Ethnicity Stirs In a China Set on Wealth

Minorities feel left out in rush to riches despite new freedoms

BY day, Li Guifen raises crops and tobacco to support her two children. By night, she embroiders pillow covers and tablecloths to peddle to tourists visiting the nearby spire-like formations of the Stone Forest.

"Life is not so good - so-so," Ms. Li, a member of the Yi minority in China's southern Yunnan Province, says wearily in her two-room hut. "In fact, life is not very good at all."

Marginalized by China's economic boom, the country's 55 ethnic minority groups are asserting their cultural and religious identities and challenging Beijing Communist control.

Since the end of the dark, ultraleftist days of the Cultural Revolution when minorities were persecuted and banned from wearing traditional costumes, speaking their languages, and practicing religion, they can now live their cultural lifestyles openly.

And, the Han majority, which dominates China, has become more accommodating of its ethnic minorities.

They benefit from affirmative-action initiatives such as being permited to have more than one child, obtaining better educations, and winning appointments to government jobs. And, ethnic food, music, dance, and folk art have become the rage among young, prosperous Chinese.

Between the last two censuses in 1982 and 1990, China's minority population grew more than 35 percent to 91.2 million. By comparison, the majority Han population had a growth rate of 10 percent.

China has become more sensitive in its treatment of minorities. This attitude change stems from Beijing's desire to promote minority regions as tourist destinations and also expanded diplomatic and trade ties with the Islamic Middle East and former Soviet Asian republics.

An explosion of ethnicity

Ethnic groups once classified as Han during periods of suppression are now seeking recognition as minorities, and Han Chinese groups, particularly in southern China, are asserting their differences. That is splintering the image of a homogenous Han majority and heightening the distance between the provinces and Beijing. There has been "an explosion of ethnicity in contemporary China," wrote Dru Gladney, a Chinese ethnicity specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu, in a recent report.

Yet, growing ethnic visibility deepens China's social turbulence and worries Communist leaders who have long imposed unity and uniformity to keep their grip on power. In misrepresentative and often disparaging articles, the official press depicts minority groups as a peaceful, happy-go-lucky populace promoting an image reminiscent of the Hollywood Step'n-Fetchit stereotype of American blacks in the 1930s.

But in Tibet, resistance continues to Chinese domination, and a separatist movement churns in western Xinjiang Province where Uygur Muslims have been at odds with the government over birth control, restrictions on building mosques, nuclear testing, and mineral exploitation. Pro-independence demonstrations have also erupted in Inner Mongolia recently.

Rising crime, oftentimes blamed on minorities flooding major Chinese cities, has thrown into sharp relief the economic gap between fast-growing, Han-dominated eastern provinces and the inland, minority regions. About half of the more than 300 poverty-stricken Chinese counties are in minority areas, and almost half of the 55 minority groups suffer from widespread illiteracy.

Last November, a survey of officials attending a seminar on minority and religious affairs found the participants from more than 30 provinces and regions alarmed "that social stability will be endangered if this gap grows too big," according to Hong Kong press reports.

"The uniformity of the Hans is in uneasy equilibrium with the diversity of the minorities," says a European diplomat who has traveled in minority areas.

"For centuries, China has held together a vast multicultural and multiethnic nation..." writes Mr. Gladney. "But cultural and linguistic cleavages could worsen in a China weakened by internal strife, inflation, uneven growth, or a post-Deng [Xiaoping] struggle for succession."

In Yunnan Province where the minority population of 14 million accounts for more than one-third of the total population, officials boast that minorities are bettering themselves and putting backwardness behind them. The province is marketing itself as a tourist destination and, with Beijing's help, is building a multicultural resort outside Kunming, its capital, to draw Japanese, overseas Chinese, and Taiwanese tourists.

At Zhoucheng village in Yunnan's mountainous western region, more than 3,000 Bai minority women are producing tie-dyed fabric and clothes that are exported to Japan and the United States. The cottage-industry enterprise earned $100,000 in 1994.

The new prosperity evident in Zhoucheng replaces the meager living the villagers used to eke out selling timber. "Before 1983 [when the business was launched], villagers here cut trees ... to get money," says Zhang Shishen, a village official. "Now, they have no need to cut trees."

A number of counties in Yunnan are so-called "autonomous areas" where minorities ostensibly have been given some say over birth control, taxes, education, and religion. Still, the Han-dominated Communist Party maintains the real control and grooms minority cadre to run the administration and do its bidding.

"Problems exist where minority areas are backward. So we have to do more to help them," says Huang Huikun, a Han administrator at the Yunnan Institute for the Nationalities in Kunming where all students are minorities, but 70 percent of the teachers are Han. "Han people feel help is very vital."

Beijing's weakening hold

Still, the government's grip is slipping and raising new tensions with the province's minorities. Western experts say that minorities, particularly the Muslim Hui, have become deeply involved in Yunnan's booming drug trade.

The Han majority has long looked down on the Hui, the country's largest minority group, as lawless and suspect. But in 1992, tensions burst into the open when thousands of armed police, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, stormed Pingyuan, a fortress town near the Vietnamese border and bastion of Muslim drug traffickers. The fighting lasted almost three months before the ringleaders were captured and executed.

Western diplomats say that drug dealing and other crime has spread throughout China from Yunnan, in part through the ethnic pockets of Hui scattered about the country. "The Hui are heavily into the drug scene," says a European diplomat. "This is adding to tensions between the government and the minority community."

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