Mongol Herder

Minorities have traditionally been regarded as barbarians by the Han Chinese. The character for "minority," in fact, contained the symbol for "dog" until 1949 when it was replaced with "man." Minorities suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution when their religious practices were banned and shamans were outlawed.

Many groups feel marginalized by Beijing’s policies that regulate minorities. Economic incentives that have lured millions of Han Chinese to the country’s western, southern and northern fringes have created socioeconomic rifts along ethnic lines. “There’s a widespread belief among minorities that Han have an unfair advantage in terms of getting better employment and opportunities in minority areas,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities at Pomona College in California. Such resentments, he added, were an underlying factor in recent uprisings in Tibet and the western region of Xinjiang, where rioting by ethnic Uighurs claimed hundreds of lives, most of them Han Chinese. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs , New York Times July 16, 2011]

It’s not easy, he said, being an ethnic minority in China, particularly in Inner Mongolia, where Mongolians are far outnumbered by Han Chinese and are under pressure to prove their allegiance. “They have to do this kind of thing to get ahead. They’ve got to serve the strong.”

Chinese is replacing the languages of minorities with Mandarin Chinese as the main teaching medium in schools despite the existence of laws aimed at preserving the languages of minorities.Many minorities fear being overrun by the Han Chinese. They look suspiciously upon government initiatives that involve them because they often view these initiatives more as ways for the Chinese to exploit them and their resources than help them.

Even local Communist Party members that belong to minorities feel discriminated against. A local cadre in Xinjiang told journalist Kerry Brown in the 1990s, “Everyday, all we do is read the same old lies in the official Chinese press?, he complained. “How do you think it feels like, going around all your life just to be identified as a “minority'. Is that all I am? A minority? In most of the cities in this area, I am in the majority. Who the hell has the right to say I am a “minority'?” [Source: Open Democracy, Kerry Brown July 14, 2009]

Prejudice and Disdain Towards Ethnic Minorities in China

Han Chinese often consider the minority groups inferior, if not subhuman; until recently, the characters for their names included the symbol for "dog." The minority groups harbor a good deal of resentment toward the Han. Tibet and Xinjiang in particular have repeatedly attempted to separate from the republic. The Tibetans and the Uyghurs of Xinjiang have expressed animosity toward the Han Chinese who live in bordering regions, and as a result, China has sent troops to those areas to maintain the peace.


According to The Economist: That legitimises prejudice in daily life. “They think of us as wild, as savage” says a Tibetan guide in Xining, the Han-dominated capital of Qinghai province on the Tibetan plateau; only one of his Han neighbours even says hello to him. Tibetans and Uyghurs are routinely rejected from hotels elsewhere in China (Chinese ID cards state ethnicity). Reza Hasmath of the University of Alberta found that minority employees in Beijing were typically better educated but paid less than Han counterparts. The best jobs in minority areas go to Hans. [Source: The Economist, November 19, 2016]

In an article on what he calls Hanism, Patrik Meyer wrote in The Diplomat: “Despite China’s globalization, the Han continue to consider other cultures as inferior, resulting, for example, in the Han feeling that their culture and history is far superior to those of the Uyghurs.As a consequence of their discriminatory treatment by the Han, the Uyghurs feel that their identity is under attack and that they are being treated as second-class citizens in their own homeland. [Source: Patrik Meyer, The Diplomat, June 14, 2016]

Chinese are now organising in small ways to fight for environmental concerns but there is little indication that Han are gathering to defend their ethnic peers — perhaps unsurprisingly, given that to do so could be seen as supporting separatism. If anything, the opposite is true: the government’s rhetoric, particularly on the dangers of Islam, has exacerbated existing divisions. Hui Muslims have long been the successful face of Chinese multiculturalism: they are better integrated into Han culture and widely dispersed (importantly they speak Mandarin and often look less distinct). Yet Islamophobia is rising, particularly online; social-media posts call for Hui Muslims to “go back to the Middle East”. In July 2016, Mr Xi used a trip to Ningxia province, the Hui heartland, to warn Chinese Muslims to resist “illegal religious infiltration activities” and “carry forward the patriotic tradition”, a sign that he views this group with suspicion, as well as those on China’s fringe with a history of separatism.

Discrimination Against Ethnic Minorities in China

Bruce Humes said: A Xinjiang-based Uyghur traveling on business who tries to book a room in Shanghai may be informed the hotel is full, or face interrogation from a policeman; A community of Mongolian herders may be forced off its traditional pasture land, with negligible compensation, to make way for a profitable coal mining project; A rural Tibetan dweller may be refused entry to Lhasa without a travel permit. These topics are contentious and perceived by the authorities as likely to breed “inter-ethnic” discontent, and are thus heavily censored. [Source: Bruce Humes, Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, February 17, 2017]

Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han wrote in The Hill: China has been pushing a “Sinicized religion” campaign in China, defying the growing international condemnation over its sweeping crackdown on Muslims and Christians”, which are practiced more by minorities in China than the majority Han Chinese . The push to “Sinicize religion” — introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2015 — is an attempt by the officially atheist CCP to bring religions under its absolute control and in line with Chinese culture. [Source: Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han, The Hill, July 29, 2020]

“The campaign has brought an intensified clampdown on religious freedom across the country, especially on Protestants, Catholics and Muslims, who the CCP fears could become tools of foreign influence or ethnic separatism. In the far western region of Xinjiang, more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps and reportedly forced to denounce Islam and pledge their loyalty to the CCP.

Repression of Ethnic Minorities Under Xi Jinping

Tajik girl

Charlie Campbell wrote in Time magazine: “Although Article 4 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China theoretically guarantees equality for all its 56 ethnic groups, in reality the Chinese Communist Party rules according to a Han Chinese orthodoxy, which claims a direct lineage from the early Yellow River basin tribes and alone defines the national vision. It is this ideology that drives not just the assault on religion in Xinjiang but also the erosion of freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, curbs on local language in Inner Mongolia and the corralling of 2.8 million Tibetans into urban work groups under the guise of “poverty alleviation.” [Source: Charlie Campbell, Time magazine, July 12, 2021]

“The goal, according to an official ordinance on the government website for the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, is to “break lineage, break roots, break connections and break origins.” Across China, minority languages are being purged from schools, workplaces and media, while Mandarin education is universalized. Mandatory birth control and incentivized interethnic marriage dilute the size and concentration of minorities, who are dispatched to faraway provinces for work and education at the same time as Han settlers are beckoned in. Activists now fear that the project of forced assimilation seen in Xinjiang offers a framework for other regions.

“Unnerved by riots in Tibet in 2008, and Xinjiang a year later, the influential “scholar-officials” who serve as the CCP’s chief ideologues proposed ending the constitutional benefits then enjoyed by minority groups, modeled on those in the former Soviet Union. Instead of so-called Autonomous Regions where ethnic groups enjoy enshrined rights, they proposed a “melting pot” formula that curtails distinctions by forging a common culture, identity and consciousness. Soon after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, violent rebellion once again erupted in Xinjiang, and what is sometimes dubbed the “second-generation ethnic policy” moved from the fringe into the mainstream. China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong was convinced that only aggressive subjugation could prevent China from following the USSR into balkanization along ethnic seams.

Replacing Ethnic Minority Languages with Mandarin

According to Associated Press: China has been changing education under a new model of assimilation into the Han majority culture that leaves behind Soviet-inspired policies of promoting minority language education. President Xi Jinping has said that if people don't speak the same language, it is difficult to communicate and achieve understanding. “The ethnic minority schools, if they study well the language of communication in the country, it will be of great benefit to them in employment, in learning modern scientific and cultural knowledge and allow them to integrate into society," he said at a Central Ethnic Work conference in 2014. [Source: Huizhong Wu, Associated Press, September 2, 2020]

Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han wrote in The Hill: The Chinese government has claimed that it fully protects the freedom of ethnic minorities to use and develop their spoken and written languages, and that the state protects by law the legitimate use of spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities in the areas of administration and judiciary, press and publishing, radio, film and television, and culture and education. Contrary to the propaganda, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is gradually replacing the languages of China’s minorities with the Chinese language, and the government has started the process to replace Uyghur and Tibetan language in the schools in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, introducing Mandarin as the medium of instruction.[Source: Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han, The Hill, July 29, 2020]

“Classes in Mongolian language in parts of the region, and elsewhere in China, were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they will cease forever and all teaching will be in Chinese. This is happening in high schools in and around Tongliao City, and is expected to extend to Tongliao Nationalities University and other areas of the so-called “autonomous” region. “Tongliao was chosen to begin the implementation of the language policy because nearly 1 million ethnic Mongolians live in Tongliao, making it the most Mongolian-populated area and a linguistic stronghold for the Mongolian language in China. Some 5 million Mongols represent less than 20 percent of the region’s population.

“Across China, Beijing apparently intends to replace the languages of all ethnic minorities with Mandarin, to bring in uniformity of language and enhance people’s identity as Chinese. It is believed that the languages of minorities could fade away gradually and, in time, Mandarin would become the only language in use.

Ethnic Brainwashing and Propaganda in China

Lisu diorama

Charlie Campbell wrote in Time magazine: ““Under Xi, “ideological education” has been ramped up across China over the past couple of years, most intensely in areas of historic resistance. It begins early; in 2019, a CCP directive on patriotic education instructed cadres to “start with the babies” to teach “love for the motherland and pride of being Chinese.” Cartoons specifically targeting Mongolian children highlight the importance of national unity and ethnic harmony. In Tibet, toddlers are required to march alongside soldiers in Chinese military uniform. Last year, China’s Education Ministry called for “the infiltration of patriotic education into children’s games and daily activities in preschools.” [Source: Charlie Campbell, Time magazine, July 12, 2021]

“At the high school level and above, these programs intensify. A uniform set of textbooks has been unveiled, designed to “strengthen the importance of upholding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity” by stressing how Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea are indivisible parts of Chinese territory. Equally key is the universalization of Mandarin Chinese, under the guise of “bilingual education” that will make graduates more competitive. Tens of thousands of Tibetan children have been sent away to residential schools where they are “paired” with Han teachers. On the rare occasions they can see their families, typically two weeks each year, many struggle to communicate in their native tongue.

March 2021 brought the release of a state-produced musical set in Xinjiang (supposedly inspired by the Hollywood movie La La Land) portraying a romantic idyll where pretty girls frolic in meadows and accordion-playing heroes stand atop galloping horses. Completely absent is any reference to Islam or a suffocating security leviathan. In Beijing’s eyes, minorities must fall into neat stereotypes: Uyghurs are entertainers, pickpockets and extremists. Tibetans are ruddy-cheeked religious fanatics. Mongolians are backward ger-dwelling nomads. Each, in their own way, are retro-grade and requiring correction. And the party is panacea for all. “You cannot just put a few people dancing in front of the camera and say we are preserving their culture,” says Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur human-rights activist based in Washington, D.C.. “They also showed people dancing and playing games in Nazi camps. Does that mean that crimes against humanity did not happen then?”

Woeser on the Chinese Attitude Towards Minorities in China

In March 2012 Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser wrote in Foreign Policy: For the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China's population, there is an expression engraved in their history books: "Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart." Originally, these words were not frightening. Over the years, though, the sentiments they express have created an atmosphere of raw violence. Minorities stand in the way of the grand unity of China's different peoples; they must be Sinicized or extinguished. The ethnic minorities who live in China, the Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, and others, understand that this view of ethnic minorities is actually quite widespread, that it is the mainstream, that they receive little empathy from the majority.

But even some Chinese dissidents and human rights defenders have double standards when dealing with ethnic minorities. In their view, democracy, human rights, freedom, and other values in China apply only to Han Chinese. When it comes to ethnic minorities, they say, "So sorry, you cannot bask in these rays." Although they consider themselves the victims of autocratic rule, they are still not aware that to ethnic minorities they themselves are the embodiment of autocracy, that they themselves are doing harm.

On China’s policy of repression in Tibet compared to other ethnic groups and and minority religions, Tibetan filmmaker Losang Gyatso told the Los Angeles Times: “There are some shared experiences with the Uyghurs and others. But Tibet brings up other issues. It is a society and a nationality and an entire region that had a treaty agreement with Beijing and a unified existence as a state for centuries. [Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013]

Minorities Theme Parks in China

Yi woman

Ethnic theme parks are increasingly becoming a popular form of entertainment for middle-class Han, w come to experience what they consider the most exotic elements of their vast nation. There is no comprehensive count of these Disneyland-like parks, but people in the industry say the number is growing, as are visitors. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 23, 2010]

The parks are money-making ventures. But scholars say they also serve a political purpose — to reinforce the idea that the Chinese nation encompasses 55 fixed ethnic minorities and their territories, all ruled by the Han...The companies running the parks are generally Han-owned, say industry workers.

“They’re one piece in the puzzle of the larger project of how China wants to represent itself as a multiethnic state,” Thomas S. Mullaney, a historian at Stanford University who studies China’s ethnic taxonomy, told the New York Times. “Theend goal is political, which is territorial unity. Parks like that, even if they’re kitschy, kind of like Legoland, they still play and occupy a political position.”

The most famous park, the Nationalities Park in Beijing, is a combination of museum and fairground. Ethnic workers from across China dress up in their native costumes for mostly Han tourists. (For a while, English signs there read Racist Park, an unfortunate translation of the Chinese name.) In some parks, Han workers dress up as natives — a practice given legitimacy by the government when Han children marched out in the costumes of the 55 minorities during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Image Sources: 1) Maps, University of Washington; 2) Posters, Landsberger Posters; Wikicommons

Text Sources: "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia" edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company); Wong How-Man, National Geographic, March 1984; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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