Sunday, January 25, 2009

A New China? Ethnic Minorities, Immigrants, and Hapas

Sam Crane at The Useless Tree posted two very interesting articles on multiculturalism in China, available at and This newly vibrant topic is not limited to the blogging world. The Economist also pointed to the growing Brazilian population in Dongguan in its article “Brazilians in China” at

Crane highlights several different issues of multiculturalism: (1) The existing nationalities within China including the Han Chinese and the 56 officially recognized minorities. (2) People of mixed race who will likely appear in the future. These include the children of “mail order brides” from neighboring countries which has started to become popular to a growing, male-dominated population, as well as those children with a parent from the West or Africa and a parent from China. (3) The increased immigration of laborers, for example, the Brazilians discussed in the Economist article. In a culture which separates within its rhetoric the ‘people of the Middle Kingdom” (Chinese) and “outside people” (foreigners), the thought of acceptance might seem difficult. Crane asks the question, “How will China deal with the pressure to expand the racial and cultural definition of Chinese-ness?”

I am reminded of a book by Pearl S. Buck, Peony, wherein the famous writer tells the story of a Jewish merchant family who had made its way to China after the Diaspora. The novel tells the story of a young Chinese servant in the house, watching as the Jewish son assimilates with the Chinese population against the wishes of his mother, who is disparately attempting to keep the family separated from their Chinese neighbors. The son must make a choice. He chooses to be part of the only culture he knows while retaining parts of his mother’s culture. As time goes on, the son and his sons become more and more Chinese, mixing with the Chinese around them until they have almost forgotten their own history. Peony is based on the true story of Jewish merchants who entered China as early as the 8th century via the Silk Road.

Although well written, the articles at The Useless Tree make it sound as if multiculturalism in China is something of a novelty that should be expected to become common place in the future. Although the population of multicultural people might be growing or expected to grow at a faster rate than it has in the past, the Chinese have had immigrants come to their country for thousands of years. The interesting aspect of historical immigration to China is that it has usually ended with the foreigners’ assimilation into Chinese culture. This is what has happened in the past, and this is probably what is expected to happen in the future.

So, what is different now? Has technology changed the way that individuals identify themselves? Has a global society changed the way that individuals identify themselves? I would argue that nothing has changed in the department of immigration.

Although Crane says that China’s experience will be different from the experience of western colonial powers who have allowed the immigration of their colonized people, I would argue that China is not very different when it comes to immigrants because the immigrants are not very different. History will repeat itself. As time goes by and families stay in a country, they will become more and more “Chinese.” We could take America as an example. You could ask most people in New York City, “What are you” in reference to their ethnicity. You might get “Italian”, “Irish”, “Egyptian”, anything really. However, if you ask, “have you ever been there?” The person might get offended, but the truth is many have not been to the country from which they state they come. Or if they have traveled there, it is typically a quick visit where they had the experience a typical American tourist would appreciate. (I am not only generalizing, but I am speaking of people whose families have been in America for two or three generations.) Although they have held onto bits of the culture within the family, the truth is they have become American and do not really know anything else.

There are people who have moved to China with no plans to return, who have children who are born in China and plan to stay in China. Those children are Chinese. They will no doubt hold on to pieces of their parents’ culture, which will get handed down, but they are culturally Chinese. Even if one parent is American, European, African, or Middle-Eastern, their children will be Chinese if China is all they know as home.

What the government classifies as “Chinese” is always different than the cultural expectation. However, even if classified as a “minority” in China, strictly legally, that individual should not be treated any differently than a Han Chinese. The Constitution of the PRC guarantees equal rights to all ethnic groups in China. It also promotes the economic and cultural development of ethnic minority groups. It might even be a perk not to be labeled a Han Chinese because ethnic minorities are not subject to the One Child Policy.

The point is that China is no different than other countries in their experiences with immigrant populations. There are some immigrants that will come and go. There are some that will stay. Most of those that will stay will most likely assimilate. The level of the assimilation might make a difference to the government when it comes to how “Chinese” one must be before the One Child Policy is applied. However, that is a policy that the Chinese will no doubt come up with when it is time for it to be considered. Perhaps China will take its turn with the 1/16th rule.

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