The southwest of China is an ethnically diverse region, with not only the Han Chinese, but also Hui (Muslim Chinese), Tibetans, Mongol, Manchu (who like the Mongols are here due to the conquests of their ancestors), other Sino-Tibetan tribes like the Qiang and Yi, as well as the peoples of the Tai linguistic groups like the Dai, Bai, Miao, Li, Chuang, etc. Chengdu, as the predominant metropolis of the region, is naturally the centre of such cultures. One sometimes see Tibetans and Yi and Qiang tribals coming to town in their colourful and exotic native costume, although given the degree of economic transformation and urban sophistication, it is increasingly unlikely that more of these minorities would come to Chengdu in their traditional costume - and as I heard, their traditional costume are being abandoned even in the mountainous districts where they hailed from.
Question : Do these minorities suffer from discrimination ?
Interesting question. It depends on how you look at it. Personally, I feel that, contrary to what is commonly perceived by the Western media and public, there is no official policy to discriminate against minorities. The Chinese state has set up numerous minority autonomous regions, prefectures, counties, etc all over China. By "autonomy", the Chinese state do not mean political autonomy ( - of course, the Communists would deny that. The state propaganda machine always claim that there is real autonomy in all aspects of life.) Instead, autonomy is present in education, cultural expression, and respect for local customs. The ethnic minority are also not subjected to population control regulations, or subjected to less stringent rules. The autonomous area is almost always headed by an ethnic local, but the 2nd in charge is usually a Han Chinese - not only a measure to ensure that separatist activities are not encouraged, but also a fair measure to ensure representation for the huge Han population in that region. In fact, many autonomous areas have a Han population as large as, if not larger than the ethnic minorities the autonomous area was supposedly set up for. And contrary to what the Tibetan exiles and other anti-Chinese lobby groups claim, many of the Han Chinese in these areas are not recent immigrants, but people who have settled in these areas for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In some cases, the ethnic minority were recent nomads who had wondered into these areas.
In fact, during my trip, I have met many members of ethnic minority who hold important private sector positions - some of my hosts are members of the Hui and Bai minorities, and they live just like anyone else. Once in a while, all of us joked about their ethnic origins, but these were friendly jokes, certainly not racist. I have discussed the topic of discrimination with some, and was told that unfortunately, unofficial discrimination may exist. Due to the increasingly market nature of the economy, many new private enterprises are set up, and in order to ensure effective marketing and servicing of customers, few can afford to employ people who cannot speak Chinese well. Naturally, a tribal who speaks Chinese poorly would find it difficult to secure such jobs. I guess, this is a problem with many ethnic minorities around the world, not just in China alone. This is a problem to be tackled, and if not handled well, will not be good for social justice as well as China’s growing prosperity.
Many perceive China as a police state where informers are everywhere, ready to arrest anyone who utter dissenting remarks. Is this true ? In China, throughout the entire visit, although I saw state propaganda everywhere, I never felt threatened by secret police or informers. In fact, I often have lively political discussions with people I met. Even the events at Tiananmen in 1989 were mentioned. Nobody was really afraid to discuss the issues or what they actually felt. The rules are quite clear. Individuals can discuss their views with friends, but demonstrating and publicising them as political activists were taboo. With a diverse historical and ethnic landscape, and as a country recently emerging from the feudal age, China is not ready for western style democracy. Immediate freedom will tear the social fabric apart, like what happened in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Perhaps, with increasing economic prosperity, political freedom will find its way to this enormous country. In fact, villages in China are already having free mayoral elections. These will come to the cities and the whole country eventually. Only through an orderly transformation will China avoid the chaos and misery that befall the nations of Eastern Europe.