When Will China Have Its First Minority President?

The country's current attitudes towards ethnic identity suggest it won't be anytime soon.

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Members of China's Uighur minority walk past a statue of Mao Zedong in Kashgar. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Ethno-cultural diversity has been a mainstay of U.S. politics since the 1960s, with this election cycle featuring perhaps the most diverse slate of candidates. On Tuesday, Barack Obama became the first two-term African-American president, while his challenger Mitt Romney came close to shattering an equally unthinkable barrier by becoming America's first Mormon head of state. Over half of current members of the U.S. Congress self-identify with some sort of non-White, non-Protestant category. Not surprisingly, American politics is a heterogeneous affair, reflecting the increasingly complex demographic mix of the American melting pot as well as the maturity of its democracy.

In China, however, diversity remains something for the museum or the frontier, rather than the halls of power at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announces its new leaders at the 18th Party Congress next week, ethnic uniformity will once again reign supreme: Seven to nine cookie-cutter men in dark suits and black-dyed hair, each representing the Han ethnic majority that officially comprises 91.5% of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

There are over five million non-Han members of the CCP, representing 6.6 percent of the total population. Yet all nine members of the current Standing Committee are Han men. In fact, there is only one non-Han member of the current 24 member Politburo: Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who is a member of the Muslim Hui minority but made his career along the Han-dominated coastal provinces. Besides Mr Hui, there have only been three other non-Han members of the Politburo since 1949, with none of them reaching the all-powerful Standing Committee. At present, the party-secretaries of all five provincial-level autonomous regions are also Han. From Mao Zedong to leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, modern China's paramount leaders have always been Han.

To most Chinese, the thought of a Uyghur or Tibetan president of China is unthinkable. Members of ethnic minorities might be suitable for largely ceremonial positions, such as the figurehead of an ethnic autonomous region, or an expert on minority dance or history, but the Han are the core of the Chinese nation and, many believe, reflect the most culturally advanced elements. The only sort of Uyghur or Tibetan president one is likely to see in the future, so some in the West hope, is the head of an independent East Turkestan or Tibet. But with the PRC government and much of its population fixated on asserting Chinese sovereignty over barren rocks in the east and south China seas, the thought of territorial disintegration is equally unfathomable.

But this hasn't always been the case. Imperial China was a heterogeneous and at times extremely diverse place, with some Chinese emperors feeling more comfortable on a horse or in a tent rather than on the Dragon Throne. Li Yuan, the founder of the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-907), was of mixed ethnic origin; Muslim mariner Zheng He sailed as far as Africa during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644); and the Mongols, Manchus and other minority communities made important contributions to Chinese culture, with the Manchu qipao or cheongsam being but one example. In fact, without the Manchu conquest of China, the PRC's territory would be about half its current size, and certainly much less diverse.

Legally speaking, all 56 officially recognized "nationalities" (minzu 民族) are equal members of the PRC, part of the same multicultural mosaic. Yet by any objective standard -- income, education, political power -- non-Han minorities remain far behind their Han counterparts. To many Han Chinese, this reflects the natural state of being, where the primitive yet colorful minorities sing and dance while the advanced Han lead the nation and its industry.

In modern China, ethnicity is fixed as a part of one's DNA, and in many Han people's minds, organized according to an evolutionary ladder with the Han firmly at the top. Ethno-cultural identity is fluid and self-ascribed in the United States and elsewhere, but in China it is a relatively static state category, a single minzu stamped on one's ID card, in which hyphens and ambiguity have no place. In fact, only 3% of PRC citizens live in a bi-ethnic household, compared to over 8% in the United States, where 15% of all new marriages in 2008 were interracial. In contrast, only 1.58% of Han households are bi-ethnic in China.

But this isn't the way identity operates among the Han majority. Inter-regional relationships, stereotypes, dialects and cuisine both define and demark what it means to be "Chinese" today. Ask any Beijing person what they think of people from Shanghai or Guangzhou and you are sure to get a string of ethno-cultural descriptors. Linguistically there is arguably more diversity among the Han than there is between the Han and the minorities. Why, in this case, aren't the Cantonese a minzu?

China is a truly diverse country. Yet, too much of its ethno-cultural pluralism is incarcerated by ethnic categories and norms: 56 different sized and colored boxes. And too often one's box predetermines one's position and role within Chinese society. This sort of rigidity prevents the rich, free flowing tapestry of identity that defines American society today. Until Chinese society looks itself in the mirror and rethinks the differences it sees, there is little chance that one of its more than 110 million minority citizens will be running the country.

This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.