The Unreached Peoples Prayer Profiles. China - Land of Diversity

Part 9
The Future?

[IMAGE] Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, China has been a multinational unitary state. China currently has 116 autonomous areas, including 5 autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 113 autonomous counties. Together they cover more than 63.7 percent of China's territory. The total population of these regions is 120 million, of which 50 million are minorities. In fact, in only one third of the autonomous regions is the dominant national minority group equal to more than one -half of the population. The Law on Regional Autonomy for Minority Nationalities was adopted in May 1984 at the Second Session of the Sixth National People's Congress. It includes provisions for autonomous organizations, rights of self Government organizations, help from higher level organizations, training and assignment of cadres, specialists, and skilled workers among the minority peoples, and the strengthening and developing of socialist relations among nationalities. In short, the policy has been characterized as one state but many nationalities, or, political integration but cultural diversification.

In contradiction to the pronouncements of Engels and Lenin about "the survival of a sense of ethnic belonging long after the withering away of the State," the Chinese anthropologists of today are contemplating the disappearance of the nationalities in the near future. Their arguments include the tremendous changes brought to these people by forty years revolution and the still more important changes to come as the country progresses along the path of economic modernization.

Their arguments also reveal that they are mixing up "ethnicity" and "traditional culture." Traditional way of life are indeed endangered by economic development in China just as elsewhere in the world. A part of the people's culture linked to those traditions may well be lost within a few decades. An official movement to revive traditional culture has spread to almost every nationality to the point of puzzlement of a leading anthropologist of the Tungusic "primitive" societies of Manchuria, Qiu Pu.

In an article published in Studies in Nationalities, Qiu Pu advocates a "breakthrough in the forbidden area of the traditional culture." He shows that traditional cultures include also dark sides and outdated behavioral patterns detrimental to the development of an ethnic group. Should these be reformed or kept, with the risk of cutting the society off from reality and beneficial external influences? But he remarks, "to reform amounts to a transformation of old trends; it is a revolution and it will inevitably raise much resistance and opposition."

Ethnicity, the sense of belonging to a particular ethnic group, transcends the awareness of sharing the same traditional culture. Traditional cultures have undergone what appear to be superficial changes to fit a kind of standardized model of folklore, with official festivals, official songs and dances (often derived from religious rituals and transformed into folklore pageants). But, with the new liberal policy, ancient religious practices have been revived within the family and the village. Today ethnic membership will gather together people who do not speak the same language; some will have received a complete Han Chinese education, while others, belonging to different groups, have been put under the same ethnic label.

In a world of strict obedience to government planning, ethnicity is now clearly a political issue. Ethnicity gives a right to be different. For instance, in the population issue, a source of so much heartbreak among the Han is that the nationality families are permitted to have one or two children more than the Han, on account of their smaller population size. After 1978, millions of people, such as the Tujia of Hunan, who up till then had been counted as Han because they had lost their own language and had completely assimilated Chinese culture, asked to be considered a national minority. One of the most obvious results of the law on regional autonomy has been the reinforcement of ethnic identity. This is a special feature of the minority problem in the PRC and it is not likely to disappear unless the example of Hainan were to be generalized.

For those who advocate a quick assimilation of the minority nationalities, economic development has somewhat replaced the class struggle as the universal solution to the problem of the minority nationalities. The principle of equality between nationalities is ignored particularly when looking at the economic conditions of different nationalities. The "backwardness" of some of them, who had been completely neglected after the Cultural Revolution, is so great that the areas where they live are still closed to visitors, especially western tourists. In the middle of the eighties, a Miao anthropologist could write to an American colleague: "We are one of the poorest peoples in the world."

The implementation of the responsibility system among the minorities as well as in all rural China has encouraged the peasants to increase production. But they are often faced with the problem of scarcity of land and the need to find new sources of income. Without the strong support of the State, large economic ventures are beyond the reach of the nationalities. Modernization is slow: a few more bicycles, a few "walking tractors" and electricity in the village, bringing radio and TV sets into the household, are almost the only improvements that have taken place. And this is not likely to change until the gap in education and the general economic development enable the minorities to find better employment opportunities or to start their own enterprises.

Further Reading.
  • Yin, Ma.(Ed) China's Minority Nationalities.
    Beijing. 1994. Foeign Languages Press.
  • Weiwen, Zhang and Qignan, Zang. In Search of China's Minorities.
    Beijing. 1993. New World Press.
  • Lee, D.H. China's 55 Ethnic Minorities.
    Canberra. 1995. Institute of Asian Studies.
  • The Fifty Most Unreached People Groups of China and Tibet.
    Thailand. 1996. Asian Minorities Outreach.
  • Weekes, Richard V. (Ed) Muslim Peoples. A World Ethnographic Survey.
    London. 1978. Greenwood Press.
  • Johnstone, Patrick. Operation World.
    Seattle. 1993. YWAM Publishing.

Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
This article (which first appeared in "Frontiers Focus" Vol 4 #3 and 5 #2, and is used by permission)
may be copied and distributed without obtaining permission
as long as it is not altered, bound, published
or used for profit purposes.


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