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Day 104 – All Look Same (Contemplating Chinese Diversity in The Hutongs)

June 15, 2010

Dateline: Beijing, China – Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everyone expects China to “succeed.” It’s the most populous nation on the planet and therefore has the largest market and workforce. It’s blessed with natural resources. Its people are industrious . Everyone is clamoring to board the train fitted with the largest economic engine on earth. The Chinese government can, when it puts its mind to it, kick some major ass, even at little things like putting on the most awe inspiring Olympic opening ceremonies ever. China has nukes. China is the dragon. The juggernaut. It will not be denied. It is the new superpower.

Not so fast, buddy. After being here for a couple of weeks, it’s not so clear to me that “success” is a foregone conclusion. One major hurdle to that success: a surprisingly fragmented society.

We in the West aren’t sensitive to the amount of regionalism in China. We see hundreds of men pounding on drums at the Olympics or the images of thousands of Beijingers on bikes and, because to our eye they “all look same,” we unconsciously think that China is as uniform and united as that massive drum troupe.

That’s not entirely inaccurate. The majority of people are ethnically Han Chinese at 92% of the population. Everyone in China shares the same writing system. Chinese people all live in Asia and are within China’s borders. You know, so they’ve got stuff in common.

But there are major divisions. The population is split by eight major Chinese dialects and numerous regional accents that can make auditory comprehension difficult. There are also 56 ethnic minorities recognized by the government as “Chinese.” Each minority has its own peculiar culture, look, and language (each not counted as one of the eight major Chinese dialects).

A Uyghur, for example, is most likely Muslim, doesn’t speak Mandarin (China’s official language), can look Russian, and has probably never met an American. A Cantonese probably doesn’t speak Mandarin and probably has a relative living in the United States. Someone from Sichuan probably doesn’t speak Mandarin, looks more Southeast Asian than Han and likes their food spicier than a Thai person. And don’t even think about asking a Taiwanese if they’re from China.

All these differences come to light dramatically in BeijingBeijing is the second largest city in China and attracts a lot of out-of-town job seekers. It’s diverse in the Chinese sense of the word—residents don’t represent a lot of different races, residents represent a lot of different Chinese races. How these various people treat each other is a window into China’s divisions.

While the city is Chinese diverse, it’s hard to call it inclusive. If, say, your parents are from Sichuan, you moved here when you were 2 years old, you’ve lived in Beijing your whole life and speak Mandarin with a Beijing accent you will still never (I repeat never) be considered to be from Beijing. Beijing citizens will always identify you as Sichuan.

People actively defend the purity of their region by identifying outsiders and denying them insider status. The concept of accepting differences does not come naturally to Chinese people. They are very aware of place and heritage. They are so aware of other Chinese people’s origins to the point that it’s not just that other Chinese people come from different parts of the same country, but it’s as if those people come from different countries altogether.

Max saw a documentary on the English CCTV government run channel that looked at a guy whose family was from the city and a girl whose family was from the country. The drama: whether they could make their relationship work. The parents were worried that the girl would drag their son down despite the fact that she’d lived in the city for nearly her whole life and (here’s my favorite part) she made more money than him. To them she wasn’t an insider and therefore she could never fit in.

It’s not just that she’s “country” and he’s “big city.” Status and heritage matter. He is a city insider by virtue of his birth. She will always be an outsider because of her parents. The reason why the above situation warrants a documentary is that most guys from a big city like Beijing won’t consider dating a girl who is not native (in the Chinese sense of the word). In this country, who your family is and where you’re “from” is huge (probably 1 or 2 on the “List of Date Questions That Matter”).

Until recently, government policy perpetuated this hyper-regionalism. If I remember correctly, until about a decade ago, Chinese people weren’t allowed to move from city to city without applying for a government permit, which wasn’t easy to get. Chinese people basically had to immigrate within their own country.

From the government’s perspective, this policy made sense. They didn’t want people flooding to the large cities to look for work and, in the process, overwhelming the existing infrastructure. There are 1.5 billion Chinese people. If just 0.001% of them decided to move to Shanghai, it would swell the city’s population by 1 million people.

The effect, however, was to further isolate one region from the next, creating one more barrier to uniting the country. A Beijinger wasn’t just a Beijinger because of language, food, and culture. She was a Beijinger because the government made her one. A Beijing citizen practically lived on an island.

The Chinese government is aware of the regionalism and works hard to combat it. Regional differences is one of the reasons that the Chinese government exerts so much control over its population (the others probably include greed, a desire to maintain power, and genuine benevolence). It’s a fight to keep all these people thinking that they’re part of one country. If there were a free press, for example, certain regions might start thinking they could make it on their own and create political unrest. Tight control over the Internet, movement, and protests means the government can isolate dissidents and keep a handle on all these diverse, self-interested, often far off, peoples. And there are a lot of peoples to handle.

In fact, history shows that keeping control over all these regions is a bloody, costly affair. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor to unite China, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people in order to conquer six major kingdoms. He managed to standardize measurements and, more importantly, writing. (Short aside: This legacy lives on today. When two people from different dialects meet, even though they can’t understand what the other person is saying, they can write to communicate.)

Despite his monumental efforts, China was destined to split and reunite many times after his death. It doesn’t take a historian to surmise that these divisions and reunifications weren’t always peaceful, contractual affairs. There’s a history of various kingdoms splitting off to go it on their own. Unity seems more the exception than the rule.

That’s the danger China faces rights now. So long as the current government can give the people what they want—decent standard of living, jobs, peace, economic growth—citizens will put up with restrictions on the media, Internet, protests, and domestic and international travel. They will buy the idea that restrictions keep the peace. Some Chinese actually welcome these restrictions. They don’t trust their fellow citizens with the freedom to read or write or watch whatever they want. They fear giving other Chinese people avenues to create trouble and disturb the peace and prosperity.

If, however, the government can’t deliver on the basics of stability and growth, you’ll probably see more turmoil. All the geographic, cultural, and language differences will crop up. People will start to wonder what good it is to have power centered so far away in Beijing and to have their lives run by people who aren’t them.

China recognizes this danger, of course. They’ve created incentives to move Han Chinese—the ethnic majority—to the more unruly regions like Tibet in order to dilute the power of dissatisfied minorities. They crush any signs of insurrection to preserve peace and stability. They are hypersensitive to criticism–they do not want to appear weak or unable to provide. They adapt quickly when people demand it—note the difference between the government’s reaction to SARS (secrecy, denial), the Chinese people’s angry reaction, and the subsequent response to H1N1 (aggressive, more open).

Personal freedoms aren’t a high priority for the government or its citizens. They have bigger fish to fry. The country needs a tremendous amount of economic growth to keep the people happy and cannot afford to be distracted by political unrest or troublemakers. If the government says unity is necessary to growth and that unity requires personal restrictions, then the people will put up with restrictions so long as the government delivers growth.

I’m not defending their practices. I’m not sure what’s best for this country. I do, however, think that it shows that China’s success is not a foregone conclusion.

The government certainly doesn’t think so. It recognizes China’s divisions. If people started doing what they thought was best for themselves, the government believes it might undermine a unified China. The government believes a unified China is essential to success.

I tend to agree. The reality is that certain parts of China might be able to go it on their own and—considering they have a different language, culture, and religion—they might just give it a try. China cannot be the juggernaut we think it is without the natural resources of the more remote, dissident parts of the country. It cannot dominate without all its people pulling together. China’s power lies in its people and its resources. It will be a struggle to gain respect from the world as it is. No matter how you define “success” it will be harder to come by if the country is splitting at the seams. In essence, China is fighting on two fronts: working to gain respect and status amongst the world’s nations and simultaneously working to unite a historically divided country.

Success is likely, but it’s no sure bet.

[Ed. The predictions in this article are presented for entertainment purposes only and should not be construed as gambling advice. The opinions expressed herein are not the opinions of this website, its advertisers, the editorial staff, or anyone at all other than maybe the author, a man who has spent a total of 15 days in China and hasn’t read more than a cursory treatment of this country’s long, complex, rich, proud, glorious history—administer grains of salt as necessary.]

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see pictures of food including China’s version of French fries, bonus hutong pictures, and a picture of Mervyn’s travel companions on appropriately sized bikes.

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