China Power

12 Regions of China: The Periphery

Exploring the historical Chinese frontier.

12 Regions of China: The Periphery
Credit: Flickr/ KittyKaht

This article series explores 12 distinct “regions” within China: six “core” regions long dominated by the majority Han ethnic group and six “periphery” regions home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. The series overview is available here. To view the full series, click here.

The previous six pieces in this series on China’s regions described the “core” of the Chinese empire, where ethnic Han settlement has dominated for over a millennium.  The next six articles will outline the “periphery,” where non-Han minorities are concentrated, most of which only began coming under the centralized state’s direct control in recent centuries (some areas after 1949). Before the 19th century China’s continental frontiers on these regions dominated its foreign relations, more so than the coastal regions that have been at the forefront of China’s international relations since the Opium Wars.

Chinese rule in these regions was often through native chieftainships (土司), which the imperial state from the 15th century began converting into regular administration (改土归流).  The demographic pattern of Han dominating in urban centers and minorities in rural areas persists today.  China’s four poorest provinces per capita are in this area, and over half the nation’s “impoverished counties” (贫困县) have a large ethnic minority population, despite these non-Han groups constituting barely eight percent of China’s population.  An objective observer might argue that the Han majority has inherited an ancient prejudice toward minorities, which slots them on the civilizational ladder in accordance with their distance from Han cultural norms.

The People’s Republic of China followed Soviet policy in institutionalizing rights for ethnic minorities to maintain distinct identities, though not to the extent of the Soviet Union’s territorial federalism.  Today the continued unrest among some groups, and the prospect of minorities around the country being submerged by Han internal migration, is spurring debate over whether even this “circumscribed autonomy” is sustainable, and whether the state needs to promote integration by drawing on foreign “melting pot” models or indigenous political traditions.  This is complicated by “ethnic minority” being a political category that does not always closely reflect language or cultural practices, and which, being frozen by government fiat – ethnicity is stamped on an individual’s ID card and included on all official documents – does not allow the fluidness of identity that arguably promotes assimilation in other multi-ethnic countries.

Just as geography shaped the present fates of China’s core regions, it has shaped the contemporary relationship between different peoples along the periphery and the Chinese state.  The two minority groups among whom anti-state violence is perceived by the authorities as a threat to the nation’s territorial integrity, and is accordingly labelled as separatism – despite such violence probably not being more severe in kind or frequency than among the Han majority – inhabit the arid expanses of the far west, and before the PRC’s founding had very limited contact with the Han population: namely, the Tibetans and the Uyghurs.  The particular antipathy to homogenizing trends and policies shown by these groups (and to a lesser extent by ethnic Mongols) is a legacy of their historical remoteness from China’s geographical “core,” and the civilization-state that developed there.

This geography-based divide in the Chinese polity was conceptualized over 80 years ago in the Hu line, which as a demographic boundary remains essentially unchanged today. Areas west of the line account for more than half of China’s land but only 6 percent of its population, with average per capita GDP west of the line around 15 percent lower than to its east. Excepting the peculiar case of Hong Kong, large-scale unrest linked to local identity manifests in contemporary China to the west of the Hu line, among peoples whose modes of life have always been far removed from that of the Han. But the poverty of the west casts doubt on these regions ever asserting themselves against centralized power in the east, absent a catastrophe sufficient to end “China” completely as a unitary state.

Next up: Manchuria.

John Lee is a former visiting fellow of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. He tweets at @J_B_C16.