Kunming Attack and Ethnic Tensions

Challenges to the ‘Chinese Nation’ Dream

06 Mar, 2014    ·   4326

Dr Geeta Kochhar explains why Chinese President Xi Jinping's efforts to realise the 'Chinese Dream' will be met with several obstacles.

On a March 1, 2014, a group of men launched a deadly knife attack on people at the Kunming Railway station in China, killing 33 people and injuring over 130.. On October 28, 2013, an SUV slammed into a crowd killing two people and injuring 40. Both these events took place around the same time as major Chinese events –the ‘Two sessions’ of the legislature and advisory body (the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), and the 18th Party Congress, respectively. Interestingly, the Chinese official media blamed the Uyghur people from Xinjiang province for both these incidents.

Scholars on China debate on whether or not there is a rise in ethnic tension in China. The propositions are based on the spate of incidents in recent years, ranging from the 2008 Tibetan uprising to the 2009 clashes in Xinjiang, and the numerous intermittent self-immolation cases by Tibetan monks. However, the larger issue that warrants attention and rethinking is: why has there been a rise in such incidents now, when China steadily climbing the global ladder to become the second largest economy of the world. Is it really that certain regions and ethnic groups within China have a heightened desire to secede from China? Alternatively, is it that the people in China have become more conscious of their rights within this nation-state concept, and are demanding a more rational status, by adopting pressure tactics of various kinds?

The ‘Chinese Nation’ is a term used by the government of China to represent all the 56 nationalities as one entity within and outside the political territorial parameters of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Sun Yat-sen, the founding father and the first President the Republic of China, promoted the concept of ‘Republic of Five Nationalities’ (or Five Races under One Union) to bind the Hans, the Manchus, the Mongolians, the Huis, and the Tibetans with the idea of unity based on blood ties – especially when the abdication of the emperor of the Qing dynasty led to a dilemma over the status of Tibet and Mongolia, given that they owed no allegiance to the New Republic.

However, historically, there has been a clear distinction made between the ‘insider’ and the ‘outsider’, whereby the civilized Xia (the Han nationality) people represented the ‘insider’, and the rest of the peripheral communities (the Yi in the east, the Di in the west, the Rong in the north, and the Man in the south) were viewed as ’outsiders’ – and referred to as ‘barbarians’. Hence, the exclusion of the peripheral communities was deep-rooted among the majority and dominating ethnicity - the Hans. Sun Yat-sen’s proposition of the ‘Chinese Nation’ tried to pacify this distinction with a call to unite all ethnic groups, within the region as well as overseas, to fight foreign aggressors.

The discourse on the unity of the ‘Chinese Nation’ with all ethnic groups in the post-reform period has transcended geography, to promote economic linkages with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore. The bonding envisaged by the Chinese government is based on racial affiliations instead of politico-territorial unity. However, in the increasing globalised world replete with advanced technological linkages, the improved living standards, has on the contrary, created spaces where some nationalities have become more conscious of their own cultural identities and belongingness.

Issues of fundamental rights of minorities have gained supranational mobilisation with transnational actors of multiple nationalities and ethnicity collating to drive the movement. These issues often clash with the politically defined national rights granted to the citizens of China.

Even as the Chinese State defined the fixed boundaries to root out differences among various nationalities, the issue of national loyalties associated with territorial state remains, which is also visible in the English translation of the Chinese word Minzu to ’ethnic’ over the past few years; the original meaning, that is, ‘nationalities’, is avoided in official parlance to subdue any implication of entitlement to political demands or claims of territory.

Although, in September 2009, the Chinese government issued a White Paper on Ethnic Policy highlighting the importance of accelerating economic and social development of minority communities and areas to solve ethnic issues, there has been an increase in issues in regions with considerable minority populations – that can be linked to the differences in regional economic development. This is evident in the fact that China’s western regions comprising mostly of the minority groups lags far behind the eastern regions.

The transnational linkages mooted by the Chinese State for purpose of inculcating Chinese nationalist sentiments against foreign aggressors so as to promote economic development has turned into a double-edged sword. The new Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to realize the ‘China Dream’, a vision to rejuvenate the concept of the ‘Chinese Nation’, faces tough challenges, as this unity lies in the demolition of the historical and cultural structure of ’insider‘ and ’outsider‘ – that which is a daunting task.  

Dr Geeta Kochar is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi