“China’s Ethnic Song and Dance”

The copy editor who wrote the headline for this must-read blog post in the NY Times should get a raise; it’s perfect.

We’ve all seen it: the grinning, dancing, singing ethnic minorities at government events and the televised craptaculars (go to the link to see my first-hand story about one such celebration). They are happy, innocent, contented and they live to sing and dance. They are so cute. And they are ubiquitous; as you flip through Chinese television channels it’s almost impossible not to find some example of happy minorities.

In China’s worst single outburst of ethnic violence in four years, 21 people died last month in the far western region of Xinjiang. But never mind that. According to the deputy governor of Xinjiang, Shi Dagang, the region’s Muslim Uighur population is far too busy treating guests “to meat and wine, with song and dance” to create any problems. In fact, Shi insisted to reporters this week, “The ethnic minorities are simple-hearted and honest, very kind and unaffected. They love guests.”

Chinese officials like to paint a picture of China as one big happy multicultural family. To that end, the state pushes the stereotype that ethnic minorities are little more than entertainers who sing and dance in bright costumes. Song-and-dance minority troupes regularly appear on state television — often singing in Mandarin rather than their native tongue.

….Unsurprisingly, Chinese media are less interested in showcasing genuine ethnic minority culture than in using portrayals of happy, traditional ethnic minorities as entertainment to boost Han rule. As Zang Xiaowei, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sheffield, explained to me this week, the state media aim to “strengthen Han ethnicity for nation-building purposes.”

We all know the advantages many of Chinese minorities enjoy under the CCP, the improvements in infrastructure, the right to more than one child. For the lucky few, their singing and dancing can lead to careers as professional performers. But the picture painted in the craptaculars is quite misleading. Minorities are still at the lower end of China’s caste system.

But when minorities attempt to venture outside the zones of tourism and entertainment, many hit a wall, a problem exacerbated in more restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

A Uighur acquaintance of mine living in Beijing told me this week: “I went to college. I got a degree. I speak Mandarin. But if I apply for a job in Urumqi they don’t want me.’’ He was referring to the regional capital of Xinjiang, his native city. “I was born in the city and the other candidate is from somewhere 2,000 kilometers away. Why not me? Why him? Because he’s Han.”

The Hans hold all the advantages and get most of the good jobs in what can only be described as a caste system. Can you imagine a Uyghur or a Tibetan serving as Prime Minister, or even in the central committee? I can’t because for all the celebration of minority culture they aren’t really Chinese as are the Han. This image of happiness and joy is indeed “China’s Ethnic Song and Dance.” All the ethnic unrest is papered over, and what we see is a propaganda fantasy. The minorities’ relationship with the Han who administer them and go to work in their towns can only be described as a form of Apartheid. There are those with opportunities and power and then there are the minorities. And you’ll never see that on CCTV.

Update: This brief well-written essay
underscores the extent to the government regulates the lives of Tibetans, often stripping away their most fundamental civil rights.

The Discussion: 22 Comments

Original content???????

June 3, 2013 @ 8:14 am | Comment

Sorry, KT, your comment went right over my head. What are you referring to?

June 3, 2013 @ 10:20 am | Comment

They can’t even find a Tibetan or Uyghur that they can trust with the top job in their own autonomous regions.

June 3, 2013 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

I agree that China’s got a long way to go on better integrating its ethnic minorities into the greater Chinese fold.

Two things to note though – first, the reason that Chinese firms hesitate to hire Uighurs in Xinjiang is because they get tax breaks from hiring Han in Xinjiang. This is because the central govt wants more Han to settle there. Poorly executed policy, sure, but not because there’s a sort of nationwide caste system going in China against ethnic minorities. Uighurs, Hui, Manchus, Mongolians, Miao, Tibetans, etc have no systemic trouble in finding jobs in Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou etc.

Second, the lack of media coverage of these issues in China is deplorable – but it is improving. Craptaculars like the ones you noted are growing fewer and further in between – instead, there are excellent films (such as Kekexili), some paid for by state publishing houses nonetheless, that explore relations between ethnic minorities and Han in ways that extend far outside the traditional mold. This is not to say that the central govt shouldn’t keep encouraging the deepening, broadening, and proliferation of these media products, but to say that Chinese media engagement with minorities only pushes a single message of song-and-dance harmony is as one-dimensional as the original message of harmony itself.

On another note – you need to do a bit of fact-checking, Richard.

Can you imagine a Uyghur or a Tibetan serving as Prime Minister, or even in the central committee?


#63: Erkenjan Turahun (尔肯江·吐拉洪), Uygur
#126: Nur Bekri (努尔·白克力), Uygur
#145: Wulan (乌兰), Female, Mongolian
#27: Losang Gyaltsen (洛桑江村), Tibetan
#38: Danko (旦科), Tibetan
#67: Li Changping (李昌平), Tibetan
#107: Gongpo Tashi (公保扎西), Tibetan

June 3, 2013 @ 10:44 pm | Comment

Uighurs and Tibetans make up about 1% of the PRC population, which is comparable to Chinese Americans, or Caribbean British in their respective general populations. For that matter, 1% is also roughly the percentage of Native Americans in America, but that doesn’t really pass muster because very few of them are full-blood Native Americans nowadays.

For any minority to be the head of a state, especially a full-blood minority from a small group with distinctive ethnic dissimilarities, it needs a lot of luck and some special circumstances. Both Carlos Menem and Alberta Fujimori had overcome that… Hat tip to them and the Latin culture.

June 4, 2013 @ 4:29 am | Comment

Guys its that time of the year again, haven’t seen any mention of it yet. Is your cycle not normal anymore?

June 4, 2013 @ 7:32 am | Comment

Patience, my dear.

June 4, 2013 @ 9:47 am | Comment

@ jxie. Fujimori is not exactly a good role model for a minority political leader.

Did you bother to do some research?

@ Richard. # 2. Try the OED and the word disingenuous.

For a web lord who professes to like the Chinese people while despising their govt, you always walk both sides of the street at the same time.

Even John Wayne didn’t try that gig.

Yes, I know that we must all be PC.

Can you link the last positive op piece on China on your site.

Not possible , and you earned a few rmb scribbling for an official Chinese media outlet. Must have been bad sex.

Myself. I don’t have any problems. However you look at it, the Han Empire is a global menace in this century of diminishing resources, and I’m also not taken by their personal hygiene or general manners.

June 4, 2013 @ 12:22 pm | Comment

@KT, you assume too much. Let me just say I have followed Fujimori’s up and down quite closely, especially since how he deftly managed the Japanese embassy hostage situation, to the point I got to learn some interesting minute details of the Japanese citizenship law. As somebody who is right-leaning, I am quite sympathetic to him and believe most of the charges against him were trumped up charges — but that’s hardly the point. The point in contention is if somebody at both parents’ sides from an extremely minority group can rise to the top. It’s doable but much much harder than Obama’s presidential election and re-election.

Oh, my general two cents for you? Ignorance isn’t a badge of honor like you think it is. Structuralist linguistics is just a bunch of hooey.

June 4, 2013 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

Thanks for the correction, t_co, I should have just said prime minister or president. There is only one Tibetan on the central committee, Padma Choling, who said there have been no self- immolations in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Most of those you named, however, are alternate members.

KT, once more you’re being a borderline troll. Please tone it down, thanks.

June 4, 2013 @ 1:21 pm | Comment

@ jxie. Hooey does not constitute a rebuttal even by Chinasmack standards. Funny enough, months ago a HH commenter advanced the same points I made re language/culture on this site,and many gave the guy a hard time. Backtrack: I didn’t support the dissing he received. Quite the reverse.

There are more perspectives here than the usual US – China axis.

PS. By any measure, Fujimori was a political scumbag who failed to become another Latino El Jefe.

June 4, 2013 @ 2:00 pm | Comment

It’s true that Tibetans and Uyghurs are give-or-take 1% of China’s population, and thus are unlikely to become president or prime minister even if they didn’t suffer discrimination. Is it surprising that they would prefer to live in a country where someone like them could become president or prime minister? This is why the core issue is self-determination, not just discrimination.

June 5, 2013 @ 11:29 pm | Comment


I’m sure you are trying to compare Tibetans and Uighurs getting the top job in Politburo to Obama as an African American becoming the POTUS. This is just an unfair comparison. Alaskan or Hawaiian natives would have been better examples. Alaskan or Hawaiian natives have origins in their respected US-based states much like Tibetans and Uighurs in Chinese-based provinces.

June 6, 2013 @ 12:50 am | Comment

I really wasn’t trying to imply that comparison at all. The situation of minorities in the U.S. is quite different from in China, so that it’s very difficult to make meaningful comparisons that would let us say, “this country’s policies are better, this country’s policies are worse.”

The Tibetans and Uyghurs are nation-like groups living in compact territories, and so independence is a viable solution in those cases (and so is genuine autonomy, essentially meaning independence in domestic affairs, if you can get the locals to accept that as secure and legitimate). The only large nation-like territory in the U.S. is Puerto Rico, and they keep rejecting independence in referenda by 20-to-1 margins.

June 6, 2013 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

What’s a ‘nation-like group’? Who defines that? Somehow you’re going to have to get the buy-in of 1.3bn people on that, which is a tough sell.

June 7, 2013 @ 1:45 pm | Comment

In China, you only need the buy-in of 7 people. Still a tough sell, admittedly.

June 7, 2013 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

Seriously, though, Tibet will become free (independent or democratic or both) when China’s government liberalizes or destabilizes. I’m hoping for the former. The current regime is hopeless.

June 7, 2013 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Seriously, though, Tibet will become free (independent or democratic or both) when China’s government liberalizes or destabilizes. I’m hoping for the former. The current regime is hopeless.

If China’s government liberalizes, you go from having to convince 350-500 people (the Central Committee + SOE/private megacorp bosses + other members of the military/natsec apparatus) to having to convince hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese.

If China’s government destabilizes, you get Yugoslavia with one side holding all the guns, food, and fuel, and the other side separated from the nearest help by an impenetrable mountain range and a world-class integrated air defense system whose key components are mated to an automatic command and control system housed in deep tunnels somewhere in Sichuan. Without human operators, they’d shoot down anything flying into Tibet by default.

June 7, 2013 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

The better description, Greg, would be that the current situation for supporters of an independent Tibet is already hopeless, and gets more hopeless with each passing year.

Tibet will be assimilated, like it or not, absent the collapse of the Chinese state and an outside force partnering with Tibetan exiles to pursue a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Both situations are unlikely; their combination even more so, since in the event of Chinese regime change, that outside force (e.g. US/UK/India) would be more interested in not earning the enmity of the rest of China than in the plight of 200k exiles living in Dharamsala.

And even if Tibet does have independence for one brief moment, what happens as soon as China gets its house in order? Do you really want to be on the receiving end of the Chinese Army? Without an Indian security guarantee (which in all likelihood would trigger anything ranging from massive conventional war to an immediate Chinese nuclear response, either of which would devastate Tibet) Tibet would have no choice but to lay down arms as fast as it could.

June 7, 2013 @ 11:36 pm | Comment

The voters of a democratic China won’t be wearing Free Tibet t-shirts right away, that’s for sure. But it will be much more difficult for liberalized China to maintain control over Tibet, which, after all, relies on the ability to apply extreme force against the citizenry. Over time, yes, hundreds of millions of Chinese people can be persuaded that holding onto Tibet isn’t worthwhile. That can’t happen in the paranoiac environment of an authoritarian government. Also, a new democratic Chinese government would likely be able to reach a deal with Tibetan leaders for autonomy, just so they don’t have to deal with the headache of a Tibetan independence movement at a pivotal time.

In Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing happened mostly in or near ethnically mixed areas. Most Tibetans don’t live anywhere near ethnically mixed areas, especially if you ignore Lhasa, which I don’t think is going to play out that way. In the event of a protracted civil war in China, there could certainly be ethnic cleansing and genocide of Tibetans in the border areas. Let’s hope that never happens. If it did happen, it would make it more difficult for China to ever reclaim the remaining Tibetan areas.

At a certain point, the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back in. Whether it get to that point depends on how disrupted the Chinese government is for how long and how assertive the United States, India, and Russia are. It’s not for fear of the Mongolian army that the PLA refrains from marching in to liberate Outer Mongolia; nor is it clear which allies would be willing to get into a shooting war to protect Mongolia at this point. Nevertheless, that bird has flown.

June 8, 2013 @ 7:44 am | Comment

This all depends on which minority ethnic group you’re talking about, of course. There are plenty of notable Koreans within the state system, especially in the PLA, for example: Zhao Nanqi 조남기, Jiang Jingshan 강경산. Ethnic Koreans, on average, are better educated than the Han majority and earn higher incomes. It’s a similar situation with the Manchu. And urban Manchu are only allowed one child under the One-Child Policy, similar to the Han majority.
Urban Mongols, up until recently, performed quite well under the system also.
All this is quite far removed from the situation of Tibetan nomads or Evenki reindeer herders.

It’s easy to group The Other 55 together, but they’re as disparate amongst themselves as they are next to the Han.

July 6, 2013 @ 11:03 pm | Comment

The 83 workers killed in the disaster were almost all members of the Han ethnic majority and from across the country, illustrating how minorities rarely see the fruits of underground wealth – not even dangerous jobs.

July 17, 2013 @ 10:02 pm | Comment

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