Why Beijing is pushing for mixed marriage

September 15, 2014 16:07
There are 6.2 million Tibetans in China compared with 1.2 billion Han Chinese. A government initiative to  promote inter-ethnic marriage is unlikely to succeed for cultural reasons. Photo: Xinhua

Interracial marriage has historically been a contentious issue in many parts of the world and, while legal constraints may have been lifted, it continues to be controversial in many societies.

In the United States, anti-miscegenation laws were not ruled to be unconstitutional until 1967 by the Supreme Court. Today, more than 8 percent of all marital unions in the country involve people of different races.

In China, where Han Chinese account for 92 percent of the population, only 3.2 percent of marriages involve people of different ethnicities.

But the Chinese authorities are now actively promoting marriage between Han and minority people, such as Tibetans and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people who account for about 43 percent of the population of the Xinjiang region in northwestern China.

The government is seeking to use inter-ethnic marriage as an instrument to resolve ethnic tensions.

The policy seems unlikely to succeed but, if it does, it may well spell the end of these minority cultures as the ethnic minorities themselves disappear.

The US has the concept of a “melting pot” whereby immigrants are integrated into American society.

In China, however, the various ethnic groups are not immigrants.

Tibetans and Uighurs are indigenous peoples whose history long predated the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. If their culture is not preserved in China, it will not exist anywhere in the world, except in exile communities.

A major component of the current Chinese policy for dealing with ethnic minorities is migration – moving Han people into minority areas.

Thus, the Han population of Xinjiang has increased from less than 7 percent in 1949, when the Communist Party took power, to 40 percent today.

Last month, officials in Qiemo county in Xinjiang announced that beginning Aug. 21, the government will pay 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) to newlyweds in which one party is Han and the other is from an ethnic minority.

Such payments are to be made for five years. Also, there will be other benefits such as housing and government jobs.

The New York Times, citing a government website, reported that Qiemo’s 10,000 people are 73 percent Uighur and 27 percent Han.

The Chinese government has certain policies that favor ethnic minorities such as exempting them from the one-child policy and lowering the bar for university admission.

However, ethnic unrest is a major problem in the country as minorities struggle to preserve their language, religion and culture.

There was an uprising in Tibet in 2008 and riots in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, in 2009.

The policy to reward members of ethnic minorities who marry Han seems to be an attempt to hasten their integration into Chinese society.

The 2000 census showed that only 1.05 percent of Uighurs and 8 percent of Tibetans were married to members of other ethnic groups while 1.5percent of the Han population was involved in inter-ethnic marriages.

In late August, a senior Chinese official in Tibet urged more intermarriages to promote “ethnic unity” and congratulated 19 mixed couples for contributing to “the happiness and harmonious nature of our motherland”.

Such official actions show the pressure that the minorities are under to conform to the Han – and Communist Party – political order.

Violent incidents, denounced by the Chinese government as acts of terrorism, have been rising.

Last week, three Uighur men were sentenced to death and a woman to life imprisonment after they were convicted of killing 31 people in a knife attack outside a railway station in Kunming in southern China last February.

There is also unrest in Tibet. There, it takes the form of self-immolation, with more than 130 Tibetans having killed themselves since 2009.

The Chinese government has prosecuted individuals accused of assisting or encouraging such suicides.

Assimilation of ethnic minorities is a tried and tested tool in China.

The Mongols and the Manchus, who were originally viewed as barbarians, successfully conquered China and governed it, the former for almost 100 years, the latter for more than 250 years.

Today, both are recognized as among the country’s 56 ethnic groups but their members are largely indistinguishable from the general Han population. Although there are still 10 million ethnic Manchus in the country, they no longer speak their original language.

There are 10 million Uighurs in China and 6.2 million Tibetans compared with 1.2 billion Han Chinese.

Theoretically at least, both Uighurs and Tibetans can easily be assimilated through intermarriage since the two minorities combined account for little more than 1 percent of the Chinese population.

But it is unlikely that financial incentives, and intermarriage, will succeed. Minorities need more room for preserving and developing their culture, not less.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.