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At first sight, China is often perceived to have a unified culture with some separatist activities. Furthermore, there is little doubt about China's political capacity to keep a check on such separatist movements, it is rather the question by what means. On second sight, however, I argue that China faces some serious challenges concerning ethnicity. In the following discussion I will first analyse China's ethnicity concept. Subsequently, I will examine the fragilities and the implications derived from such a concept on China's integrity. Lastly, I will conclude with some thoughts on possible solutions to the ethnicity problem.
China's concept of ethnicity is largely a constructed one, which can better be understood by taking an instrumentalist point of view. Under the political influence of Sun Yat-Sen, China's different ethnic groups were unified under the concept of the Five Peoples of China in order to establish national security. This idea of subsuming all ethnic groups under one Han majority group and four minority groups was taken up by the Communist party, however, they have enlarged the minority groups to 55 to date (Gladney, 2004, p.135). As McCarthy (2009, p.41) points out, the Chinese identity was a constructed one, based on and organized by the Confucian culture. In other words, by adopting this culture, everybody could become Chinese. With the growing interaction with the Western world and the modernisation trend, this underlying culture of Confucianism has been replaced by values of "modernisation and technological progress" (McCarthy, 2009, p.44) accompanied by "growing order and control" (ibid., p. 44).
The consequences of such a constructed ethnicity concept on China's integrity can be divided into two areas of concern: the constructed Han majority itself and the conflicts in the area of regional autonomy. First, the constructed Han majority concept may soon collapse in itself if the differences within the Han majority continue to accelerate. As Gladney (2004) argues, the Han majority is a conglomerate of different groups, which are culturally, economically and socially diverse and divided. In acknowledging Stewards model of horizontal inequalities, a widening gap between those dimensions might crystallize tensions within the Han group. The central government could have assured political unity so far. However, if those differences diverge further, the political unity might be questioned. Furthermore, the capital market influences the values and beliefs of people and they might also wish to incorporate those elements in their political sphere. Against this background, real regional autonomy might become desirable for some ethnic groups in the prosperous southern part of China. Hence, in the context of diversity within the Han group, the focus on modernisation in the concept of ethnicity might bring about its own downfall.
The second problem with the constructed ethnicity in China is associated with the officially recognized minorities in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang. Even though minority rights and special benefits are anchored in China's legislation, they are not mirrored in the daily life of those minorities. In the context of ethnicity in terms of modernisation, the Chinese government might intent to develop those areas with its resettlement policies in good faith and in accordance with a broad interpretation of its legislation. However, it ignores the perspective of those minorities and the effective impact it causes by such policies. To give an example, Xinjiang's minority group, the Uyghur, has never really "accepted the Chinese domination happily" (Moneyhon, 2005, p.5). From a primordialist point of view, the Uyghur perceive the Han immigration as a threat to their dominance over their land, their resources and their culture. However, it also reflects a kind of colonisation of the Uyghur by the Han majority, even though that latter can be questioned itself. The definition of colonisation in this context is to be understand in a broader, more symbolic sense, namely it stands for the modern and successful Han ethnicity, which helps to mature the underdeveloped Uyghur. The exploitation of natural resources and China's nuclear test site in Xinjiang can also be subsumed under the heading of colonisation, which gives Uyghur rather a sense of inferiority than a well-intended modernisation effort by the Chinese government. Besides, international events also influence the conflict in Xinjiang. Even though the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Shanghai Six have a political impact on the separatist movements, the role of the Internet and the shift from an ethnic to a religion conflict can fuel the situation even more and bring new actors into it (Moneyhon, 2005). As Moneyhon notices, the qualification of Uyghurs as terrorists helps China to "rally international support for its campaign against Uyghur separatists" (2005, p.17). Contrary, Muslim Uyghur might also engage the Muslim world's sympathy for support if the conflicts intensify to be stigmatized in a religion tone. In general, the constructed Chinese ethnicity around modernisation and the subsequent policies also rather alienate the minorities from the constructed Chinese ethnicity.
After having reviewed China's ethnicity concept and its implications, the question about possible policies to alleviate China's ethnicity challenges can be posed. Growing economic, cultural and political inequalities between minority groups, but also within the Han majority are probably at the core of the challenge. However, before trying to address them, the government has to acknowledge that its concept of ethnicity is not shared within the population and out of date. Ironically, the concept of ethnicity around modernisation will even contributed itself to its fall. Modernisation certainly brings economic process, however, it also brings other values, such as democracy as Gladney (2004) also asserts it. Whether democracy is a solution, one may see one day. For the short term, the focus may be on the violent conflicts in the autonomous regions such as Xinjiang. In accordance with Moneyhon's (2005, p. 21) suggestion, the Central government has to make an effort in terms of its willingness to implement the sound legal framework on minority rights. In other words, it should grant Xinjiang more political freedom. In turn, the Uyghur should refrain from violent actions. In short, both sides have to reconsider their policies and try to cooperate instead of oppress and attack each other.
To answer the initial question, China does have a problem with ethnicity. It has constructed ethnicity around the term of modernisation. However, this concept is not able to unify the Chinese people under this identity. At both levels, within the Han group itself but also between the Han and several minority groups the concept rather enhances the differences and fuels present and probably also further conflicts. In terms of policy recommendations, the government has first to understand what culture really means. In order to foster stability and peace, it has to demonstrate his willingness to drift away from his oppression policies and to live up to its promises anchored in the constitution. This might be the only way to really unify the Chinese country by the means of a constructed ethnicity.