My mom and I have never really had the kind of relationship where we talked extensively about politics. However, one of my earliest and most valuable political lessons came from my mother.
My mom grew up in China and Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution, and was taught the history of both countries from Chinese and Taiwanese teachers. She believed herself well-versed in the history of these countries; that is, until she immigrated to Canada, and discovered how much of the history she had learned had been subjective — filtered through the lens of national pride and patriotism. The experience of finally reading more balanced and objective histories of China and Taiwan was a sobering one for my mother, and she instilled a pertinent life lesson on me drawn from that moment.
“Always think about who is teaching you what you are leaning,” she said, “because you may not be learning the unbiased truth.”
The practice of teaching subjective history is not limited to Asia. In America, we also grow up with an incomplete (oftentimes prejudiced) history of America and other world powers, and information is often filtered through Westernized sensibilities, politics, and patriotism.
I found Chapter 1 of Affirmative Action in China and the U.S. fascinating because it helped to reveal the inadequacies in my own education of Chinese political history and Marxist-Leninist-inspired philosophy. This is valuable because, as with all consideration of contemporary issues, a complete understanding of historical context is crucial if we are to engage in a meaningful and nuanced consideration of the subject of this book — affirmative action in China and the U.S.
Walker Connor, author of Chapter 1, is considered by many to be a founder of the field of nationalism and ethnonationalism studies, which considers the formation of national identity. He writes in this chapter:
Ethnic nationalism connotes identity with and loyalty to a nation in the sense of a human grouping predicated upon a claim of common ancestry.
Socialist thinkers such as Karl Marx were committed to the notion of “national self-determination”, which asserts that ethnic groups can and should be granted autonomy and the right to self-determination in the form of ethnic nationhood. Writes Connor:
National self-determination holds that any group of people, simply because it considers itself to be a separate nation (in the pristine sense of a people who believe themselves to be ancestrally related), has an inalienable right to determine its political affiliations, including, if it so desires, the right to its own state.
We need to take note of this: this becomes a major basis by which socialist nations (at least nominally) prioritize minority rights. Socialist principles assert that ethnic minorities have a right to self-determination, and even to secession from a larger socialist nation. However, this recognized right also leads to what many have dubbed “the national question” — how to build a united socialist or Communist nation when faced with the presence of ethnic minorities whom socialist principles assert have the right to defy and reject membership within that socialist system?
Early Marxists countered this problem with basic idealism. The promise of Marxist-Leninist “national self-determination” for China’s 55 nationally recognized ethnic minority groups were a major focus for Mao’s Communist revolutionaries during their rise to power, when they traveled through rural China often by negotiating safe harbour and passage through minority-dominated lands and territories. Writes Connor:
Lenin had a profound appreciation of the power of the self-determination urge, and he assigned appealing to it as a key stratagem for overthrowing voernments. Consonant with his wishes, the Community International insisted that all communist parties, prior to assuming power, must appeal to their country’s national minorities by promising that upon taking power they would recognize the right of self-determination for all national groups, explicitly including the right to secede.
… Sporadic promises of independence were made to those minority peoples encountered during the Long March. In 1935, the CCP noted in a declaration to the Mongols: “[W]e recognize the right of the people of Inner Mongolia to decide all questions pertaining to themselves, for no one has the right to forcefully interfere with the way of life, religious observances, etc. of the Inner Mongolian people.
It would be naive to believe that Marxist-Leninist ideals of “national self-determination” were not intended to lead eventually towards assimilation: both believed that a pluralistic multicultural society was a necessary precursor of “voluntary” and uncoerced united socialism. Writes Connor:
Lenin reasoned that as the policy of cultural pluralism disspated the antagonisms and mistrust that had previously estranged nations, those human units would naturally move closer together, a process that became known in the official Marxist lexicon as “the rapprochement” or “coming together” of nations. The process would continue until a complete blending was achieved, and a single identity had emerged.
All socialist nations have, however, struggled with the implementation of this theory for practical governance. For China, the process of rapprochement proceeded too slowly and with too much uncertainty. Consequently, there was a progressive dilution by the CCP of minority autonomy — and the increasing removal of promised minority rights — in the name of Chinese national unification. Despite assurances that ethnic minorities would be granted the right to self-determination and even secession under communist rule, the right to secession was not included in the provisional constitution written by the CCP in 1949 upon victory over the Guomintang. Instead, upon seizing power, the focus of the CCP shifted towards unification of China, which included — as the 1950 constitution reads — “to suppress all counter-revolutionary elements who… commit treason against the motherland.”
Thus begins what appears to be a slow shift for the CCP away from purely ideological Marxist-Leninist principles of national self-determination, towards a more conventionally imperialist mentality. Based in part on the advice of Communist advisors from Russia, China implemented a three-tiered system of territories designed to grant ethnic minorities nominal autonomy, yet Connor notes:
The borders of these [autonomous] units were purposefully designed to violate, not reflect [ethnic minority] homelands. Border were drawn so as to omit large parts of the homeland (among the autonomous rgions, particularly flagrant in the cases of the Guangxi Zhuang and Tibetan autonomous regions) and/or to incorporate large areas outside the homeland populated by others (particularly flagrant in the case of the Guangxi Zhuang and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions).
… The flagrant gerrymandering of homelands has therefore led to their ethnic dilution, and this evisceration has been furthered by policies mandating or encouraging in-migration of the Han.
Thus, despite the CCP’s promise of ethnic minority rights, the history of China has demonstrated this to be a promise unfulfilled, and even openly violated. Instead, increasing pressures to focus on the political, economic, educational and cultural advancement of the Chinese nation has increasingly shifted focus away from autonomy and individuality for Chinese ethnic minorities, and towards collective assimilation of those ethnic minorities into the Han Chinese mainstream.
We therefore arrive at the important conclusion that although China’s Communist leadership started out dedicated to rather conventional Marxist-Leninist principles of minority rights, we are now dealing with a distinctly Chinese Communist interpretation of ethnonationalist self-determination that differs from Marxism-Leninism in its increased emphasis on national unity and assimilation over minority autonomy and individuality.
This understanding sets the political stage for us to consider the CCP’s rationale for its extensive preferential programs, and their fundamentally conflicting dual goals: 1) protecting minority individuality and autonomy, and 2) national unification and assimilation.
China’s designers and implementers of national policy are thus left with, at best, nebulous guidelines: promote assimilation but avoid overly irritating national sensibilities. In practice, this has meant continuing inter alia, the transparently gerrymandered autonomous divisions, ostensibly continuing to offer the minorities a right to education in their mother tongues while curtailing the availability of textbooks and instruction in the language, most notably, at the tertiary level (Bilik 1998; Dwyer 1998) and placing members of minorities in positions of high visibility while denying them positions of real power.
This is the historical and political context through which we must now consider China’s preferential programs: are those programs really a vehicle for establishing equality and uplift for China’s ethnic minorities, or are they merely a vehicle for assimilation?
We might also ask: in China and/or in the context of a non-socialist nation, might such programs be both?
I end with this quote from Connor:
Promoting a non-coercive policy of assimilation within China is particularly problematic because of the deep distrust of the authorities, the result of a history of broken promises to honor the self-determination of the minorities, including the right to secede, and of erratic policy fluctuations, when earlier programs encouraging the flourishing of nations were abruptly terminated in favour of assimilation.
Join me next week for my reflections on Chapter 2 of “Affirmative Action in China and the U.S.“, titled “Tracking the Historical Development of China’s Positive and Preferential Policies for Minority Education: Continuities and Discontinuities” by Minglang Zhou. You can join the discussion in the comments section below or through #ReappropriateReads.
To view all posts in this series, check out the Reappropriate Reads tag.
A quick note: Many, many thanks to all of you who have expressed interest in this reading series. I am highly motivated to keep this up, since enthusiasm for this reading series far exceeded my expectations, and also was generally inspiring. Thanks to you all!