China’s biggest known outbreak of ethnic violence in recent memory has re-awoken some of its communist leadership’s worst fears.
Five days of pitched battles between thousands of Hui Muslims and Han Chinese villagers in Henan province left at least seven people dead, the latest in a series of large-scale confrontations that have come to light in recent weeks.
Adding race and religion to an already explosive mixture of economic and social grievances, the Henan violence was also a stark reminder of the potential for chaos and fragmentation underlying China’s seemingly unstoppable economic rise.
Relations between the majority Han community, who make up 93% of the population, and as many as 55 officially listed “national minorities” have always been sensitive.
For the ruling Communist Party, they are a potential source of danger to social stability, national unity and ultimately the very existence of the regime.
Often hidden in the past, these tensions are now bubbling to the surface, exacerbated by new problems associated with economic growth, such as the country’s widening wealth gap and increased competition for scarce resources.
“China is a very fractured and complex place and these are the kinds of local conflicts that can easily erupt into region-wide conflagrations,” said Dru Gladney, Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Hawaii.
The Chinese government played down the ethnic dimension of last week’s clashes, saying it was a problem “between villages”, and was of no interest to foreigners.
“China is a country with many minorities,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said, “but we have a healthy and good policy towards them.”
But what was particularly interesting about the latest incident was that it occurred right in the heart of China, Mr Gladney said.
Most of the country’s ethnic groups live in the huge, resource-rich but sparsely populated border regions like Tibet and Xinjiang.
The only exposure many Chinese have had to them in the past has been in the official media’s carefully-posed pictures of exotically dressed tribal people attending the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
But the economic and social reforms of recent years have changed the whole context of ethnic relations, according to Peter Ferdinand, an East Asia specialist at Warwick University.
The reforms have included a major loosening of controls on people’s movements, leading to the creation of a 200 million-strong army of migrant workers.
“The migrant worker issue means that what used to be a local issue has now become a national one,” Dr Ferdinand said.
As well as sending delegates to China’s rubber-stamp parliament, minority groups in many areas are offered preferential treatment in the form of less restrictive birth control policies and easier access to university and employment.
But decentralisation means a lessening of Beijing’s power to ensure these rights are honoured.
This has allowed provincial authorities to treat minorities less well than they used to, Dr Ferdinand said.
These privileges, originally designed to ensure compliance with Chinese rule, also cause resentment among ordinary Han Chinese.
An angry contributor to a Chinese website recently complained that police in the southern city of Shenzhen were afraid to arrest pickpockets belonging to the Uighur national group from Xinjiang—who look and sound more Turkish than Chinese—because it could cause “political trouble”.
Ethnic minorities are often the victims of deep-seated prejudice, according to Wils Cheng, a student in Sweden of Chinese birth.
“There is a Uighur student here in my university, and she regards herself as East Turkish rather than Chinese. When I talked to other Chinese students about her, they expressed hostility and contempt towards her,” he said.
Han Chinese generally associate racial diversity with chaos, he explained.
“Han is basically synonymous with unity and national integrity, while non-Han is automatically associated with barbarianism and a threat to China’s territorial integrity,” he said.
Another recent problem is that indigenous groups are increasingly being marginalised by Han migration.
This is especially the case in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, where religious and racial tensions are highest and Chinese troops guard constantly against separatist activities. Minorities are obliged to learn Chinese if they want better jobs, and are invariably shut out of positions of real power.
The central government’s biggest fear is that these restive regions could tear away at the country’s edges, much as the former Soviet Union was sundered apart, and as imperial China was divided in the past.
The People’s Republic of China has been called the world’s “last great multiethnic empire”, raising questions about whether it will follow the Soviet example.
But the Han Chinese do have the advantage of being much more dominant in terms of overall numbers than were the Russians. And China’s minorities are thinly scattered over a very wide area.
Unity and strength also become increasingly important as China grows more assertive about its position in the world.
“Increasing Chinese nationalism is unlikely to encourage a more generous policy towards whingeing minorities,” said Warwick University’s Dr Ferdinand.