China's Minorities Get Huge Affirmative-Action Benefits

BEIJING - His hair is a wavy dark chocolate, not black. His first language is Uighur, not Chinese. His religion is Islam, not Buddhism.

That's why 14-year-old Ya has it made.

He will be able to get into one of China's best colleges with merely average grades, win a special scholarship to pay for it, have an easier time getting a job when he graduates and have more than one child after he gets married.

Ya is the beneficiary of Chinese-style affirmative action.

As an ethnic Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur), one of China's many "ethnic-minority nationalities," Ya is eligible for comprehensive "privileges" designed to help minorities attain a piece of China's prosperity pie.

Still, Ya is not optimistic.

"All of these privileges are just for effect," he said bitterly. "We still have no power."

His disillusionment reflects the problems China faces as it tries to address inequity and racism. Though Americans tend to see China as a sea of homogeneous black-haired people, the country is fairly diverse.

China is dominated by the Han Chinese. They make up 91 percent of the population, and they have ruled the country - with a few interruptions - for centuries. Mao Tse-tung, Deng Xiaoping, the actress Gong Li, the sage Confucius and pretty much any other Chinese person most Americans have ever heard of are Han.

55 minority nationalities

The Han are generally richer, better educated and live longer than the 55 minority nationalities, which are a mixture of exotic hill tribes, conquered kingdoms and immigrants.

Although those minorities make up only 9 percent of China's people, they have a disproportionate importance: They inhabit about 60 percent of China's land mass - particularly concentrated in China's north and west border areas rich in natural resources such as oil and timber.

For that reason, the government has sought to win their allegiance with a dizzying array of preferential policies.

"This issue is very, very crucial to the Chinese government," said Colby College professor Suisheng Zhao. "They are afraid of a rebellion. They need stability."

Policy not inclusive

But just as in the United States, China's affirmative-action policy is controversial, divisive and, some argue, unsuccessful.

It is also, to Western eyes, flawed. That is because the policy is not based on any philosophy of equality, or any desire to "celebrate differences."

Instead, the Chinese people, for the most part, remain completely at ease with racial stereotypes. Affirmative action here does not mean re-evaluating the Han belief that all minorities are "backward, primitive barbarians" who need the help of their "Han older brothers" - to quote some cliches.

China's policy is purely pragmatic. The idea is to give the minorities just enough power, education or economic success to keep them quiet. As opposed to empowering minorities, it is meant to encourage assimilation and the creation of a peaceful, unified and essentially Han country.

Indeed, treatment of minorities in the popular press, and for example, the creation of a "minority theme park" - a sideshow-like museum in Beijing, where curious Han can have their pictures taken with minorities like Ya - make continued Han chauvinism painfully apparent.

Policy is far-reaching

Nevertheless, Chinese-style affirmative action is comprehensive and so far-reaching that America's similar policies appear trifling by comparison:

-- There are free elementary, middle and high-school-level boarding schools and special college-preparatory classes for minority children.

-- Minority children can get into a university with exam scores 20 to 30 points below the minimum score for Han children.

-- A separate network of segregated universities exists only for minority students.

-- Though most Han in urban areas are limited to one child per family, minority families can have two, and in rural areas many are legally allowed three. In practice, many minority families simply have as many children as they want.

-- No-interest loans are offered for small minority businesses.

-- Businesses are officially encouraged to hire minorities.

-- A comprehensive, bilingual-education program aims at helping minorities learn Chinese. Meanwhile, scholars are creating alphabets for minority languages that had no writing systems to help ensure that these languages do not die.

Autonomous governments

In areas where many minority people live, special "autonomous" governments at the provincial, county and village level try to give minorities more control over their own affairs. A certain percentage of government officials in those areas are required to come from minority populations.

In the Hui autonomous region in central China, for example, each government department must be at least 30 percent Hui (a Muslim minority), because the local population is just over 30 percent Hui. The governor is always Hui, and at least two of the five vice governors and all department directors must be Hui.

No tax money collected in these autonomous areas has to be sent to Beijing - it can all be invested locally.

Reading the Chinese press, you'd think the government had succeeded in winning the minorities' favor.

"People of all nationalities are now living and working in peace and contentment, and their living standards are constantly improving," an article in July's Beijing Review declared. "All nationalities live in harmony and are as close as brothers."

The real picture is far more complex.

Minority relations strained

Though minorities in many areas have benefited from affirmative action, and cross-cultural cooperation and intermarriage are up, minorities in general remain poorer than the Han. In some of China's border areas, particularly the north and west, relations between minorities and Han Chinese are strained.

In February, anti-Han-Chinese riots in Xinjiang, an autonomous region populated by Muslim minorities, left nine people dead.

On the Internet, you can find the surprisingly militant "Free Southern Mongolia!" home page - in English - with links to home pages for a free Tibet as well as a free East Turkestan (China's Xinjiang autonomous region).

These militant groups are relatively small. Far more common among minorities, however, is a pervasive resentment and suspicion.

"They (the Han) take all the natural resources and make a lot of money," said Ya, the 14-year-old Uighur. "The Han work at all the oil fields, they do all the logging. . . . We never see the money they (government officials) say they send to Xinjiang."

Ya and his family, who are from Xinjiang, say that despite the "autonomous" designation, the region is in fact controlled by the Han, who have all the connections to Beijing and other government leaders.

Minorities denied `real' access

Indeed, Chinese minorities still are denied "real" access to political power, said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities and culture at the University of Hawaii and East-West Center.

Gladney points out that although the National People's Congress has heavy minority representation, the Chinese Communist Party, where the real power lies, is primarily Han. He said there is no first party secretary of any Chinese administrative region who is a minority.

Minority people also complain of continued Han racism - the undisguised and condescending belief that Han culture is naturally superior.

That is evident even in the government's Minority Affairs Commission. "The minorities suffer from backward education, culture and economy," explained Zhang Zhong Xiao, the director of Ningxia's religion bureau in the commission. "They are not so open-minded."

A feature story in Women of China magazine asked for patience with "developing" minorities. "It is understandable that . . . feudalist, slave and primitive society systems cannot disappear all at once."

Then there is the "Chinese Ethnic Culture Park" in Beijing. In what can only be described as a cross between Epcot Center and a zoo, Han Chinese pay to dress up in minority costumes and pose for photographs with real minorities trucked in from the hinterlands displayed "in their natural habitat" - i.e., bamboo huts or yak-hair tents.

The park's director of public relations, describing the minorities' song-and-dance performances, said although the displays were "not up to Chinese standards" many Han Chinese were curious about the "backward and primitive peoples."

Many Han are resentful

Meanwhile, many Han have come to resent the preferential treatment for the "ungrateful" minorities.

A Han-Chinese Ningxia government official, China's version of America's angry white man, complained of watching minorities with less experience and "less talent" leapfrog over him to better, more prestigious jobs because of their minority backgrounds.

"Of course it is frustrating," said the official, who asked not to be named. "I can't move up even though I am very qualified. Sometimes the Hui who are promoted aren't qualified at all, but I have to listen to their orders."

As in the United States, China has seen particularly vehement criticism of the policy that allows lower-scoring minority students into universities.

"Many people believe the privileges are bad because the minority students know they don't have to study so hard and they can get into university," said Liu Guo Qing, director of the Ningxia foreign-affairs office. "So they become lazy."

China needs areas

Nevertheless, the central government remains committed to a broad spectrum of preferential policies, said Zhao, the professor at Colby College.

China needs those resource-rich border areas and peace within its borders. So Communist Party leaders continue to pressure cadres in minority areas to satisfy minority demands however they can with the hope continued economic development in minority areas will quell any dissatisfaction and ultimately trickle down to fill minorities' pockets, Zhao said.

"The government is so worried," Zhao said. "They know these preferences don't work, but the party has no other option."