Sublime and Beautiful

China’s Rise and the Diversity Factor

Posted in Uncategorized by chaoren on March 30, 2009

If you have lived in China long enough you have probably heard the ‘ethnic diversity spiel.’ It is usually given by a Chinese friend, colleague, or tour guide when any topic related to race is broached and it goes something like this: China has 56 ethnic groups the largest of which is Han. Then, almost without exception, the speaker proudly announces: I am Han.

The lesson the listener is supposed to draw from this factoid is that China is a diverse country. However, considering that more than 90 percent of Chinese are ethnically Han and the vast majority of the 55 other ethnic groups are concentrated in the peripheries of the country, it is understandable that the listener is rarely convinced.

China's 56 Nations: Courtesy of China Today

More to the point, the kind of diversity the Chinese talk about when describing their country is not the kind of diversity most outsiders think of. In countries like the United States, Canada, France and England with long histories of relatively open immigration, ethnic diversity tends to be interpreted to mean a population composed of first, second–sixth generation citizens from all corners of the globe. Walking the streets of New York, Paris, London, or Vancouver one sees people of all races and creeds–people who are not just residents but citizens of the countries in which they live. China’s metropolises, on the other hand, are quite different. Even in the most cosmopolitan cities of China you won’t find anything comparable to a Little Italy or a Little Havana. In the major trade hubs of Shanghai and Shenzhen you will see a fair number of Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, French, Dutch, and Germans but virtually all of these people are expats. They live, for the most part, in a separate world from the locals. Many just come and go from the country on business. Others settle with their compatriots in little pockets around their respective cities. They send their children to foreign schools, shop at foreign grocery stores and generally socialize with other expats. However, the expats, as isolated from the general populace as they are, are the closest thing China has to true ethnic and cultural diversity as most outsiders would understand it.

So what impact will China’s lack of diversity have on its future development?
For years people have been watching China, speculating about its economic growth. Some have viewed China’s increasing wealth positively, often arguing that China’s economic growth will lead to more and more political reforms and eventually democracy. Others who are more skeptical of China’s economic might warn that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has no intention of giving up power and that a CCP desperate to hang on to power and flush with cash to fund its military is neither good for the Chinese people nor the international community. But what most everyone agrees is that China will continue to increase its power and influence.

Long before the global financial crisis and the slowdown of China’s economy, people began to question China’s development model. By most accounts China was set to keep growing for years and years and would almost certainly surpass the United States as the preeminent world power. But when people started to look beyond GDP numbers and really consider China’s social and political issues they found reasons to doubt the inevitability of its rise to preeminence. Now, many are wondering whether, in the long run, India will be more successful than China due its well established democratic system of government. Still, it seems a forgone conclusion that the United States will not be able to maintain its position a top the world hierarchy. Either the democratic behemoth or the communist giant will win out. How could the U.S. be expected to compete? After all what does it have that neither China nor India can easily acquire? The answer is diversity.

For centuries America has been at the forefront of social development. The country itself is the greatest experiment in social cohesiveness ever. Founded by immigrants, sustained by immigrants, the United States has experienced great social turmoil and been faced with enormous social challenges due to its unique history and demographics. Black marks like the brutal conquest of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans have and continue to test American race relations. Bigotry and racism are still very real problems in America. Yet the diversity of the American population is exceedingly the country’s greatest strength. It has given rise to a hotbed of creativity. A hotbed that has produced such remarkable things as jazz music, the internet and the atomic bomb.

Although certain minority groups within the United States may be disgruntled with the government, the U.S. has been much more successful at satisfying its citizenry than has the Chinese government its. While the threat of violence and even terrorist acts by disgruntled minority groups exists within the U.S., that threat pales in comparison to the threat the Chinese government faces from Tibetan and Uighur separatists. During the lead up to the Beijing Olympics China was plagued by domestic terrorism. China’s official media, Xinhua, reported that during August 2008, at least 23 security officers and one civilian were killed by Uighur separatists in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Likewise, violent riots by ethnic Tibetans in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan and Gansu provinces illustrates the long road China has ahead of it to build a “harmonious society” with anywhere near the comparative racial harmony of America.

It is impossible to say if and when China will ever surpass the United States as the most powerful nation in the world. Maybe we are even wrong to be paying so much attention to China when it could be India that will prove more successful. Or, what if we have it all wrong? What if there is something to America’s social dynamics and, in the end, a special synergy causes it to spring up once again to lead the world? Perhaps we will learn something about power as we watch the drama of China’s rise unfold.

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