James Leibold

When Will China’s Leader Be An Ethnic Minority?

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ethno-cultural diversity has been a mainstay of U.S. politics since the 1960s, with this election cycle featuring perhaps the most diverse slate of candidates. On Tuesday, Barack Obama became the first two-term African-American president, while his challenger Mitt Romney came close to shattering an equally unthinkable barrier by becoming America’s first Mormon head of state. Over half of current members of the U.S. Congress self-identify with some sort of non-White, non-Protestant category. Not surprisingly, American politics is a heterogeneous affair, reflecting the increasingly complex demographic mix of the American melting pot as well as the maturity of its democracy.

In China, however, diversity remains something for the museum or the frontier, rather than the halls of power at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announces its new leaders at the 18th Party Congress next week, ethnic uniformity will once again reign supreme: Seven to nine cookie-cutter men in dark suits and black-dyed hair, each representing the Han ethnic majority that officially comprises 91.5% of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

There are over five million non-Han members of the CCP, representing 6.6 percent of the total population. Yet all nine members of the current Standing Committee are Han men. In fact, there is only one non-Han member of the current 24 member Politburo: Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who is a member of the Muslim Hui minority but made his career along the Han-dominated coastal provinces. Besides Mr Hui, there have only been three other non-Han members of the Politburo since 1949, with none of them reaching the all-powerful Standing Committee. At present, the party-secretaries of all five provincial-level autonomous regions are also Han. From Mao Zedong to leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, modern China’s paramount leaders have always been Han.

To most Chinese, the thought of a Uyghur or Tibetan president of China is unthinkable. Members of ethnic minorities might be suitable for largely ceremonial positions, such as the figurehead of an ethnic autonomous region, or an expert on minority dance or history, but the Han are the core of the Chinese nation and, many believe, reflect the most culturally advanced elements. The only sort of Uyghur or Tibetan president one is likely to see in the future, so some in the West hope, is the head of an independent East Turkestan or Tibet. But with the PRC government and much of its population fixated on asserting Chinese sovereignty over barren rocks in the east and south China seas, the thought of territorial disintegration is equally unfathomable.

But this hasn’t always been the case. Imperial China was a heterogeneous and at times extremely diverse place, with some Chinese emperors feeling more comfortable on a horse or in a tent rather than on the Dragon Throne. Li Yuan, the founder of the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-907), was of mixed ethnic origin; Muslim mariner Zheng He sailed as far as Africa during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644); and the Mongols, Manchus and other minority communities made important contributions to Chinese culture, with the Manchu qipao or cheongsam being but one example. In fact, without the Manchu conquest of China, the PRC’s territory would be about half its current size, and certainly much less diverse.

Legally speaking, all 56 officially recognized “nationalities” (minzu 民族) are equal members of the PRC, part of the same multicultural mosaic. Yet by any objective standard — income, education, political power — non-Han minorities remain far behind their Han counterparts. To many Han Chinese, this reflects the natural state of being, where the primitive yet colorful minorities sing and dance while the advanced Han lead the nation and its industry.

In modern China, ethnicity is fixed as a part of one’s DNA, and in many Han people’s minds, organized according to an evolutionary ladder with the Han firmly at the top. Ethno-cultural identity is fluid and self-ascribed in the United States and elsewhere, but in China it is a relatively static state category, a single minzu stamped on one’s ID card, in which hyphens and ambiguity have no place. In fact, only 3% of PRC citizens live in a bi-ethnic household, compared to over 8% in the United States, where 15% of all new marriages in 2008 were interracial. In contrast, only 1.58% of Han households are bi-ethnic in China.

But this isn’t the way identity operates among the Han majority. Inter-regional relationships, stereotypes, dialects and cuisine both define and demark what it means to be “Chinese” today. Ask any Beijing person what they think of people from Shanghai or Guangzhou and you are sure to get a string of ethno-cultural descriptors. Linguistically there is arguably more diversity among the Han than there is between the Han and the minorities. Why, in this case, aren’t the Cantonese a minzu?

China is a truly diverse country. Yet, too much of its ethno-cultural pluralism is incarcerated by ethnic categories and norms: 56 different sized and colored boxes. And too often one’s box predetermines one’s position and role within Chinese society. This sort of rigidity prevents the rich, free flowing tapestry of identity that defines American society today. Until Chinese society looks itself in the mirror and rethinks the differences it sees, there is little chance that one of its more than 110 million minority citizens will be running the country.

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James Leibold

  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    Great article! I’ve always found it funny how Han Chinese look back on their 5000 years of history and legitimate rule over the various minority groups while the Chinese empire throughout history was at best fragmented and ruled by many non-Han. I also find that the very fact that the government and Han Chinese take pride in China’s 56 ethnic minority groups to me in itself depicts the great divide that remains between Han and non-Han Chinese.

  • h.gulickx

    I think this article is not fair.
    The author states that non-whites and non-protestants are a minority in the USA and that both minorities could compete for the presidency. This in contrast with China where Tibetan and Uighur minorities never enter high office.
    If the overwhelming part of Chinese people are Han then it cannot be a surprise that the overwhelming part of functions go to Han people.
    It would be better to compare the Tibetan , Uighur etc with the native American people. Where is the first ‘American” president?
    I try to understand the problems that are arising worldwide concerning minorities. This article is not a good contribution.

  • maple char

    This article is not fair at all.
    If you focus on the leadership position of cities, you will find that a lot of cities that consist of different ethnic minorities are actually led by the minorities who are appointed by the government.

    In contrast to America, the “liberal” country that ensures the voting rights of the people, you don’t see many minorities assuming leadership positions.

    Overall, I feel that the writer needs to understand more about the Chinese policies for the minorities instead of writing it based on his feelings.

  • luo

    Hopefully, never.

    Multiculturalism only leads to conflict with next to no benefits. The more I live in the West, the more I realize how idiotic it is. You can bet I’ll be telling everyone back home to stay far, far away from “diversity”. There is no such thing as a diverse society without prejudice and tribalism. We are human. China’s remaining minorities need to be assimilated into the Han collective, simple as that. Mass Han immigration into Tibet and Xinjiang should be encouraged.

    Hui isn’t even a real ethnic minority. They’re indistinguishable from Hans, except they’re Muslim. They’re even more nationalistic than the average Han, not like the liberal leaning minorities of the West.

    Luckily China is only about 8% minority, and a portion of those are not real minorities, plus another portion is Han-passing and Han-identifying. Let it rise any higher, and there will be ethnic problems.

  • luo

    Why did you delete my post? There was nothing profane or trollish about it. I was 100% serious.

  • Ray

    But the majority of the prisoners in the US is the minority.


    Deng Xiaoping was Hakka.

    • China Shouts

      Even if he had been a Hakka, he would still be considered a Han since Hakkas are Hans.

      • Anonymous

        Not fair at all, and very western-centric thinking regarding definition of “minority”

  • lamo

    All the comments are wrong and practically band-wagon the misguided assumption. All Chinese look alike to your view of ignorance.

    This article fails mainly because it fails to acknowledge that most of the country are Han Chinese.

    Are you trying to capture America’s problems by swapping the word America with China?

  • Larry Mars

    An informative article and a good read as well.

  • dinda

    post about an interesting ethnic Chinese. but cara mengatasi keputihan gatal berbau is also interesting in my opinion.