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Autonomous China and the Fight Over Heritage

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Contributor Andrew Clark studied in Shanghai during the spring of 2010. This is the first in a series of stories that touches on his political and cultural awakenings in-and-around China.


When Americans look at the world map, China seems to be a unified block of land. In reality, China is made up of several unique ethnic groups that are having trouble assimilating to unified rule.

During my last week in China, a friend and I took one final trip to one of the most exotic, off-the-map places in China -- Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia. Hohhot is situated in northern China, near the border of Mongolia, and is the ancestral home of the Mongol people (think Genghis Kahn and his nomadic hordes). Signs in the region are in both Chinese and Mongolian, and many of the locals can speak both languages with ease. The terrain of the area is uniquely marked by both endless grasslands, where herds of sheep and cows graze, and sprawling sand dune deserts abound -- reminiscent of the African Sahara.

Inner Mongolia, autonomous areas of ChinaI took an excursion one morning out to the Xilamuren Grasslands, two hours north of Hohhot, where I was invited to spend a night in a local family's yurt. At one point during our lunch, I asked our tour guide, a local ethnic Mongolian: What exactly is an autonomous region? After all, China is otherwise made up of provinces, what's the difference?

"Because we Mongolians are an ethnic minority, and not Han Chinese (the predominant ethnicity of China), the government gives us special rights and control over our region," she responded. Through her accent, however, I noticed a sense of sarcasm.

"So that's a good thing, right?" I asked.

"No, not really," she replied, then explained why.

Han Chinese make up 92 percent of the People's Republic of China. The remaining 8 percent is made up of minority groups, mainly Tibetan, Zhuang, Uyghur, Mongolian, Miao, Manchu, and Hui (these are the major ethnic groups -- China officially recognizes 55 minority populations). Each of these minority groups are native to land within China's borders (mainly in the West and the North), and three of them (Tibetan, Uyghur, and Mongolian) live in autonomous regions. The ancestral land of these minorities makes up about half of modern-day China, yet their ethnicities make up only a tiny fraction of the modern-day total population.

As one can imagine, this often leads to ethnic tension. The Chinese government acknowledges the awkwardness of the Han ruling a nation in which half the territory does not identify with the majority. So, in an attempt to release some of that tension, they've given these ethnicities autonomous rule. As our Mongolian guide explained to me, though, this is only satisfying on the surface.

In reality, while autonomous rule allows for the local minority to choose their own regional governor, and have more legislative rights, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still appoints its own regional Party Secretary -- in China, the communist positions are where the real power is located. The current Party Chief of Inner Mongolia is Hu Chunhua, and while he is seen as a star among a new generation of rising Chinese leaders, he is still ethnic Han Chinese.

Further, the CCP still controls the public education system, which is often the front-lines in battles for control of the future. Class in Inner Mongolia, regardless of location, is taught in Chinese, and there is little encouragement of young students to study or learn their family's traditional language. Indeed, in the Mongol yurt I visited, which consisted of a mother, father, and a teenage daughter, the daughter was unable to speak a word of Mongolian (her parents spoke it fluently), so the family conversed in Chinese. My tour guide told me that, among the Mongolians, there is a real sense that the Han Chinese are trying to, quietly, stamp out Mongolian culture. (After an unusual arrest last year, the leader of the Inner Mongolian People's Party, Xi Haiming, claimed that, "the Chinese Communist Party wants to divide and rule . . . their purpose is hidden but its the eradication of Tibetan and Mongolian culture.")

This, of course, may be somewhat exaggerated, but nonetheless, the tension is there. The sentiment is not restricted to just Inner Mongolia, and it is not all peaceful. You may remember the high-profile conflict in Tibet in the months leading to the 2008 Olympic Games, as angry Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans rose up against the ruling CCP. Similar unrest happened last summer in Xinjiang province among the Uyghurs, where 156 were killed, 800 injured, and more than 1,000 detained. In 2004, unrest broke out among the Hui in Henan province. That incident was particularly startling, as what triggered the outbreak was a quarrel between a Hui tax driver who (allegedly) ran over a Han girl.

China is one of the oldest and richest cradles of civilization in the world, and much like the Middle East, multiple ethnic groups call upon ancient traditions to claim land, autonomy, and sovereignty -- or at least more acceptance and representation by a majority that seems to be uninterested in all of the above.

However, the Han likewise seem to have no desire to give up these lands. Chinese history is pockmarked with invasions and internal rebellion, breaking up unified Chinese empires. The Han Dynasty unified China in 206 BC and ruled over a golden age, only to have the Three Kingdoms Era lead to bloody civil war and economic disaster; subsequent Mongol invasions, and then Western intervention, has led the Chinese to believe that a unified China is in the best interest of everyone, and division can only lead to crippling.

It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government can successfully assimilate these groups, or if consistent suppression of uprisings can force social tranquility. While on the margins, some scholars even believe that China will fall apart (one Chinese expert, Gordon Chang, labeled China's current minority-policy "unsustainable"). Nevertheless, while the United States has seemingly countless ethnic and cultural minorities that are proud to call themselves American, the same cannot be said for China. "I am not Chinese," our tour guide, a Chinese-citizen, told me. "I am Mongolian." If China hopes to continue to rise as a growing world power, and keep its government stable, these attitudes will surely need to be addressed. Otherwise, the government may have a hard time moving forward when so much of their resources are spent on suppressing ethnic dissent.
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