Late last year, a former colleague and talented photographer, Andy Keller, chose to forsake the ratrace and, with a close friend, cycle around China. Ten months and nineteen provinces later, they are traversing the outskirts of the Tibetan plateau and circling back to Beijing.
Amidst thousands of miles of great stories behind awesome pictures, one recent propaganda poster in Xiahu, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage destination, typifies I think how many Chinese public institutions recognize and account for ethnic diversity.
Rough translation: “The Han are inseparable from ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities are inseparable from the Han. All minorities are inseparable from each other.”
Ethnic Han comprise roughly 90% of China’s population, or 20% of all humans, and are concentrated in eastern and southern China, the geographic heartland of China’s recent economic growth. The other 10% of the country’s populations are comprised of more than fifty distinct ethnic groups that are often excluded from the prevailing political and economic establishment.
Nonetheless, the popular sentiment among the Han-dominated government is that ethnic minorities, such as Tibetan and Uyghur, are integral components of the broader Chinese national and cultural identity. The idea is to construct (or recognize) and impose a supra-culture — complete with an official language and official history — over existing diversity to foster national unity and patriotism.
This appeal to inclusivity must seem progressive to many; as if to say, “We recognize your ethnic identity as an indispensable brush stroke in our Chinese masterpiece.” But it strikes me as second-rate pluralism. And not so different from what Ross Douthat calls the wisdom of America that speaks English, promoting ‘unum’ over ‘e pluribus’ by appealing to a ‘real’ American cultural identity.
Because of my experiences living here, as a marked non-believer and cultural outsider, I have become hostile towards the suggestion that the U.S. should ever politically embrace or impose its ‘true’ Christian or American identity on citizens. I take pride in the idea that although I could never be Chinese, all of my Chinese friends and neighbors could be American. Real Americans. I take pride in the idea (however politically impossible) that someone could build a mosque at Ground Zero — and not just two blocks away.
I am eager to one day return to a country where the common narrative we tell about ourselves, as a people, has less to do with bloodlines and more to do with what’s possible. I hope that country will be there.