Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 11:27 UK

China's ethnic tinderbox

An ethnic Uigur man sits outside shuttered shops in Urumqi
Officially, China is made up of 56 nationalities

The recent Urumqi and Lhasa riots have shattered the myth of a monolithic China, writes China and Uighur expert Professor Dru Gladney.

Foreigners and the Chinese themselves typically picture China's population as a vast homogeneous Han majority with a sprinkling of exotic minorities living along the country's borders.

Uighur women grieve for their men who they claim were taken away by Chinese authorities
Uighur women protest at the arrest of their menfolk

This understates China's tremendous cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity - in particular the important cultural differences within the Han population. More importantly, recent events suggest that China may well be increasingly insecure regarding not only these nationalities, but also its own national integration.

The unprecedented early departure of President Hu Jintao from the G8 meetings in Italy to attend to the ethnic problems in Xinjiang is an indication of the seriousness with which China regards this issue.

Across the country, China is seeing a resurgence of local ethnicity and culture, most notably among southerners such as the Cantonese and Hakka, who are now classified as Han.

For centuries, China has held together a vast multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation despite alternating periods of political centralization and fragmentation. But cultural and linguistic cleavages could worsen in a China weakened by internal strife, an economic downturn, uneven growth, or a struggle over future political succession.

BBC map
Main ethnic division: 45% Uighur, 40% Han Chinese
26 June: Mass factory brawl after dispute between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Guangdong, southern China, leaves two Uighurs dead
5 July: Uighur protest in Urumqi over the dispute turns violent, leaving 156 dead - most of them thought to be Han - and more than 1,000 hurt
7 July: Uighur women protest at arrests of menfolk. Han Chinese make armed counter-march
8 July: President Hu Jintao returns from G8 summit to tackle crisis

The initial brawl between workers in a Guangdong toy factory, which left at least two Uighur dead on 25 June, prompted the mass unrest in Xinjiang on 5 July, which ended with 156 dead, thousands injured, and 1500 arrested, with on-going violence spreading throughout the region.

The National Day celebrations scheduled for October 2009, seeks to highlight 60 years of the "harmonious" leadership of the Communist Party in China, and like the 2008 Olympics, its enormous success. The rioting threatens to de-rail these celebrations.

Officially, China is made up of 56 nationalities: one majority nationality, the Han, and 55 minority groups. The 2000 census revealed a total official minority population of nearly 104m, or approximately 9% of the total population.

The peoples identified as Han comprise 91% of the population from Beijing in the north to Canton in the south, and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese, and other groups. These Han are thought to be united by a common history, culture, and written language; differences in language, dress, diet, and customs are regarded as minor and superficial. An active state-sponsored programme assists these official minority cultures and promotes their economic development (with mixed results).

The recognition of minorities, however, also helped the Communists' long-term goal of forging a united Chinese nation by solidifying the recognition of the Han as a unified "majority". Emphasizing the difference between Han and minorities helped to de-emphasize the differences within the Han community.

The Communists incorporated the idea of Han unity into a Marxist ideology of progress, with the Han in the forefront of development and civilization. The more "backward" or "primitive" the minorities were, the more "advanced" and "civilized" the so-called Han seemed, and the greater the need for a unified national identity.

new highrise developments in Beijing"s Central Business District
Teh Han comprise 91% of the population from Beijing to Canton

Minorities who do not support development policies are thought to be "backward" and anti-modern, holding themselves and the country back.

The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages. Even these sub-groups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity.

China's policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy, and unofficial efforts at control. Although totalling only 9% of the population, they are concentrated in resource-rich areas spanning nearly 60% of the country's landmass and exceed 90% of the population in counties and villages along many border areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan.

Xinjiang occupies one-sixth of China's landmass, with Tibet the second-largest province.

Indeed, one might even say it has become popular to be "ethnic" in today's China. Mongolian hot pot, Muslim noodle, and Korean barbecue restaurants proliferate in every city, while minority clothing, artistic motifs, and cultural styles adorn Chinese bodies and private homes.

China's threats will most likely come from civil unrest, and perhaps internal ethnic unrest from within the so-called Han majority

This rise of "ethnic chic" is in dramatic contrast to the anti-ethnic homogenizing policies of the late 1950s anti-Rightist period, the Cultural Revolution, the late-1980s "spiritual pollution" campaigns, and now the ethnic riots in the west.

While ethnic separatism on its own will never be a serious threat to a strong China, a China weakened by internal strife, inflation, uneven economic growth, or the struggle for political succession could become further divided along cultural and linguistic lines.

China's separatists, such as they are, could never mount such a co-ordinated attack as was seen on 11 September, 2001 in the United States, and China's more closed society lacks the openness that has allowed terrorists to move so freely in the West.

China's threats will most likely come from civil unrest, and perhaps internal ethnic unrest from within the so-called Han majority. We should recall that it was a southerner, born and educated abroad, who led the revolution that ended China's last dynasty.

Moreover, the Taiping Rebellion that nearly brought down the Qing dynasty also had its origins in the southern border region of Guangxi among so-called marginal Yao and Hakka peoples.

These events are being remembered as the generally well-hidden and overlooked "Others" within Chinese society begin to reassert their own identities, in addition to the official nationalities.

Dru Gladney is a China expert and president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California.

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