Since China’s economic reform starting in 1978, each Chinese leader has followed the tradition of promoting his own signature governing slogan. Deng Xiaoping is remembered for the concept of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” President Jian Zeming is known for his nebulous governing “Theory of the Three Represents,” and President Hu Jintao for his ambition to achieve a “Harmonious Society.” Following their footsteps, President Xi Jinping is extensively promoting his own signature slogan: the “Chinese Dream.”
President Xi’s Chinese Dream is a necessary and timely concept, which he made public for the first time in the China National Museum, surrounded by an exhibition documenting foreign invasions since the First Opium War in 1840, in particular. The painful humiliations that the Chinese nation suffered at the hands of the West and Japan are regularly revived by China’s leadership to energize and motivate the Chinese masses to participate in the Chinese Dream. Xi’s Chinese Dream can be seen as the spiritual dimension for which an increasingly wealthy and educated Chinese society is yearning.
While various Chinese groups (armed forces, farmers, officials, businessmen, etc.) have their own distinct interpretations of what the Chinese Dream means and how it should be achieved, there is little controversy over its ultimate goal: “fulfilling the great renaissance of the Chinese race,” i.e. the Han race. Hence, the Chinese Dream is essentially a nationalistic ambition. And while love and pride for one’s own culture, history, and country are not problematic per se, if not managed adequately, nationalism can nurture an undesirable sentiment: chauvinism, in this case, Han chauvinism.
Among the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, the Han is by far the largest and influential one. It represents 92% of the Chinese population and has dominated the culture and politics for most of China’s 5,000-year long history. In the current China, Han are in full control of China’s politics, economy, and socio-cultural values. Han consider their way of life and culture superior to others, resulting in them having strong chauvinistic tendencies. That Han chauvinism, or Hanism, poses a serious threat to China’s unity and stability have been extensively recognized by China’s leadership.
Han Chauvinism: A Recognized Threat to China
Communist Party of China’s (CPC) leaders such as Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and President Xi have warned about the threat that Han chauvinism poses. As early as 1938, and often thereafter, Chairman Mao cautioned Han officials about prevailing Hanism as a source of interethnic conflict and the need to eliminate it in order to achieve ethnic unity, the very foundation on which China’s stability should stand:
Interethnic relationships are conflictive in certain regions due to Han chauvinism. Party members cannot tolerate this and we should deeply criticize Han chauvinism that occurs among party members and cadres… We should correct this mistake immediately.
To correct Han chauvinism, Chairman Mao advised Han officials to be more humble, to listen to ethnic minorities’ grievances, and to accept their criticism. As for Premier Deng Xiaoping, he believed that Han chauvinism should be eliminated before asking minorities to do the same with their own chauvinisms:
As soon as Han reject Han chauvinism, the ethnic minorities will also be willing to reject their own narrow nationalism in return. We cannot ask from ethnic minorities to reject their narrow nationalism without first honestly rejecting the one big nationalism (Hanism).
Most recently, in 2014, President Xi Jinping and other CPC high-ranking officials discussed the threat of Han chauvinism during the Ethnic Affairs Work Conference, and released a statement emphasizing that “ethnic unity is the lifeline of Chinese people of all ethnicities and that to protect it we should stand firmly against great Hanism and ultra-nationalism.” These quotes illustrate the fact that CPC’s leadership continues to be aware of the magnitude of the threat that Han chauvinism poses to the Chinese nation.
It seems, however, that the CPC has not yet been successful in harnessing it and now, the Chinese Dream might further reinforce Hanism. Despite China’s globalization, the Han continue to consider other cultures as inferior, resulting, for example, in the Han feeling that their culture and history is far superior to those of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang territory in northwest China. As a consequence of their discriminatory treatment by the Han, the Uyghurs feel that their identity is under attack and that they are being treated as second-class citizens in their own homeland.
Han chauvinism seems to have been growing stronger in Xinjiang, particularly since the Urumqi riots in 2009, and it is dangerously undermining Beijing’s efforts to achieve harmonious inter-ethnic relations by impairing Han officials from understanding Xinjiang’s socioeconomic, political, religious, and security tensions. If the chauvinistic tendencies from which the Han community suffers are not recognized and addressed, Xinjiang’s inter-ethnic relations will worsen and could become a significant source of instability and threat to China.
Furthermore, Chinese chauvinism has already started poisoning China’s personal relations in foreign countries. For example, Chinese businessmen and officials traveling to Central Asian countries ignore local traditions and values, resulting in increasing tensions with the local populations. Kazak, Kirgiz, and Tajik already feel uneasy, if not fearful, of the increasing presence and influence of Chinese in their respective countries. If unchecked, one can argue that Chinese chauvinism could turn President Xi’s Chinese Dream into a domestic and international Chinese nightmare by having long term detrimental effects on the global perception of China. In turn, negative perception could gravely undermine well-intended massive development projects such as the “One Belt, One Road Initiative.”
The Chinese leadership and officials should recognize the existence of Han chauvinism among them and follow Chairman Mao’s advice to make concerted efforts to ensure that Han Chinese become more humble, respect different ethnicities, and accept input and criticism. By harnessing Chinese chauvinism, the Chinese Dream could help revive China’s historical glory.
Patrik Meyer is a fellow with New America’s International Security Program conducting research on issues related to China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.