Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-Centering China

By Frangville, Vanessa | China Perspectives, October 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-Centering China


Frangville, Vanessa, China Perspectives


Elena Barabantseva Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-centering China, London, Routledge, 2010, 202 pp.

How has belonging to the modern Chinese nation been formu- lated over the twentieth century in order to integrate ethnic mi- norities on the one hand and members of the diaspora on the other? What issues and objectives led to both of these seemingly distinct categories becoming the focus of policies in the "post-socialist modernisa- tion" era? How do nationalist discourse and modernisation projects of the People's Republic of China connect to these marginal populations? In a book issuing from her 2006 doctoral thesis, Elena Barabantseva, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Chinese Politics at the University of Manchester, looks at these significant and burning issues in current debates on ethnic- ity in modern China. She offers a perspective analysis of official statements pertaining respectively to ethnic minorities (on Chinese territory) and to the Chinese diaspora (including both foreign citizens of Chinese ancestry and Chinese citizens living abroad). Her book relies on a set of policy state- ments, legislative and academic texts, and other documents issued by Chi- nese officials, as well as interviews with scholars from the Chinese Acad- emy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing and government representatives. Arguing that in the official line, "The future of the Chinese nation is premised on the successful accomplishment of the modernisation process" (p. 4), Barabantseva focuses her reflections on the role assigned to ethnic minorities and to the diaspora in political and academic dis- course on modernisation. As noted in the introduction, her aim is to bring a new perspective on the place of territoriality and ethnicity in the Chinese authorities' national modernisation project. Her argumentation is spread over six chapters replete with discreetly placed tables and charts that aid the reader without making for heavy reading.

Chapter 1 of Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism offers a panorama of debates defining the national affiliation of ethnic minorities and members of the Chinese diaspora in the imperial and then republican era and the policies they spawned. This chapter goes over the different stages that imparted an institutional form to two very imprecisely defined groups. Inclusion of Chinese settled abroad, coming at a key moment in the transition from empire to republic and based on common ancestry, contradicted the idea of citizenship based on common territory incorpo- rating several regions inhabited by (non-Han) ethnic minorities. Barabant- seva clearly shows that this issue is built around the concept of minzu, which refers to the Chinese nation, especially the dominant Han popula- tion, freed of all territorial attachments and defined in terms of race by transnational forces. But this notion also characterises the diverse ethnic nationalities composing the nation, based on a territorial assumption and on so-called scientific claims of "objective" and historical affiliation to China. Barabantseva's contribution to already well-documented studies of the notion/concept of minzu lies in her two-pronged analysis, combining two diametrically opposed categories and according them equal impor- tance in China's national construction.

Chapter 2 is a study of strategies developed by the nascent PRC leader- ship to integrate the diaspora and ethnic minorities in the great socialist project. The author distinguishes between two periods, before and after the Great Leap Forward, 1958 having been a major turning point. The early 1950s were marked by the introduction of programmes to identify and classify ethnic minorities and the founding of institutions for educating non-Han cadres. The implementation of autonomous governance systems in the non-Han regions provided the occasion to reassert Chinese hold on peripheral territories. Populations identified as Chinese living abroad were also sought out to aid China's socialist construction, especially with their financing and technical know-how. …

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