To understand the contradictions and internal conflicts of Asia's rising superpower, you have to understand its incredible diversity.
- By Jeffrey WasserstromJeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of five books and editor of “The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China” (2016).
The most deeply rooted and persistent misconception Americans have about China is their too-limited appreciation of China’s diversity. This leads to a view that China is populated by people who are all pretty much alike or, at least, can be neatly divided into one large group and a small number of people who stand apart. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The mistaken view of China as a homogeneous land goes back hundreds of years. Between Marco Polo’s day and World War II, Western audiences were exposed to books and visual materials that presented China as a land of menacing hordes of faceless and essentially interchangeable people, all of whom were hostile to foreigners. Generations of Europeans and Americans were also periodically influenced by a more positive variant of this motif, brought to cinematic glory via the film The Good Earth, in which the country was portrayed as composed of village after village of poor yet hardworking (but largely indistinguishable) families.
U.S. notions of Chinese homogeneity gained a new lease on life during the first decades of the Cold War. This was a time when many World War II images of Japan, as a militaristic land in which everyone conformed to the wishes of the madmen in charge, were simply transposed to China, while the Japanese, now allies of the United States, were envisioned as diverse and peaceful. Thanks to the way the Western press covered the Korean War and then the Cultural Revolution, the word "China" began to conjure in many Western minds a picture of look-alike men and women who all wore blue "Mao suits" and followed Communist Party dictates without question. This vision of Chinese conformity, rooted in part in efforts by the government in Beijing to create a country where everyone had much in common, but given a decidedly negative spin internationally, showed through in book titles such as Mao Tse-tung: Emperor of the Blue Ants.
This vision of Chinese homogeneity has been challenged recently by news coverage that stresses differences within China, though sometimes only taking the useful but insufficient baby step of moving from presenting all Chinese as belonging to one group to presenting them as falling into just two groups (intellectuals, for instance, are described as having to choose between being "dissidents" and "loyalists," when many fall into other categories). Still, the Emperor of the Blue Ants notion has a long half-life, as was evidenced in 1999 when students took to the streets of cities such as Beijing and Chengdu to express their outrage at NATO bombs hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. While some Western commentators called this a new form of "Boxerism," one conservative U.S. magazine likened the protesters to the Borg of the Star Trek universe, an entity made up of drones without the capacity for independent thought.
In reality, the participants in the demonstrations (which I happened to be in China to witness) took part for varied reasons. They conveyed their anger via approved as well as unapproved means (e.g., some called for a boycott of American goods, even though official spokesmen insisted there should be no boycotts) and sometimes followed but at other times resisted government efforts to turn the movement into one that served the party’s goals. The regime, far from feeling comfortable with the students’ alleged manipulability, moved quickly to get the youths off the streets and back into the classrooms, lest they begin to raise issues relating to national authorities’ failings in addition to NATO’s behavior.
One reason that Americans tend to overlook the degree of diversity within China is that ethnicity and race loom so large in U.S. discussions of heterogeneity and homogeneity. And China, it is said, is 90 percent Han. But this widely cited number is a misleading indicator of diversity.
It’s true that China can accurately be described as somewhat less heterogeneous than other large countries. It has neither the dizzying religious diversity of India nor the complex linguistic variation of Indonesia, and it does not have as many inhabitants whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were born in distant lands, as the United States does. But there is a world of difference between saying China is somewhat less diverse in specific ways than other countries and suggesting that its people are mostly basically the same. And even when it comes to ethnicity, there turns out to be much that is misleading about even the assumption of relative homogeneity.
Even if one accepts the 90 percent Han number, which is a problematic one (there is always something vexing about trying to define the exact boundaries of such categories), there are many groups of people within this capacious majority catchall group who speak mutually unintelligible dialects and have radically dissimilar customs. To cite just one illustration, the Hakka, or "guest people," scattered around China are considered Han but have many characteristics that, in another context, might easily lead observers to categorize them as "ethnically" distinct from those they live among. There are many historical cases of what would seem typical outbursts of communal violence or "interethnic" conflicts that pit Hakka (who, among many other things that have set them apart from their neighbors, never embraced any form of foot binding, a practice that was far less uniform than outsiders have often suggested) against non-Hakka living nearby.
Further complicating the issue is that people from various Chinese regions often view one another through a lens of difference. Residents of Beijing view their counterparts in Shanghai as utterly unlike and inferior to them — and Shanghai residents return the favor. The dismissive and dehumanizing terminology that some Han urbanites use for Han migrants from the countryside, in which the former imply or state that the latter are less than fully human or just like animals, resembles what Americans describe as racist when skin color is involved. Location and point of origin are thus a crucial source of diversity in China today, as is when, rather than where, one was born.
Generation gaps are present in every part of the world. But the speed with which China has changed in the past several decades makes the divide between its elderly and its youth a chasm of unusual size.
Here are some basic facts worth noting. In 2007 more than 40 percent of Chinese citizens were under 30 years old, and more than 20 percent were 15 or younger, meaning that for close to half of the people alive in China today, Mao has always been dead, and for roughly a quarter of them, the Berlin Wall has always been rubble. Switching from political to social issues, more than one-fifth of Chinese were never alive in a China that did not have a large divide separating those who have benefited most from the reforms that have occurred and those who have been left behind by them, while those between 30 and 65 have a memory of more egalitarian times and those older than that may see the current disparities between "haves" and "have-nots" as a return of sorts to an economic division they knew in their childhood.
In cultural terms, most middle-aged urban parents are people who, until they were in their 30s, never made a private call or rode in a car, for the main phones were still shared neighborhood ones and the main urban vehicles still bikes and buses as recently as the first several times I went to China (between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s). And yet, they have children who have always had mobile phones and think nothing of hailing cabs.
This generation gap influences an enormous number of things, from attitudes toward the pace of modern life (unsettling to some and bracing to others) to views of China’s place in the world. And it affects phenomena that are presented as transcending generation.
Consider, for example, the supposedly timeless Chinese attachment to "Confucian" values, such as social harmony. The oldest residents of the People’s Republic of China can remember a time when their country was governed by a noncommunist regime that venerated Confucius and made much of the need to follow his moral dictates. For Chinese born between the mid- to late 1940s and the early 1960s, by contrast, the current celebration of Confucius and his ideas, led by President Hu Jintao, might seem a bit odd because they may remember the mass campaign to criticize all vestiges of Confucian thought.
But for Chinese born recently who are unfamiliar with this history (it is ignored or glossed over in schoolbooks, and their parents sometimes prefer not to talk about it), there is nothing remarkable at all about Hu’s ideas being tied to Confucius.
Yet another source of Chinese diversity that is sometimes underestimated concerns religion. China is still officially an atheist country, but many religions are growing rapidly, including evangelical Christianity (estimates of how many Chinese have converted to some form of Protestantism range widely, but at least tens of millions have done so) and various hybrid sects that combine elements of traditional creeds and belief systems — Buddhism mixed with local folk cults, for example. This is adding another level to the country’s underappreciated diversity.
China has always had a significant number of Muslims, some living in Xinjiang (a northwestern autonomous region), but others residing in disparate parts of the country (including Xian, home of the famous "terra-cotta warriors"). And the diversity among China’s Christian population has an added dimension because of a divide between officially sponsored and nonofficial versions of some varieties of Christianity. For example, there have long been and still are Catholic congregations in China that are accepted as legitimate by the Chinese Communist Party (but not by Rome) because the priests in charge of them (and the bishops above these priests in the church hierarchy) do not acknowledge the pope’s authority, but now there are also Chinese Catholics who view the papacy in the traditional way.
There are residents of the Tibet Autonomous Region and also of neighboring provinces such as Qinghai and Sichuan who are practicing Tibetan Buddhists. In addition, many Chinese have always believed in or have recently become adherents of still other religions, some old (Taoism) and others new (qigong sects).
In addition to ideas about China that have roots stretching back much further, some U.S. misconceptions about China can be tied to a tendency to think of all countries run by Communist Party regimes as "Big Brother" states. When the Soviet Union existed, it was thought to be the place where the imaginary world of George Orwell’s 1984 had come to life. And since the Soviet Union’s fall, China has often been cast in that same role.
There are times when China does indeed seem Orwellian, but this Cold War vision obscures that it can sometimes be more useful to look to a competing work of dystopian fiction: Brave New World, the classic 1932 novel by English writer Aldous Huxley. 1984 and Brave New World often show up together on reading lists, and each is set in a future world where individual freedoms are greatly limited. They present contrasting visions of authoritarianism, however, because Orwell, who studied with Huxley at Eton before writing 1984, emphasizes the role of fear in keeping people in line, while Huxley pays more attention to how needs and desires are created, manipulated, and satisfied.
In an intriguing bit of timing, soon after reading 1984 Huxley wrote a letter about the book to one of his former students in October 1949, the same month the People’s Republic of China was founded. Huxley said he was impressed by the novel, but thought that ruling oligarchs of the future would eschew the "boot on the face" style of control showcased in 1984.
If the ghosts of the two authors were looking down on Tibet in March 2009 or Xinjiang last summer, Orwell might say that his vision of the future had been shown to apply best to China because in each setting an outburst of popular discontent was met with a "boot on the face" response involving a show of force by the state designed to strike fear into the local populace.
If, however, they hovered over today’s Shanghai, a metropolis with luxury department stores that is preparing for the high-tech spectacle of the World Expo that starts in less than three weeks, Huxley might claim that he had been proved right.