By Bolor Lkhaajav (Analyst, Institute for Geopolitical Studies of Mongolia)
June 24, 2018
People’s Republic of China (PRC) is home to 1.4 billion people with rich history and diverse ethnic backgrounds that do not belong to the Chinese definition of Han Chinese. Despite China’s economic growth and its expansionist ambition both in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere, identity crisis remains as one of the leading threat to domestic instability. According to the CIA, in 2010, the Central government officially recognized 56 ethnic groups with multicultural, multilingual, and multi-religious backgrounds. Among them are Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fuzhou, Taiwanese, Zhuang, Mongolian, Uyghur, Xizang, Hui, and other not well-known ethnic minority. While diversity seems common in our globalized, constantly modernizing world, it is an issue if the state labels them as something that they are not. In this case, Chinese. Consequently, identity crisis has become a growing issue for Beijing’s policymakers— either continue its iron fist policy or implement policies that are more inclusive. This piece of analysis scrutinizes the necessity of addressing the existing identity crisis in China and further questions, what is to be Chinese? If there are no clear definition, then, should the minorities have the right to be called what they are versus forced to be called what they are not?
Hong Kong (香港)
In 2014, activists in Hong Kong successfully mobilized a pro-democracy “Umbrella Revolution” by using occupation of financial districts and government buildings, sit-in, and hunger strike methods. En Liang Khong writes in Open Democracy, “One of the original founders of Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy protests thinks that increasing dis-identification with Chineseness, on both the level of culture and politics, is pushing the city-state towards uncharted territory.” While Beijing claims “one country, two systems,” the activists and protestors illustrated recalcitrant acts toward Beijing’s deep involvement in 2014 election, internet media censorship, and it’s selection of pro-Beijing elites in Hong Kong political sphere to maneuver political, economic, and security objectives. Although local and international media has focused on the pro-democracy aspect of the revolution, the identity crisis, the voices of ‘we are not Chinese, we are Cantonese” was somewhat overlooked by the international community of analysts. On June 20, 2017, Venus Wu from the Reuters published a Chinese identity survey that showed only 3.1% of Hong Kong youths identify themselves as “Chinese.” In the community of sociologists and anthropologists, this was a controversial topic of the identity crisis.
Identity crisis is an overarching issue in Hong Kong-Beijing relations, mainly because Beijing’s assertive moves aims at implementing policies that controls freedom of speech and expression, assembly, freedom of the press, and religious rights, similar to their own. According to the Inter Nations, 43% of Hong Kongese are Buddhists, Daoists, and Confucianists, and there are approximately 360,000 Catholics, 480,000 Protestants, and growing influence of Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. From this outlook, Beijing’s “One China” policy and atheism will be intolerable as Hong Kong continues to be a democratic, diverse, open society. More precisely, Beijing’s iron fist policy in Xinjiang Uyghur, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan, and Tibet exemplifies the poor policy outcomes that will lead to domestic instability.
Another example is the Muslim population of China. According to Michael C. Brose, the author of “Islam in China,” China’s violent Muslim-led rebellions is an intrinsic incompatibility issue. Prior to the 1949 Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, Muslims did not impose a threat to the Chinese society. During Mao and Deng Xiaoping era, Muslims were targeted with an iron fist to assimilate into the Chinese culture by neglecting their religious identity. By looking at this issue from a normative lens, the teachings of Islam dictate the believer’s identity as Muslim, not Chinese. Furthermore, the Turkic-Uyghurs in Xinjiang in the northwestern part of China surely do not see themselves as Chinese, nor do the Central government. Turkic-Uyghur’s culture and religious identity then conflict with Beijing’s iron fist policy. The aftermath of 2009 violent incidence cites these speculations. To avoid domestic instability, on June 2, 2016, the State Council Information Office of the PRC published a White Paper for Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang (White Paper.) Although the White Paper promises a Muslim-friendly environment, it illustrated new security elements that connects terrorism to the Muslim activists and separatists (can read more on this from https://mongoliaworld.net/2017/12/07/xinjiang-a-threat-to-chinese-national-security/). Dr. Michael Clarke, who is an expert in Xinjiang Uyghurs affairs stated: “China’s concerns with terrorism are almost entirely focused on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang’s geopolitical position at the eastern edge of the Islamic and Turkic-speaking world and the ethno-cultural distinctiveness of its largely Turkic-Muslim ethnic groups have constituted a challenge to the centralising imperatives of successive Chinese governments.”
Tibet and Taiwan (台湾)
Beyond Hong Kong and Xinjiang Uyghurs, security analysts can review Tibetan and Taiwanese identity crisis from a greater scope. In 2016, Tsering Woeser, who was awarded the Prince Claus Prize and the International Women of Courage Award from the US Department of State, published a book, “Tibet on Fire.” In her book, she has recollected memoirs of 146 self-immolation cases, tragedies of the Tibetan people where international media tend to put a blind eye on. Moreover, she mentioned the challenges of Tibetan identity v. the Central government’s agenda on assimilation, or, rather a forced assimilation. Taiwanese identity case begs a similar question- what is Han Chinese and if China has 56 ethnic groups then it is near impossible for the Central government to push for a single Chinese identity.
The history of Taiwan has always involved foreign dominance (Dutch Formosa 1624-1662, Spanish Formosa 1626-1642, Republic of Formosa 1895), and during Japanese occupation 1895-1945. Foreign dominance means foreign culture, exposure to different ideas and development, in a way, this has influenced the Taiwanese identity more than the Chinese influence even though the natives were from the mainland during Ming dynasty. Moreover, American influence in Taiwan is a perspective that cannot be ignored either.
In sum, Beijing’s “One China” approach which includes Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang may have overlooked or pretending to overlook the issues of identity crisis. Security analysts and East Asian Studies experts are starting to see the negative impact of China’s iron fist policies and questions its long-term sustainability. Much of the negative impacts are demonstrated by Hong Kong protests, frosty relations between Taiwan and Beijing, the Turkic-Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the continued self-immolations of Tibetans.
 En Liang Khong, “After the Umbrella movement, Hong Kong now faces an identity crisis.” Open Democracy. September 27, 2016. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en-liang-khong/after-umbrella-movement-hong-kong-now-faces-identity-crisis.
 Venus Wu, “Hong Kong Youth Turn Their Backs on Chinese Identity Survey,” The Reuters. June 20, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-anniversary-idUSKBN19B1IE.
 Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang, The State Council of The PRC. June 2, 2016, http://english.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2016/06/02/content_281475363031504.htm.
 Michael Clarke, “China is using terrorist threats to culturally cleanse its west.” June 18, 2018 http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/06/18/china-is-using-terrorist-threats-to-culturally-cleanse-its-west/.