Multicultural education in China

Leibold_thb Dr James Leibold

The People's Republic of China promotes itself as a harmonious, stable multicultural mosaic, with 56 distinct ethnic groups striving for common prosperity. It's an image we remember well from the Beijing Olympics.

But beneath the rhetoric, there is inter-ethnic discord and hostility, with Lhasa, Ürümqi, Shaoguan and other cities witnessing horrific scenes of violence over the last couple of years.

This disturbing spike in ethnic violence has the potential to destabilise the world's fastest growing economy.  China's massive education and propaganda machine is a linchpin in Communist party-state's efforts to keep a lid on simmering tensions while seeking to transform its rhetoric of harmony into reality.

Education curricula and policy-making seeks to cultivate a sense of shared national belonging through specially designed programs that target all citizens. These include history and geography courses which emphasis the natural, long-term fusion of the Chinese people and its territory.

Civics lessons outline the state's ethnic policies and extensive system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities. There are specially designed classes, schools and universities for minority training, and a series of affirmative action policies aimed at promoting equal educational opportunities for minority students.

So how effective is multicultural and multiethnic education in the PRC?

This week (December 2 and 3) an intensive two-day conference in Melbourne of sixteen leading scholars from China, Hong Kong, USA, and Australia will examine this important question, and discuss ongoing obstacles to inter-ethnic harmony and national integration in China.

The PRC was founded in 1949 as a 'unified multiethnic country', comprising 55 distinct ethnic minorities and a single Han majority. It followed the model of the Soviet Union in creating a complex system of institutions and statutes aimed at promoting the equality, harmonious coexistence and mutual prosperity of all these groups.

In recognition of the 'backward and feudal' nature of most non-Han minorities, the 1954 Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy created an extensive regime of special educational rights and privileges for minorities, including extra funding and subsidies, preferential enrolment quotas, remedial classes, and specialised schools and curricula.

In the thirty years since China launched its policy of 'reform and opening up' in 1979, these policies have more than doubled the number of minority students in China - from 10 million to nearly 22 million last year - while producing a dramatic 35-fold increase in those attending tertiary institutions - from 37,000 to 1.3 million.

In some regions, like parts of the Southwest, these initiatives have produced real socioeconomic results, improving the livelihood of some minorities.

Yet, recent research has exposed many shortcomings and implementation challenges that continue to plague these policies. In most cases, ethnic minority education is culturally 'hollowed out' for fear of promoting 'local nationalism' while specialised 'inland' schools for minority students re-enforce ethnic identity and difference.

Despite this targeted approach, many minority communities remain underdeveloped, underemployed and marginalised within Chinese society. In short, the party-state's use of minority education as a civilising and propaganda vehicle has tended to work against its larger objective of national integration.

At the same time, its affirmative action policies are engendering growing resentment among the Han majority that comprises 91% of the population.

Deep strains of historical racism and ethnocentrism are fuelling a new wave of Han nationalism, which is one of the factors behind the increase in inter-ethnic violence and hostility. Similarly, many Han intellectuals are beginning to question the fairness and effectiveness of these affirmative action policies and the very nature of Chinese multiculturalism.

While China's minority population comprises less than 10 per cent of the population, it inhabits more than 60 per cent of China's territory - much of it along strategic and resource rich frontier regions.

National integration and interethnic stability are therefore crucial determinants in China's ability to maintain the rapid economic growth that is currently underpinning world growth.

* Dr Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies and Politics at La Trobe University and co-organiser of the conference on 'Multicultural Education and the Challenges to Chinese National Integration' being held in Melbourne this week.