SCHONEKER: A cultural revolution



Jake Schoneker

China is a vast and volatile land – a mosaic of cultures bound together by an overbearing brand of nationalism and a common belief in unfettered economic growth. China’s experiment is a fascinating one – it dives headfirst into the capitalist kiddie pool without the traditional institutional buoys of free speech and democracy.

Instead, China uses an inflated sense of nationalism to stay afloat in troubled water. The ability of nationalism to stabilize and unify the country will likely determine the fate of The Middle Kingdom. Can it maintain its swift freestyle stroke to take the lead in the global economy, or will it drown in a bitter sea of violent protest?

While Han Chinese (descendants of the Han dynasty) make up 92 percent of the Chinese population, there are 56 recognized ethnic groups in China and five autonomous regions where minority groups are concentrated. These regions lie on the perimeter of China’s borders and have more sovereign legislative power than other Chinese provinces. Because of their strong ethnic identity and (in some cases) disdain for Chinese rule, these regions are potential hotbeds of dissent that pose a threat to the unified country that Chinese citizens hold dear.

This danger first became clear to me while camped in a mountainside yurt (think Yoda’s house) in Xinjiang province, an autonomous region that borders Kazakhstan in the western extremities of China. I stayed with a hefty mountain guide named Hector who had no love for Han Chinese. Hector was a Uyghur – a member of a group of Turkic Muslims that make up a majority of the Xinjiang population. Hector informed me that the Chinese had unfairly taken Xinjiang (Turkistan, as he called it) and were trying to destroy their Uyghur identity.

“The government gives people money to come here and set up businesses – so now Han Chinese own everything,” he said. “They call us terrorists and puts us in prisons. That is why we hate them.”

To drive his point home he raised an imaginary machine gun.

“Han Chinese!” he exclaimed as he began mowing down hordes of invisible Chinese invaders.

While insurrection in Xinjiang may be – for now – mere imagination, it has become a frightening reality just a bit further south, in the autonomous region of Tibet.

What began two weeks ago as peaceful protest quickly exploded into a violent, prolonged cycle of ethnic attacks against Han Chinese and brutal police crackdowns on Tibetan protesters.

Tibetan exiles claim that the government has killed at least 140 people and imprisoned hundreds more in what some are calling genocide. But Chinese officials mark the death toll at a lowly 22 – mostly innocent Han Chinese killed by Tibetan rioters.

The real story has been difficult to decipher since the Chinese government has diligently worked to keep foreign journalists out of Tibet and away from protesters. The Chinese media, meanwhile, has demonized Tibetans and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Chinese officials released a statement last week that the Dalai Lama was behind the violence, which is portrayed as an effort “to separate China and destroy social stability and national unity.”

A careful combination of censorship and propaganda has convinced the Chinese people that Tibetans are not just attacking their state, but their very way of life. In fact, the overwhelming sentiment among Chinese is that the government is being too soft in its crackdown on Tibetans. No risks can be taken when the glory and unity of China is at stake.

Nationalism, it seems, is alive and well in China, and it has allowed the government to control public opinion despite the turbulence in Tibet. But at a time when Beijing is preparing to enter a new age of modernity and power at the Olympics, riots and the ensuing police brutality have suggested that China may not yet be ready to leave its violent and coercive past behind. It is clear that Chinese doctrine and Chinese reality are two very different things. It remains to be seen, however, whether nationalism will be enough to rewrite reality and steady the ship on China’s path to power.


Jake Schoneker is a senior humanities and political science major from Landsdale, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].