“Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands” by Joshua Bird

Xining (via Wikimedia Commons) Xining (via Wikimedia Commons)

The ban on Arabic script at halaal restaurants in Beijing last month is a somewhat small, yet unnerving reminder of China’s illiberal relationship with its various minority populations. More serious has been the reported detainment of a million-plus Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang over the past couple of years. Similarly, the on-going detention of many Tibetan Buddhists—as well as a near universal ban of foreign travel for individuals living in the Tibetan region—also indicate a tense relationship between the single-party People’s Republic of China (PRC) and many minority populations.

The 55 “minority nationalities”, as defined by the Chinese party-state, only account for around eight percent of China’s 1.3 billion people. Yet, this non-Han population still amounts to a large number at over 100 million. How they do, or do not, interact with the overarching Han identity will continue to have a profound impact on China’s prosperity—particularly the farther one travels inward away from the coastal megalopolises.


Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and identity along China’s multi-ethnic borderlands, Joshua Bird (Routledge, new edition, January 2019)
Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and identity along China’s multi-ethnic borderlands, Joshua Bird (Routledge, new edition, January 2019)

Insightful and measured, Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity along China’s Multi-Ethnic Borderlands by Joshua Bird is a fascinating evaluation of the day-to-day lived experience of those non-Han individuals. This is a measured investigation specifically because Bird focuses his study on ordinary people, making an ordinary living in China, including simple businessmen, small-time retailers, provincial-level traders, and local entrepreneurs. This is not a book about extreme cases of minority repression. Rather, the background assumption here is that by concentrating on those individuals, who are materially tied into the system for their livelihood—which is, indeed, most minorities in China—the researcher can better judge the government’s development plans as a whole on these populations. The outlier cases often make for good journalism, but they rarely represent the experience of most minorities, who are simply trying to maintain some sense of ethnic or religious identity that is independent of the juggernaut that is Han culture and society.

The Chinese authorities’ official view has been that if they were to succeed in improving the economic development of minority nationalities, then this would inevitably lead to a diminishing of political identity. As Bird notes, official policies like the “Open Up The West” campaign


have been created in the explicit belief that increased economic growth in minority nationality areas, and improved livelihoods for those who live there, will facilitate greater national cohesion.


In this case, minority local languages and minority status are fine—even encouraged for reasons of tourism—as long as they don’t signal any type of independent political aspiration. The end goal would be for these minority nationalities to fold into an overarching national Chinese identity that is neutral, modern, and favorable to the Chinese Communist Party.


Bird’s contribution to this discussion is that the interrelationship between identity and economic development may be having the opposite effect that the Chinese government wanted. In fact, as Bird notes,


ethnic identities—among others—shape economic engagement for ethnic entrepreneurs in ways that may strengthen rather than weaken these identities.


In other words, the more that minority populations engage in economic activity, the more they tend to embrace their ethnic identity. A rise in prosperity does not translate into a diminishing of identity. Rather, these minority nationality entrepreneurs “could actually facilitate strengthened national minority identity.”

This could become problematic if increased minority identity were to translate into increased political consciousness. Bird is direct in saying,


By their very success, minority nationality entrepreneurs have already begun to challenge existing constructions of their national identity, and could signal a resurgence of local pride coupled with economic and political clout… The involvement of minority nationality entrepreneurs in the market economy has the potential to translate their new-found wealth into political capital on behalf of their communities.


This strengthened “political clout” and “political capital” may, or may not, end up as an additional support for the Chinese government. For the majority Chinese Han, the “new rich” are “often indistinguishable from the Party-state in their social, political and even economic interests.” This may not be guaranteed for all minority nationalists, as “it remains to be seen if minority nationality entrepreneurs follow the same trajectory.”


Bird’s evidence stems mainly from five research sites that span the northwestern provinces of Xining and Gansu. Though this study is not a complete survey of entrepreneurs from all 55 minority populations, the interviews and fieldwork that Bird draw upon for his argument make for a fascinating read because they are so in-depth. Specifically, the stories from Hui, Tibetan, and Dongxiang are powerful representations of the average struggles of minority people, who just so happen to not be of the majority. As Bird describes,


If economic development was truly synonymous with weakened ethnic identity, this research would have found that those at the vanguard of minority nationality economic engagement—entrepreneurs—have a weaker sense of minority identity, with a corresponding higher degree of political and cultural integration into the Chinese nation-state. However, research findings seem to run counter to this PRC policy orthodoxy.


The evidence presented by Bird is convincing on this point. And the interviews cataloged here “reveal that their economic life is overwhelmingly experienced through an ethnic lens.”

Well-reasoned and revealing, Economic Development in China’s Northwest is a compelling book on ordinary people’s ability to maintain, and even strengthen, their sense of ethnic and religious identity in the face of an often overwhelming, state-sponsored majority.


Editor’s note: Joshua Bird is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books.

T F Rhoden, PhD, has been a resident of Southeast Asia for fifteen years and currently works in international aid and relief. His most recent book is Karen Language Phrasebook: Basics of Sgaw Dialect (White Lotus Press, 2015).