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Protests In Inner Mongolia – Is This Really About Race?

The historical viewpoint that we looked at yesterday seems likely to be the one taken by many ethnic Mongolians, as well as Western journalists. While many of the issues raised will need to be addressed, I think it’s important to consider the bigger picture that these protests are a part of.

Han vs. Minority Group

This first viewpoint has been the most popular one cited so far, but after talking with my Chinese friend at length about this topic, I think it’s only part of the picture.

I think this one has gained a lot of traction because in the past 4 years there have been protests in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. All of them sparked by a Han-Minority crime that exploded into larger demonstrations. These three regions also share similar histories. Traditionally on the periphery of the Chinese empire, they are claimed by modern China, and have been the focus of recent Han migration. The Han also seem to have little interest in local culture or religion (I did not meet a single Han person in Inner Mongolia that did not laugh when I asked if they spoke Mongolian).

These new migrants have seemingly prospered in areas where local ethnic groups have struggled to make a living. However the Han have brought with them massive investments for extracting the resources that were under the farmlands all along. This creates massive rich-poor divides in these areas which follow ethnic lines.

This frame fits neatly with the understanding that many foreigners have of China’s role in Tibet (that’s a topic for another day), and so it is easiest to process these new protests in that light.

Business/Local Gov’t vs. Farmers

This dichotomy seems to be a better reflection of growing protests throughout China. While the problems of Inner Mongolia run along ethnic lines, they also follow socioeconomic lines.

My friend (the one who wrote about joining the party) thought it was ridiculous for Western journalists to only be focusing on the ethnic side of the story, when throughout China there are almost daily protests from farmers whose land has been taken for special development projects (you can read here about yet another self-immolation that occurred as the result of a Han farmer losing his land, or here about large protests that happened in Yunnan for similar reasons). The difference is that the Han farmers don’t have a strong identity to rally around like the Mongolian herders do.

For example in Shanxi province, the gov’t is currently relocating 2.5 million people so that mining companies can access trillions of RMB worth of coal and other minerals (read more about that here), There haven’t been protests, yet. The Mongol’s ethnic status and cohesion has probably helped them avoid such blatant land grabs, so the companies have resorted to making traditional lifestyles hard for them.

So when we look at some of the problems facing China today, it’s important to look at the different narratives that are being formed and how the stories are presented. Is the treatment of Mongolians a factor in these protests? Absolutely. But is the way they are being treated really so different from how businesses/local gov’ts treat farmers throughout the country? I don’t think so.


  1. Chopstik says:

    It is posts like this that remind me why I enjoy this blog so much. To read only the Western news reports is to get a story of the Han majority seeking to impose a racial and cultural hegemony over minority-populated satellite areas of the nation and the resistance to that by the neglected minority as a result of an accident involving two people of different nationalities. Particularly in the US, is this point of view shaped by its own cultural and political history (e.g. the LA riots in 1992 as a result of the Rodney King beating) and something that Western news organizations feel their readership can thus relate to?

    And while there may be some small degree of truth to that, it should also be clear that there are multiple ways to view a given situation and the best way to try to resolve such issues is to be able to fully understand how they are interpreted by all sides. This is not to defend the actions of either side in this situation but merely a thought at recognizing (as Tom has so aptly pointed out) that there are multiple points of view that should be seen here.

    Great post, Tom!

    • Tom says:

      While I do enjoy the compliments, here I am highlighting many of the things my Chinese friend said. I’m always trying to find more voices to add to the greater conversations that are going on about China’s rise.

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  3. I enjoyed this post and I think the questions you’re asking are just the right ones.
    Just today I published an “Asia Pacific Memo” together with two Mongolian graduate students ( where I argued that the clashes in Inner Mongolia (to the limited extent that we have received any information about them), resemble a similar incident last year in Mongolia.
    While that incident has also largely been cast in Mongolian vs. Han terms, we argue that the conflict is actually about livelihoods (pastoral herding, though not nearly as nomadic as that term implies, vs. (coal) mining). As you also suggest in your post, the ethnic divisions happen to overlap with these livelihood divisions, but are not necessarily the (main) source of the conflict.

  4. Porfiriy says:

    Well, you mention that a Chinese friend supplied many of the ideas here, which is an observation I can relate to since from my own time living in Xinjiang and following minority affairs this is an argument that I’ve heard time and time again from Chinese individuals – even if there are grievances among the minorities, they very frequently have foundations (land confiscation, unemployment, corruption, etc etc) that are constant throughout China and therefore both analysis of the issues that crop in these regions and solutions developed for them should be implemented with less of an emphasis on race or ethnicity – or even none at all.

    It was similarly my experiences living and studying in Xinjiang – specifically talking with Uyghurs, in Uyghur – that has solidly led me to the conclusion that this ultimately a pretty disingenuous observation.

    First of all the economic and political grievances in minority regions that are common to predominately Han regions are so inextricably bound with problems of ethnic identity in Xinjiang, the IMAR, and Tibet that to imply that the answer to the question “Is this really about race?” is no would, incidentally, lead to more simplified and hamfisted solutions to the problem, not more nuanced ones. Sure, a Han farmer who’s just been forcefully evicted off his land in Hunan province is going to be pissed, but a Uyghur or Mongolian farmer or herder who’s been evicted off his land is pissed because of the eviction PLUS the added perception that such an action is part of a systematic drive to eradicate threatening elements of their cultural identity. You can get punched in the face by your older brother. You can also get punched in the face by the guy that’s sleeping with your girlfriend. Both of them involve being punched on the face. Both of them exist in entirely different contexts and in fact are entirely different scenarios. Sure, one can observe that there are shared elements in the problems that plague minority regions, but to try to separate these issues from minority identity issues and solve them in isolation is as futile as trying to pull a drop of ink out of a glass of water.

    Secondly, this argument – again, as I understand one we tend to hear from Han Chinese – is even more disingenuous when viewed merely in light of the names of the regions these problems are occurring: Inner Mongolia AUTONOMOUS Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. To try to hamfistedly say “this is a problem that’s faced throughout all of China” completely doesn’t jive with the fact that these regions by definition are supposed to be different from the rest of China. The fact that we’re seeing these problems in these minority regions and that in these regions the perpetrators tend to be overwhelmingly Han businesses and party organizations and the victims tend to overwhelmingly be individuals of the local ethnicity, the victims have to deal with both the problem itself and the galling falsehood that they’re supposed to technically be in control of their own destiny, “masters of their own house” as Chinese propaganda stresses. Now we all know that the regional autonomy system is and always has been a sham, but that’s never going to take the sting out of the tragedy a Uyghur farmer faces when his “Uyghur autonomy” isn’t able to get him a job, prevent an eviction, practice religion, or get his kids a Uyghur education. Or Mongol, or Tibetan as it were.

    Which brings me to the crux of the matter, when it comes to this argument, a successful social policy vis-a-vis a minority in an ostensibly multi-ethnic state cannot be derived from a reductionist, purely economical rationale, though the Chinese government as a “Marxist” power, would like it to be. What’s implied when trying to jury-rig some equivalence between grievances in minority areas and grievances elsewhere is that the solution across the board should be the same – though throwing money at the problem certainly hasn’t worked in Xinjiang (and after the 2008 riots, when the CCP revealed its new plan to solve interethnic tensions – THROW MONEY AT THE REGION – is ironic in light of the fact that that’s exactly what they said they’d do during the turmoil of the 90s). These problems are economic but also are rooted in the very psychological, personal, and cultural ways that individuals perceive the problem. And the fact of the matter is, no one will be able to convince a Uyghur, Tibetan, or Mongolian that the crap they deal with is racially neutral and their countrymen in Somewhere, Henan are dealing with the same thing. Even if that actually is the case (and I don’t think it is). They’ll logically evaluate their situation, draw conclusions from a limited information environment that is deliberately constrained and choked by the CCP’s censorship policies, and end up saying, “This is a racial issue. This is about race.” And as long as that’s the perception, the CCP has a race issue on its hands.

    • Tom says:

      I agree with a lot of what you are saying here, and to some extent it doesn’t matter what we, or the Han think the underlying issues are, it’s what the protesters see as the problem.
      I think this can also be viewed in the wider context, China handles the majority very well, and fumbles when handling any situation at the margins. They think the solution to problems in ethnic areas is to make them more like the Han. To this they would hold up Guangxi, the 4th autonomous region, which had no unified ethnic identity before, and has lost many of it’s traditions, but the gov’t would point to its stability.
      They do continue to throw money at the problems in the other AR’s and continue to miss the underlying issue, it’s not whether or not your policies are racist, it’s that they are seen as racist.
      One of the policies I hear most cited is that minority students get bonus points on their college entrance exams. The Han students find this completely unfair, and this policy only helps those minority students who have had access to somewhat decent high schools (which are few and far between in rural areas). The policy would be much more effective if they went to the root of the problem, rural schools in China stink, and that’s where most of the minority students live.
      Issues tied with language are also hotly contested. Again, the policy is to promote Putonghua everywhere, and so it feels racist to Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighur’s… but is also wildly unpopular in Guangdong.
      My point in this post was not that these issues are completely unrelated to race, but that the policies effecting the minority peoples, weren’t necessarily racially motivated. I don’t see them as an effort to stamp out a specific culture, but instead to make the country completely homogeneous. I know that is a small difference, but I think it is an important one when considering these problems from a Chinese perspective.

  5. […] Protests in Inner Mongolia, is this really about race? […]

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