Friedman: Chinese Believe Tibetans, Other Ethnic Groups Should be Incorporated into One China

Edward Friedman, an expert on Chinese nationalism, says China’s ethnic Han majority views minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs as "people who should be incorporated into the larger Chinese state."

April 17, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Race and Ethnicity

Edward Friedman, an expert on Chinese nationalism at the University of Wisconsin, says there is tremendous difference of opinion among Chinese who are doing well economically and those that are not. However, there is consensus that “the people who are not Han, who live near the frontiers [such as Tibetans and Uighurs] should be seen as people who should be incorporated into the larger Chinese state.” According to him, “there is not very much sympathy among the dominant community for such people.” He also says the ruling party can direct nationalism towards its policy ends, citing as evidence the recent positive shift in relations with Japan.

The recent violence in Tibet has aroused considerable anti-Chinese protests, including some calls for a boycott of the Olympics. Most Chinese outside of China as well as in China seem very strongly opposed to the Tibetan protests and the anti-Olympics sentiments. Can you discuss the situation?

It’s actually very difficult to know what Chinese actually feel about any of these topics. It’s not a free society; people are not exposed to multiple points of view. There are consequences for every viewpoint and so it’s never easy to know what people really feel about any particular topic. On the issue of Tibet, among Chinese who are outside of China you have seen the loudest voices being the most chauvinistic and I would even say racist and intolerant. It’s not an atmosphere in which people with other viewpoints are going to express themselves because the dominant view imposed by the system is that to have another viewpoint is to be a traitor. Personally, I actually do not believe that all Chinese are racist and chauvinistic. I think that’s a slur on the Chinese people. There’s been a tremendous growth of religious sentiment in China, respect for Buddhism, and even respect for [Tibetan] Buddhism. I actually think that for many Chinese it’s a very complex and confusing issue. They probably wish that it weren’t heated up in the way that politicos have heated it up.

China is such a huge country and has many ethnic groups. What is Chinese nationalism? Do the different nationalities feel they are Chinese, or are they trying to preserve their ethnic origins?

That too is a complex question. Let’s just start with the so-called dominant community which is called Han. Very few people who are Han actually go around thinking of themselves as Han. They would only think of themselves as Han if they ran into someone who is Tibetan. Instead of saying “I’m Han,” you would say “I’m northern, southern, Cantonese, Shanghaiese.” You have endless regional diversities where people have different kinds of languages and identities. The rise of the reform era and much more local control of things has led to [many] more local and regional identities than there were before.

You get a lot further by asking, “What do dominant Chinese disagree with amongst themselves?” There is a tremendous difference among those Chinese who are from regions that are doing well economically and have a feeling that time is on China’s side, and those who are in regions that aren’t doing as well and have a feeling that time is not on China’s side. That division will take you to very different approaches to the world. But the one thing that they will sadly agree on is that the people who are not Han who live near the frontiers should be seen as people who should be incorporated into the larger Chinese state. Most Chinese are not very interested in the voice of such people. And most Chinese tend to think actually that the government has done too much for those people, that they are privileged and are the equivalent of “welfare cheats” in the United States. There is not very much sympathy among the dominant community for such people.

Do these people come into the Han areas? You wouldn’t find Tibetans working in Shanghai, would you?

You would. With mobility everybody is on the move. Therefore you will have ethnic restaurants everywhere. It’s one of the great gains of the Chinese reform era. People are moving wherever they can get jobs. So you no longer just have people concentrated in one spot. Since the various communities from the frontiers have been the poorest off and the least benefiting from previous policies, they are among the ones most likely to flee to more urban, commercial and dynamic places looking for a better life.

You’ve written an unpublished essay where you talk about a difference in approach by the southern and northern Chinese, which plays itself out in part on foreign policy; southerners being much more internationalist and interested in better relations with the United States and Japan, and the northerners more bureaucratic and more orthodox. Would you elaborate on that?

The southerners are the ones who are doing well from the opening to the world economy. They have much more confidence that China is playing a winning game and they can’t see any reason why China would want to upset what is a winning game. China is now a superpower with tremendous global influence, so the basic southern attitude is essentially to keep playing this winning game. Why would you want to upset a game in which China has done so well in terms of its openness to the world?

The northerners are actually people who are based between the coast and the minorities in the west. They haven’t done as well. They are the people on the move looking for the worst, bottom-end dirty jobs all over. They have a feeling that they are not doing so well in this system and that maybe the system is taking advantage of them. They might think that they even did better in the Mao Zedong era—they had more status. They are not sure, but maybe their government is selling out to these foreigners and maybe time isn’t on China’s side. Maybe it’s being undermined by alien values. Maybe China should be acting more strongly to preserve its cultural essence and should be striking back against all forces that don’t properly respect China. They don’t have that same confidence in China’s long-term success and therefore [they have] different attitudes toward the nations around them, the minorities within China, and so on.

The Chinese military falls where?

It’s very hard to discuss the Chinese military because China is not a transparent society. There’s a split, one has a feeling, within the Chinese military. There are the modernizers who see China as benefiting greatly from the openness and are now able to get better weapons. China is rising in technology, research, and development. They want the military to be more involved with the universities and getting skilled people from the universities. They have faith in the long run that with economic modernization will come the military clout that lies behind it. Within the military there are more short-term hawkish forces who are mistrustful of all these modern things and getting involved with intellectuals. They have a feeling that you should be fulfilling the ambition of the revolution, which is to create a great, united China and therefore we should be doing something about an autonomous, democratic Taiwan and we should be making sure we control the energy resources of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

A split exists in the military. In general, one has a feeling that the security apparatus, including the propaganda apparatus, tends to have more of these “left-conservative” nationalists where “left” and “conservative” sort of mean the same thing. “Left” means more like Mao and “conservative” means preserving China from being influenced by these alien values from outside.

What is the situation now with Japan?

Mao [Zedong] had a notion that whomever he thought was the main enemy, everybody should unite against. So when China becomes worried about the Soviet Union and Leonid Brezhnev’s militarism, leading to the opening to President Richard Nixon and the beginning of the normalization with the United States, Japan is America’s military ally in Asia and therefore a common friend against the Soviet Union. In the late Mao period, it is forbidden to say anything nasty or critical about Japan. When Mao dies and Deng Xiaoping comes to power, that ends. Deng needs a new basis of legitimization because the Chinese are no longer building communism—whether they ever were is another thing. And they are clearly not anti-imperialist as they were in the old sense either. They want as much foreign investment, joint ventures, and international trade as they can get so they turn toward nationalism.

Given that Hirohito’s Japan had invaded China [in 1931] and its occupation in China was monstrous, there is indeed an explosion of anti-Japan sentiment and the regime jumps on that bandwagon and promotes it. It becomes a great legitimating glue to hold the society together, eventually ending up in the really ugly April 2005 anti-Japan racist riots in China. But within the new administration of Hu Jintao, the view grew that this was not in China’s interest, that this was bringing Japan closer to the United States and the military pact and that it was more in China’s interest to court Japan and to cooperate with Japan, and maybe even get Japan to loosen its military ties to the United States.

The forces had been moving in this direction for a while, but almost on a dime, the policy changed. The Chinese have been moving in the direction of a much more cooperative relationship with Japan, with none of the name-calling of the previous period. For me, what’s crucial about that is that it shows that the regime is in control of this nationalism. When it wants to shut it off, it shuts it off. It isn’t that the regime is boxed into a corner and is dominated by these nationalists. If it feels that those voices are leading China in a direction which is not good for China, they have the clout to cut off those kinds of nasty voices. They have done so time and time again. We are indeed in a period in which Beijing is not only courting Japan, but courting Taiwan and courting Southeast Asia. It is doing so because it wants these people to become closer to China and not feel that they need the United States to balance against China.

How does Chinese nationalism affect relations with the United States?

There is again a division. There is one side which says, “Look, you want to get technology, you want to get investment, you want your students to go the better schools, you need markets to see your goods. America is the dominant power in these kinds of ways. It is in our long-run interest, whatever we think about American policy in the world, and however much we don’t like what they do in Taiwan or Japan or wherever, it is in our interest to retain as good as possible a relationship with the United States of America.” Then there is a view that says, “These are our enemies. These are the people who are trying to spread democracy and human rights, which actually means trying to undermine the rule of the Communist Party of China.” There is no greater evil than that from the point of the view of leaders of the Communist Party of China. So those people would like to stand up more strongly against the United States and redirect trade and investment more towards Europe and Southeast Asia and not be so dependent, as they see it, on the United States.