Affirmative Action in China and the US: Introduction | #ReappropriateReads

Just some light poolside reading...
Just some light poolside reading…

About six months ago, I was reading Frank Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and I commented to Snoopy that it was interesting to read the book as an adult versus when I first picked it up as a college student. This led to a conversation about the growth of AAPI scholarship and literature, so little of which enters into mainstream discourse.

Snoopy made an interesting suggestion. He recalled when acclaimed columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates encouraged his readers to join him in a shared reading of Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow”. Every week, Coates read one chapter and wrote a short reflection. In the series (tongue-in-cheek dubbed “Books for the Horde”), readers were invited to read the book with him and engage in debate and criticism of the book in the comments.

This proved to be a fantastic way to engage readers in central ideas of racial and restorative justice. Snoopy suggested that maybe Reappropriate could do something like that, too.

Sounded like a lot of work to me.

Then, last month, I was talking with Alton Wang of Unhyphenate.Me about an upcoming piece on affirmative action he had written (you can read some of his published writing on the subject here). Alton mentioned that he had just learned about affirmative action policies (globally referred to as “positive policies”) in China and Taiwan, that were more heavy-handed than those we are familiar with in the United States.

I knew nothing about this, but found the idea of comparing and contrasting Chinese and American affirmative action debates fascinating, particularly as we query how and why Chinese American opposition to such policies might arise. Conventional wisdom might suggest (pejoratively, and apparently incorrectly) that a subset of Chinese Americans might oppose affirmative action because they are relatively unfamiliar with the West’s affirmative action programs, and its necessary role in American racial history and contemporary multiracial society.

But, might this explanation forget that policies largely equivalent to Western affirmative action is widespread in China, and finds fascinatingly Far Left rationale in the official tenets of China’s governing Communist Party? Affirmative action is for Chinese America’s recent immigrants a practice that is not foreign, but rather, politically familiar.

Motivated to learn more about this, I turned to Google to begin an initial collection of primary resources. That’s where I found Affirmative Action in China and the U.S.: A Dialogue on Inequality and Minority Education.

Published relatively recently in 2007, the book is part of the International and Development Education Series, and is a collection of chapters contributed by a number of American, Chinese and other international scholars. The book was born of a discussion at a conference on China’s affirmative action policies held in 2006 at Dickinson College. Edited by Minlang Zhou and Ann Maxwell Hill, it is the first book to present a comparative analysis on affirmative action/positive policies between China and America, with a specific focus on higher education access.

The book’s forewords and introductions lay the groundwork for why this work is necessary: affirmative action is a hotly contested topic in America, and is increasingly controversial in China. The similarities and differences between either nation’s rationale and approach for these programs can inform the debate in either country. Writes Colin Mackerras in the Foreword:

[China and the United States] matter for their ethnic policies and for the theories of multiculturalism they bring out. In many ways these two countries are very different indeed in policy and reality. Yet despite frequent accusations heard in both countries about the other over ethnic matters, especially in the United States against China, this book shows that they actually share quite a few problems in common.

Compelled in part perhaps by stereotype, few in America conceive of China as a multiracial or multiethnic society. Yet, as the book’s Introduction establishes (and further chapters will go into greater detail), China is home to 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in addition to the Han Chinese majority, distinct from the Han in language, culture and ethnic identity.

By contrast, 91% of China’s population is Han Chinese, calling into question its status as a “minzu”, or ethnic minority group.

The contemporary Han minzu ostensibly obviates some of the ambiguity in the denotation and scope of the earlier term, although those designated as Han minzu today include peoples with a wide range of cultural practices and speaking eight, almost mutually unintelligible, Chinese languages. Ironically, given the political clout of the idea of minzu in the conext of nation-building, China’s Han majority (91 percent of the population) in everyday practices is not usually though of as minzu at all. Like whites in the United States, the majority Han are implicitly the standard by which all other groups are judged and usually not seen as “ethnic”, one of the strongest connotations of a minzu identity.

Official PRC policy emphasizes autonomy for China’s ethnic minorities, but in practice appears to reward assimilation into mainstream Han Chinese language and culture. Initially founded on Soviet principles of diversity, China shifted its conception of itself and the role of ethnic minorities — many of whom live in economically depressed and rural parts of China — following the fall of the Soviet Union. In the mid-1990’s, China formally adopted an approach called “one nation with diversity” to describe its new perspective on ethnic minorities, focused on building programs that would promote education and employment access for minorities — if in a form consistent with the PRC’s parameters of upward mobility and economic success.

Those programs — which comprise significant preferences for certain jobs and universities — would be equivalent to a quota-based form of affirmative action currently illegal in the US.

This book will explore the political landscape of China and its ethnic minorities, and situate positive policy programs therein. Chapters appear to be written by those both supportive and critical of affirmative action, although many of the book’s scholars have personal experiences with such programs.

I invite you to join me in reading this book in the coming weeks, as I continue to post my thoughts and reflections with each chapter (roughly every week, but come on — I’m getting married in three weeks; let’s be realistic!). The book is available through Amazon and through Google Books. You can join the conversation in the comments section of each post, and also through the hashtag #ReappropriateReads (which I will post to as I read, which also kind of means you can stalk when I’m reading).

The next chapter is titled “Mandarins, Marxists, and Minorities” and is written by Walker Connor, a visiting professor of political science at Middlebury College and a founding researcher of nationalism studies. In this chapter, Connor will explore the connection between China’s minority-focused policies and principles that governed the formation of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

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