Seeking Identity in the “Chinese” Nation

As I have watched the recent “Umbrella Revolution”in Hong Kong unfold, I was once again reminded that China is not the “unified”multinational state that nation’s government leaders portray it to be.  Civil unrest is not uncommon in Chinese territory and intermittent protests have continued in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia during the past several decades.  While demonstrations in each of those areas, as well as those now in Hong Kong, have arisen on the basis of different grievances, identity can be seen as a common link among the concerns of the aggrieved groups in each location. Many individuals in the country embrace identities that do not align with the state constructed ideology concerning what it means to be Chinese.

Zhongua minzu, which means “Chinese nation” in Mandarin, is a concept by which all of the people in China can (or should), according to the government, imagine themselves as part of one country.  Benedict Anderson has examined the processes by which citizens imagine themselves as part of the same nation through shared experiences.  Historically this shared construct was essential in uniting “the Chinese nation”against outside aggressors, including Japan and the West.  The function of the idea of the Chinese nation remains the same today; it represents a way to connect the vast number of different peoples living in the country under one broad identity.  By imagining themselves as part of the zhonghua minzu, the state hopes that China’s citizens will develop a strong sense of nationalism that will trump any other potential identity.  Further, the country’s rulers expect those who are part of the zhonghua minzu to help secure a “harmonious society” (hexie shehui), a term introduced into China’s political discourse in 2005 when Hu Jintao, president of the nation at the time, applied Confucian thought to justify and describe domestic policies.[1]  The nation’s leaders have emphasized zhonghua minzu and hexie shehui since in their efforts to create a “harmonious society” and strong national identity.  Nonetheless, even a cursory review of unrest among several of the country’s ethnic minority groups suggests that Chinese society is anything but congruous.

In March 2008, protests concerning Tibetan sovereignty erupted in Lhasa.[2]  Just a year later, in July 2009, demonstrations concerning the death of two Ugyhurs in Southern China erupted in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and quickly escalated into violence. A long history of unrest had preceded these protests in Xinjiang, but the July 2009 riots gained the West’s attention. They also occasioned a strong response from the Chinese government, including a total Internet blackout in the province.[3]

I lived in Inner Mongolia during the July 2009 protests in Xinjiang.  At that time, much of the discussion amongst the expatriate community regarding the unrest there and in Tibet addressed the question of whether Mongolians would soon protest. In May 2011, our amateur political forecasts proved true when a Mongolian shepherd was struck and killed by a Han truck driver in rural Inner Mongolia. That tragedy resulted in spontaneous protests that eventually spread to the capital city of Hohhot.

Part of the outrage in each of these situations arose from the fact that the zhonghua minzu reflects a largely Han identity.  Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians have a strong ethnic character that is both informed by history and formally recognized by the Chinese state.  When Mao Zedong developed the list of the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups (minzu) in China, he adapted the Soviet model of categorization to the Chinese situation, but did so with the caveat that to be so designated, an ethnic group had to be distinct from the Han, the largest such population in China. In doing so, he set the precedent that China’s ethnic groups would thereafter be viewed relative to the dominant Han identity. Since Mao’s edict, aggressive urban development in the Western part of the country, Han migration to many ethnic minority- regions, and a cultural belief that venerates Mandarin above other languages spoken in the country, have created fears of Sinicization, or Hanizication, amongst China’s ethnic groups.

The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong complicates this already politically and socially delicate issue because its identity claims are not linked with any particular minzu or recognized group. Those in Hong Kong claim to be “Hong Kong people”, rather than “Chinese,” and look to the city, rather than the state, for their identity.[4]  This fresh challenge to the regnant national identity of a supposed “harmonious society” suggests that the government’s strategy to quell internal rifts may now be fraying in entirely new ways.

Ma Rong, professor of sociology at Beijing University, is one of the advocates within the Chinese academy calling for reform of China’s ethnic policies. Ma is concerned that China has the same characteristics that the Soviet Union evidenced before its collapse, and these could lead to its eventual disintegration as a multinational state if current policies are not changed.  In a 2012 publication Ma asserted, “At present, the biggest danger China faces in the 21st century is the breakup of the country.”[5]  Whether China will face the same fate as the USSR remains to be seen.  But, one thing is clear: China needs to address the divisive question of identity much more effectively and in ways that its diverse ethnic and political groups perceive as just if it wishes to remain “harmonious.”


[1]Shi Li, Hiroshi Sato, Terry Sirular, eds, Rising Inequality in China:  Challenges to a Harmonious Society, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press), 2013.

[2]Warren W. Smith, Jr., Tibets Last Stand?: The Tibetan Uprising of 2008 and China’s Response, (New York:  Rowman and Littlefield), 2010.

[3]Staff, “Xinjiang Unrest Timeline,”Radio Free Asia, May 22, 2014.  Accessed October 23, 2014,

[4] Edward Wong and Alan Wong.  “Seeking Identity, ‘Hong Kong People’Look to City, Not State.”  The New York Times.  October 7, 2014.  Accessed October 28, 2014.


Anderson, Benedict.  Imagined Communities:  Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.  London:  Verso.  1991.

Bulag, Uradyn E. “Mongolian Ethnicity and Language Anxiety in China.”  American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, No. 4, (2003):  753-763.

Leibold, James.  Ethnic Policy in China:  Is Reform Inevitable?  Honolulu:  East West Center, 2013.

Mullaney, Thomas.  Coming to Term with the Nation:  Ethnic Classification in Modern China.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2011.

Shi Li, Hiroshi Sato, Terry Sirular, eds.  Rising Inequality in China:  Challenges to a Harmonious Society.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.  2013.

Smith, Warren W. Jr., Tibets Last Stand?:  The Tibetan Uprising of 2008 and China’s Response.  New York:  Rowman and Littlefield.  2010.

Staff. “Xinjiang Unrest Timeline.”  Radio Free Asia, May 22, 2014. Accessed October 23, 2014,

Wong, Edward and Wong, Alan.  “Seeking Identity, ‘Hong Kong People’ Look to City, Not State.”  The New York Times.  October 7, 2014.  Accessed October 28, 2014.

 Jamie SanchezJamie N. Sanchez is a third year Ph.D. Candidate in the ASPECT Program at Virginia Tech.  Her research investigates ethnopolitics, identity, and cultural anxiety in Northern China.  Prior to starting her doctoral work, Jamie worked in Northern China for more than eight years. Her professional experience includes business consulting, business start up and management, personnel training, and teaching


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