Colonial squeeze hurts the margins

Frontier People

December 1, 2006

Frontier People is an anthropological study of the encounter between Han Chinese immigrants and the native non-Chinese peoples in China's borderlands. Mette Hansen's main assertion is that colonialism is not the exclusive privilege of Western nations; neither is its history a closed book.

To support her argument, she does not simply do the conventional thing: a critique of China's minority policies, for instance, or a study of the real or imagined victims of Chinese domination. Instead, she provides a nuanced and textured view of the agents of China's decades-long colonial penetration of its frontier: Han Chinese sojourners and settlers from China's interior: administrators, teachers, soldiers, workers, farmers, convicts, business people, labourers and, most recently, tourists.

Hansen did her research in two quite different locations, Jinghong in Sipsong Panna on the Sino-Burmese border and Xiahe in southern Gansu on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.

At heart, the story of Han Chinese migration to both places is remarkably similar, which Hansen reveals as she charts the profound changes wrought by the surge in migration to these areas driven by a recent tourist boom.

However, the book's real strength is its juxtaposition of the raw materialism of this reform-era Han migration and tourism with earlier migration associated with the state-led development drive of the Mao decades. The latter was bureaucratically rationalist, revolutionary, romantic and punitive all at the same time, and it amounted to a massive colonising project that allocated millions of Chinese to jobs in Government, the Army, schools, hospitals, state farms and ordinary villages or even labour camps in border provinces.

Hansen draws on hundreds of interviews to document her informants' belief that their dedication and hard work have brought civilisation and modernity to these primitive and remote areas, a belief not dissimilar to Kipling's infamous "white man's burden".

There is yet another twist to this tale. Although many of the Mao-era migrants eventually moved on to jobs elsewhere in China, most stayed for good. Their children, having grown up locally as the offspring of a privileged group, are now in an ambiguous position. The recent economic migrants from the interior are often despised locally, and the associated stereotype of vulgarity, opportunism, "low quality" and a willingness to do any type of work for anyone rubs off on these local Han Chinese. Also, people in the second generation often find themselves missing out on state jobs that are preferentially given to members of local minority groups.

Caught between affirmative action and negative ethnic stereotyping, members of the second generation assert their local roots, arguing that they, like the local minority nationalities, should be recognised as a "local minority" rather than simply as members of the dominant national Han majority.

Hansen's meticulous research has lent a voice to the many life histories, hopes, achievements and disappointments of the millions of Chinese at China's frontiers, giving an invaluable glimpse of the innumerable strands that make up the story of China's colonisation of its borderlands since 1949. However, she also concedes that, in the final analysis, that the outcome is likely to be uniform: the Chinese state's civilising discourse is not merely prescriptive, but in the end depressingly descriptive.

We may surmise that in a few decades, Jinghong and Xiahe will be just two other Chinese cities. As in countless other Chinese places, a few idiosyncratic customs, by now simply considered part of the local variant of Han Chinese culture, may be all that will survive of a non-Chinese origin that has been forgotten, if not actively denied.

Frank N. Pieke is lecturer in the modern politics and society of China, St Cross College, Oxford.

Frontier People: Han Settlers in Minority Areas of China

Author - Mette Halskov Hansen
Publisher - C. Hurst & Co
Pages - 266
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 85065 755 6

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