A powerful sense of Han identity pervades China – any respect for Uighur difference would break with centuries of attitudes

The acute ethnic tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs revealed by the violent clashes in Xinjiang province last weekend, coming as they do only a year after similar clashes between Han Chinese and Tibetans, suggest that the government’s present approach in these two regions is singularly failing to achieve its goal of integrating the Uighurs and the Tibetans. There is clearly deep resentment by both groups towards what they perceive as discrimination against their culture and religion, together with the growing tide of Han Chinese migrants who are turning them into a minority in their homelands and who are seen as the major beneficiaries of the rapid economic growth that both regions have been experiencing.

This is a much deeper problem than simply one of government attitudes. The latter are a reflection of the Han mentality. More than 90% of Chinese believe themselves to be Han. Of course, such a vast population is derived from countless different races, but because China has enjoyed such a long and continuous history as a polity, there has been thousands of years of mixing, melding and assimilation. And during that period a very powerful sense of Chinese cultural identity has evolved which has subsumed and taken precedence over other identities such as ethnic, regional and religious for the great majority of the population. There are a host of ethnic minorities in China but they often have a weak sense of identity and are relatively small in total number. History has taught the Han that other groups will and should ultimately be absorbed and assimilated as Han. There is a belief that the Han enjoy a superior and far more advanced culture. As a consequence, there is a very weak sense of, and respect for, difference.

The two ethnic groups that remain fundamentally different from the Han Chinese – in terms of history, culture, language, religion and physical appearance – are the Uighurs and Tibetans. In these two groups the Han Chinese come face to face with difference. The dominant Han attitudes of assimilation, migration and cultural suppression have only served to stoke up further resentment. Notwithstanding the fact that both regions have enjoyed faster economic growth over the last decade than China as a whole, the experience of discrimination and sense of loss resulting from growing Han migration (who now account for more than half the population of Xinjiang) have clearly engendered a profound feeling of bitterness and alienation.
For the Chinese government to shift its policy towards one based on genuine respect for the culture and rights of the Uighurs, and indeed Tibetans, would mark a profound break with Han attitudes not just over recent decades but over centuries. And the fact that there are fewer than 10 million Uighurs and considerably fewer Tibetans, out of a population in excess of 1.3 billion, means that – however deep the resentment and however dreadful the clashes – this is a problem that the Han can continue to ignore. But one hopes that the government will not.