policy), pay fewer taxes, obtain better (albeit Mandarin Chinese) education for their children, have greater access to public office, speak and learn their native languages, worship and practice their religion (often including practices such as shamanism that are still banned among the Han) and express their cultural differences through the arts and popular culture.
Indeed, one might even say it has become popular to be ‘ethnic’ in today’s China. Mongolian hot pot, Muslim noodle and Korean barbecue restaurants proliferate in every city, while minority clothing, artistic motifs and cultural styles adorn Chinese private homes. In Beijing, one of the most popular restaurants is the Tibetan chain Makye-ame. There, the nouveau riche of Beijing eat exotic foods such as yak kabobs served by beautiful waitresses in Tibetan clothing during Tibetan music and dance performances. With the dramatic economic explosion in South China, southerners and others have begun to assert cultural and political differences. Whereas comedians used to make fun of southern ways and accents, southerners (especially Shanghainese) now scorn northerners for their lack of sophistication and business acumen. As any Mandarin-speaking Beijing resident will tell you, bargaining for vegetables or cellular telephones in Guangzhou or Shanghai markets is becoming more difficult for them due to growing pride in the local languages: Non-native speakers always pay a higher price. Rising self-awareness among the Cantonese is paralleled by the reassertion of identity among the Hakka, the southern Fujianese Min, the Swatow and other peoples now empowered by economic success and embittered by age-old restraints from the north.