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Ethno-Religious Mobilisation and Citizenship Discourse in the People's Republic of China

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In the post-Cold War world, 'identity politics' is seen by many as posing the greatest threat to peace and political institutions, liberal or otherwise. In light of the carnage of Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda and former Soviet republics, cultural identity politics would seem to be a politics, or antipolitics, of the most virulent and savage sort. Yet research conducted among three Chinese minority nationalities - the Dai, Bai and Muslim Hui of Yunnan Province - reveals that the relationship between cultural activism and minority nationalist sentiment is not always so clear-cut. I show that such activism, which includes linguistic promotion and religious education, can in fact express claims derived from a national political identity, a conception of minority membership in the Chinese national community. Certain instances of minority cultural activism are efforts to put teeth into the party-state's promises of autonomy and to reject the stereotype of shaoshu minzu as backward and uncivilised. Such activism is thus a means of asserting minorities' rightful place in the contemporary Chinese body politic. At the same time, such cultural activism may cement cross-national ethnic and religious identities, thereby consolidating the material and ideological resources that make anti-state behaviour more feasible. Even when cultural activism shows acceptance of inclusive nation-state norms, minority inclusion may be limited by the behaviour and attitudes of the state, or by the content of national identity itself. In discussing these issues, minority cultural activism will also be juxtaposed with a very different sort of ethnic mobilisation, one which does pose a serious threat to the integrity of Chinese boundaries and the ability of the state to enforce its rule. The paper thus also shows how ethnicity within Yunnan Province can be a resource for anti-state behaviour, even when the aims of such actions are not ethnic in content.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of California, Berkeley

Publication date: 2000-09-01

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