The ban on Arabic script at halaal restaurants in Beijing last month is a somewhat small, yet unnerving reminder of China’s illiberal relationship with its various minority populations. More serious has been the reported detainment of a million-plus Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang over the past couple of years. Similarly, the on-going detention of many Tibetan Buddhists—as well as a near universal ban of foreign travel for individuals living in the Tibetan region—also indicate a tense relationship between the single-party People’s Republic of China (PRC) and many minority populations.
The 55 “minority nationalities”, as defined by the Chinese party-state, only account for around eight percent of China’s 1.3 billion people. Yet, this non-Han population still amounts to a large number at over 100 million. How they do, or do not, interact with the overarching Han identity will continue to have a profound impact on China’s prosperity—particularly the farther one travels inward away from the coastal megalopolises.
Insightful and measured, Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands by Joshua Bird is a fascinating evaluation of the day-to-day lived experience of those non-Han individuals. This is a measured investigation specifically because Bird focuses his study on ordinary people, making an ordinary living in China, including simple businessmen, small-time retailers, provincial-level traders, and local entrepreneurs. This is not a book about extreme cases of minority repression. Rather, the background assumption here is that by concentrating on those individuals, who are materially tied into the system for their livelihood—which is, indeed, most minorities in China—the researcher can better judge the government’s development plans as a whole on these populations. The outlier cases often make for good journalism, but they rarely represent the experience of most minorities, who are simply trying to maintain some sense of ethnic or religious identity that is independent of the juggernaut that is Han culture and society.
The Chinese authorities’ official view has been that if they were to succeed in improving the economic development of minority nationalities, then this would inevitably lead to a diminishing of political identity. As Bird notes, official policies like the “Open Up The West” campaign
have been created in the explicit belief that increased economic growth in minority nationality areas, and improved livelihoods for those who live there, will facilitate greater national cohesion.
In this case, minority local languages and minority status are fine—even encouraged for reasons of tourism—as long as they don’t signal any type of independent political aspiration. The end goal would be… [click here to continue to read full text]
*Review of Joshua Bird’s Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; follow Josh on Twitter; photo image credit of the Dongxiang girl goes to the talented Peter Morgan, where you can also find him on Twitter. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.
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