Official classification, affirmative action and self-identification: Hui-Han biethnic college students in China
According to the 2000 census in China, 3.23 percent of married citizens are in an interethnic marriage, and 12 of the 56 officially recognised ethnic groups have an intermarriage rate higher than 50 percent, meaning more than half of married people in these 12 ethnic groups are in an interethnic marriage.
While these statistics suggest that the multiethnic population is not small in China, multiethnic identity options are not officially available in China. All Chinese citizens are registered at birth by their parents with only one official ethnic category, which must be the same as at least one of their parents. This exclusive ethnic identity is presented on the person’s ID card, largely influences their life chances in a wide range of domains, and can hardly be changed. How do people with mixed ethnic backgrounds deal with the limited and exclusive identity choices? Compared to the debates and social movements in western countries, why is the topic of multiethnic identity seldom brought up in China?
In my Identities article, 'Official classification, affirmative action, and self-identification: Hui-Han biethnic college students in China', I focus on a specific group of people in China who have multiethnic backgrounds – college students who have a Han parent and a Hui parent – and examine how they understand their ethnic identity. Han is the majority ethnic group that constitutes 91.5 percent of the national population. Hui is the fourth largest ethnic group, the largest Muslim group, and the most geographically dispersed minority ethnic group in China. Using interviews with 20 respondents, I investigate whether this group of people experience any discrepancy between their multiethnic backgrounds and their official, single ethnicity, and what their attitudes are towards institutionalising multiethnic identities.
Using an inductive analytical approach, I find that the sole ethnic categorisation principle and preferential policies for ethnic minorities shape the Hui-Han bi-ethnic college students’ ethnic self-identification. While the respondents in my research had very different levels of exposure to Hui culture in their upbringing (and six of them believed that there were no Hui characteristics in their upbringing or lifestyle), they were also registered as Hui by their parents. Most of them identified themselves more strongly as Hui than as multiethnic or Han, and they frequently referred to their ID card, household registration record and the practices of reporting Hui ethnicity on bureaucratic forms when explaining their self-identification.
I also find that college environment plays a role in shaping their experiences of their multiethnic background and official single ethnicity. Students from China’s special 'Minzu University' (university for ethnicities), where the student population is ethnically more diverse and ethnicity is a very salient topic, were more likely to feel frustrated about the discrepancy between their Hui official ethnicity and their multiethnic backgrounds, because they felt their peers and instructors expected them to behave like Hui. Students from regular, Han-dominated universities, on the other hand, tend to see ethnicity as a symbolic label and downplay its salience in their life.
At the end of the interviews, most respondents expressed negative attitudes institutionalising multiethnic identities in China. This may be surprising as they themselves come from multiethnic backgrounds, but is not surprising if we consider that most of them identify themselves more as Hui than as mixed. It is possible that the authoritarian political culture in China makes people more likely to accept official ethnic categories as objective facts. The fact that China has an overwhelming Han population also means that the issue of mixed-ness has not received as much attention as in the Anglophone West.
Blog post by Xiang Lu, New York University, USA
Read the full article: Xiang, Lu. Official classification, affirmative action, and self-identification: Hui-Han biethnic college students in China. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1757249
‘Hong Konger is not a race; it’s a spirit’, claimed a group of ethnic minority advocates of protests against the now-shelved extradition bill and anti-mask law in Hong Kong. The dissociation of Hong Kong identity from race marks the blurring of cultural boundaries between those who are racially Chinese and those who are not. Hong Kong’s political climate appears to play a prominent role in forging a collective identity.
Such an identity claim reflects ethnic minorities’ fulfilled desire to be recognised as Hong Konger like the rest of local Chinese people. My co-authored Identities article with Sivanes Phillipson, 'Bordering on sociocultural boundaries and diversity: negotiating Filipino identities in a Hong Kong multi-ethnic school', presents a relevant scenario in an education setting that speaks to the identity tensions amongst minority groups.
Multi-ethnic schools in Hong Kong have been sites where young people from ethnic families negotiate their ethnic identities and belonging. These multi-ethnic schools have traditionally admitted Pakistani, Indian, Filipino and Nepalese students, due to a funding arrangement that aimed to provide focused support for Chinese language learning for ethnic students. The greater number of ethnic minority students that attended these schools, the greater financial support these schools would receive. However, the effects of these arrangements amounted to racialised segregation because of the limited intercultural contact with their Chinese counterparts (Shum et al. 2012).
Our study illustrates how ethnic identity negotiations of Filipino students foregrounded school ethos and expectations that explicitly valued cultural diversity, while hoping that students acquire the Chinese language to fit into Hong Kong’s wider society. There were, on the one hand, moments when the Filipino students felt very safe and respected in their multi-ethnic school because of their teachers’ commitment to teaching ethnic minority students. Thus, playing music and speaking Tagalog with peers were important conduits for them to make sense of who they were as Filipinos in their school. On the other hand, however, these students experienced challenges in learning Cantonese — the lingua franca in Hong Kong — including writing and reading Chinese, especially when this expectation was reinforced by the school and public examination.
Long-term residents in Hong Kong who are not ethnically Chinese are usually upfront about their status as Hong Kong locals, despite the occasional language barrier. These residents include Hong Kong-educated Filipino youngsters who were born and/or raised in Hong Kong. Parents of these Filipino youngsters typically migrate to Hong Kong as industry professionals, such as musicians, engineers and architects, among others. However, these youngsters constitute a small fraction of the Filipino population in Hong Kong, as the majority of Filipinos in Hong Kong work as domestic workers.
Yet, these youngsters often come to mind when talking about Filipinos in the city (at times in stereotypical ways) who constitute the largest and most visible ethnic population. As domestic workers’ occupational status does not enable them to acquire permanent residence in Hong Kong, these youngsters who reside in the city permanently express identities vastly differently from domestic workers who eventually go back to the Philippines for good.
Although the study was conducted before the 2019 Hong Kong protests, its implications invite new questions about the emerging identity politics in Hong Kong:
If being a Hong Konger is a spirit, then this would be an evolving intellectual pursuit of understanding the changing bounds of what constitutes ‘real’ Hong Kong people, and responding to such in ways that transcend limiting and binary identity expressions (e.g. Chinese vs. non-Chinese).
Shum, M., F. Gao & W. W. Ki. 2016. School desegregation in Hong Kong: non-Chinese linguistic minority students’ challenges to learning Chinese in mainstream schools. Asia Paciﬁc Journal of Education 36: 533–544.
Blog post by Jan Gube, The Education University of Hong Kong, China
Read the full article: Gube, Jan & Phillipson, Sivanes. Bordering on sociocultural boundaries and diversity: negotiating Filipino identities in a Hong Kong multi-ethnic school. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1671678