To De-politicize and to Enculturalize Ethnicity? What’s Wrong with China’s Ethnic Relations

Posted: 2011年11月1日 in Original Thoughts

A recent article (or more precisely a dialogue) by Ma Rong马戎, a graduate from Brown University and a retired professor of sociology of Peking University published on China’s Ethnic Studies (《中国民族》2011年09期,第4-12页) has caused a hot debate and dispute among China’s academics, policy-makers, and oversea ethnic dissidents. The central point expressed in this and other articles by Ma Rong is that de-politicization and enculturalization of ethnicity in China will grant more complete citizenship to China’s minority peoples (“‘去政治化’和‘文化化’的意思,就是要给少数民族更大的活动空间和更完整的公民权利!).

It is interesting to note that Ma Rong first expressed his new thought on current China’s ethnic policy in an article entitled “A New Thought on Ethnic Relations: De-politicization of Minority Ethnic Issues” in 2004 when he was going to retire. The timing of his publication of this artilce may indicate the sensitivity of ethnic issues in China that he had to discuss the issue at the time of retirement. During his recent dialogue with interviewers, Ma elaborates his thought by arguing that in the new international context (probably after the collapse of the Soviet and Yugoslavia and the formation of Central Asian Republics and Balkan states), Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs and other ethnicities have formed an interest unity (利益共同体) and scholars have to think about the domestic unity of Zhonghua Minzu (中华民族内部的团结) and the serious external challenges from the perspective of 1.3 Billion Chinese population(外部国际社会的严峻挑战). In other words, Ma Rong’s new thought on ethnic relations is aimed at searching for a new way to deal with external challenges by building up domestic consensus and unity through de-politicization of ethnicity. These external challenges come from western countries, according to Ma Rong. Had national unity not been build up and had ethnic intellectuals not been unified, he insists, China would not have been able to be made as a real nation-state (民族国家) and would not have been able to respond to western powers that have targeted China as “potential enemy” (潜在敌人”) and have adopted double standards (采用双重标准的西方国家).

The historical and cultural foundation for building a large national identity, as Ma Rong argues for, is the fact that all ethnic groups of China have identified with a Pan-Zhonghua 泛中华, or as expressed in terms such as Zhonghua(中华), Zhongguo (中国), Zhongguoren (中国人)and other historical and cultural concepts since the Han dynasty, which forms the cultural and political foundation of diversified yet unified Zhonghuaminzu (中华民族“多元一体”格局). Ma Rong here seems to follow his predecessor, Fei Xiaotong’s notions and hypothesis on the relationship between the Han and non-Han peoples. Ma selects several entirely Han-centric terminologies and unilaterally attempts to extend them to non-Han peoples. He goes so far as to argue that the so-called Zhonghuaminzu should be unified as a national group or nationality (国族) of China, a term used 1 century ago by Chinese nationalists such as Sun Yat-sun to conduct indepdent movments.

Probably for preventing possible non-Han ethnic nationalism and for better converting non-Han ethnic diversity into Han unity, Ma Rong proposed as early as in 2001 to replace China’s nationality with ethnicity (or ethnic groups). Following this early thinking, Ma Rong suggests that non-Han cadres and intellectuals should expand their horizon from ethnic autonomy to national stage. Ma Rong even confidentially predicts that his proposal would be welcomed especially by cadres who have long worked in ethnic regions (长期在民族地区工作的干部, Han cadres or ethnic cadres??) and have been troubled by various daily ethnic issues.

Meanwhile, Ma Rong also expresses his concern that ethnic intellectuals and cadres may oppose his ideas because this change in ethnic politics may weaken favorite policies towards ethnic minorities. Ma Rong cites American blacks (美国黑人) as an example to prove the success of the lack of ethnic policies in the U.S. He points out that American blacks have not been assigned to their own ethnic schools as China’s ethnic minorities have been. Many American blacks have thus studied in top universities and have access to national leadership positions.

Ma Rong’s de-politicization of ethnic relations to some extent acknowledges the fact that China’s ethnicities have long been politicized and China’s non-Han peoples have long been discriminated in the past decades when ethnic theory and practice have been adopted by the new regime. His new thought also indirectly indicates the tragedy that China’s ethnic policy has not granted non-Han peoples equal citizenship in academic, social, cultural, and political arenas of contemporary China.

In his eyes, to eliminate the ethnic markers and barriers including ethnic autonomy may promise a better and larger social, economic, and political future for non-Han minorities, as African Americans have achieved. However, this America-trained student of sociology has not learned that the success of African Americans has not resulted from the lack of ethnic policies or of ethnic differences in the U.S., it is the U.S constitution and other laws that guarantee African Americans as well as other non-Caucasian American citizens to have equal access to jobs, school, position, and etc. This can be best seen in employment in the US that American laws prohibits the discrimination on the basis of age, race, creed, color, religion, marital status, gender, sexual oriental, veteran status, national origin, or disability status. This equal right has been achieved through African American’s civil rights (not ethnic movements!!) in 60s.

In China, however, all non-Han peoples are encouraged or forced in one way or another to weaken or abandon their cultural traits such as religion in all public spaces and no law guarantees the equal right of non-Han peoples’s citizneship (for example, passport application is one of the basic rights for all citizen in any modern nation state. But in China, an ordinary Tibetan or Muslim has been actually denied access to passport!). To Mr. Ma Rong, a simple question should be asked: America’s White House can hire a Muslim lady wearing typical Muslim dress and working for the American government, is such practice possible or even thinkable in Han-ruled China? Why non-Han people’s ethnic markers (such as history, culture, and religion), instead of China’s politics and policies, have been singled out by these scholars for discussion and solution?

To blame and target non-Han cultures, histories, and religions as barrier for China’s national unity always indicates a Han cultural chauvinism. From Fei Xiaotong’s diversity in unity of Zhonghuaminzu to Ma Rong’s national group 国族 (a narrow-minded daydream against the trend of globalization), it clearly shows the logic of the thinking of non-Han peoples by Han, near-Han, or Hanified scholars that China’s ethnic harmony can only be realized through assimilation.

If China is truly hoping to achieve national unity and solidary, it should reflect on its politics and policies that have discriminated non-Han populations, not criticizing non-Han ethnic markers. If China really hopes to improve its ethnic relations, then it should hire more legalists and attorneys, not anthropologists or ethnologists, as advisors for their policy formulation.


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