Separate but Loyal: Ethnicity and Nationalism in China

By Tang, Wenfang; He, Gaochao | Policy Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Separate but Loyal: Ethnicity and Nationalism in China


Tang, Wenfang, He, Gaochao, Policy Studies


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Executive Summary

This study compares ethnic identity and nationalism among China's ethnic groups. Following an examination of the ethnic policies under the Qing empire, the Republic of China, and the People's Republic of China, we set out to test two opposing hypotheses on national identity in contemporary China. One hypothesis is centered around the Handominant Confucian tradition, while the other is based on the concept of the modern multiethnic Chinese state that originated during the Qing empire.

To test the above hypotheses, we take a multifaceted empirical approach by exploring the extent to which ethnic minorities are sinicized and the meaning of being Chinese. Specifically, we show how strongly different ethnic groups identify with their own languages and how important they perceive learning those languages to be as a way to carry out their respective cultural traditions. Next, we compare how different groups identify with their religions and how much importance they place on continuing their cultural heritage through religious practices. Third, we examine how intragroup identity and intergroup identity are reflected through interethnic marriage among different ethnic groups. Finally, we compare group identity and national identity in China with those in the United States and Russia, two countries with similarly dominant ethnic majorities and sizable ethnic minorities.

One barrier to the study of ethnic relations in China is the difficulty of collecting systematic and comparable data among the ethnic groups. This study is based on a 2006-2007 questionnaire survey of nearly 1,600 students in 17 high schools. It covers some of the most politically sensitive ethnic groups in China, including the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Huis, and the Kazaks, as well as the Han majority. As far as we know, this is the first comprehensive survey of ethnic and national identities ever conducted in China. The survey adopts many questions from the 2003 National Identity Survey conducted by the International Social Survey Programme in 36 countries and regions (but not in China), and allows for a quantitative comparison of China with other countries and regions for the first time. In addition, we use the 2008 China Survey, which was based on a national random sample and jointly conducted by American and Chinese researchers. This national survey helps us further compare Chinese national identity with that in the United States and Russia.

The findings show that ethnic minorities in China expressed strong feelings of intragroup identity through ethnic-language learning, religious practices, and exclusively ethnic-based marriages. Further, Chinese ethnic minorities showed higher levels of both perceived ethnic identity and perceived national identity than their counterparts in the United States and Russia. These findings seem to support the hypothesis of national identity based on the multiethnic Chinese state. We conclude that ethnic relations in China are based on a pact between the government and the ethnic minorities, which requires the government to grant ethnic separation and autonomy while the minorities, in turn, demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese nation-state. If the state fails to provide the promised autonomy, or the minorities fail to prove their nationalism, the deal may collapse. This study offers a rare empirical perspective to the delicate balance Beijing must maintain to preserve its legitimacy.

Separate but Loyal: Ethnicity and Nationalism in China

Introduction

The single largest ethnic group in China is the Han, which comprises 92 percent of the country's population. This high percentage, however, disguises the complexities of ethnic relations in China. Although most of the 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups are well integrated and see little difference between themselves and the Han majority, several other groups, such as the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, the Huis, the Mongols, and the Kazaks, have posed serious challenges to the Chinese state's ability to maintain ethnic harmony. …

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