April 7, 2021

YANG | Are Han(汉) Chinese the “White People” of China?

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As a Chinese citizen in America, the huge spike in anti-Asian violence since last year shakes me to my core. Stuck in Ithaca, I certainly feel helpless. As a Chinese student in America who, at the moment, has no plans to obtain American citizenship, these attacks should have been an opportunity for solidarity between the two groups. In the eyes of many of these hate-fueled attackers, there is no difference between us.

Solidarity, on some level, has indeed occurred. Most Chinese citizens in America (including me) still primarily identify as Chinese. For some of us, America represents half a decade of meaningful educational experience; for others, America represents a place to work and may even become a place to live. Since we have yet to call this place “家” (home), it may be hard for us to identify with some of America’s political movements. Despite the fact that 2020 was a politically tumultuous year in America, my perception was that many fellow Chinese citizen Cornellians did not engage with the events unfolding in this country. Not this time. My fellow Chinese friends at Cornell have sensed a real identification with and attachment to the victims down in Atlanta, with the elderly man beaten up on the street of San Francisco and with other instances of anti-Asian discrimination.

At the same time, when the Atlanta shootings sparked a political awakening among Chinese Cornellians, the atrocities back home against our Uighur brothers and sisters have become worse. Some American firms are even boycotting cotton sourced in Xinjiang due to allegations that these products were made by Uighur forced labor, conducted through schemes of “transfer labor.” These atrocities have severely impacted China’s global reputation, so much so that it has even affected our community here at Cornell, when the Faculty Senate voted to oppose a partnership with Peking University in Beijing, China.

Of course, just like anti-Asian violence did not emerge out of nowhere in March, the human rights violations against Uighurs — not just in Xinjiang but throughout China — also did not emerge out of nowhere. Before the Chinese government officially recognized “re-education camps” existence after months of denial, some of the earliest international reports regarding the “re-education” camps emerged in mid-2018, with The Economist and Reuters documenting these mass facilities through satellite images and construction contracts. More and more horrific reports regarding the state’s suppression of our Uighur compatriots have emerged. The reports include the problem with “leftover children” and the use of detainees as a mass labor force, many even contributing to the PPE production. The list of violations is exhaustive, both numerically and mentally, and is certainly damning evidence against the Chinese government. 

But what about us, Chinese citizens, here at Cornell? Or, more specifically, what about Han Chinese students currently living in America? What is our responsibility? It is encouraging to see fellow Chinese citizens in America increasingly embrace the pursuit for racial justice in the American dimension. But is being “woke” only through this dimension enough, or even morally justifiable? What about the Chinese dimension?

There, of course, seldom exists a public distinction between Chinese-Americans and Chinese citizens (Chinese law doesn’t allow for dual citizenship) who live in America. We face the same stereotypes and fetishizations, proven lethal by the Atlanta shootings, the same “bamboo ceiling” that suffocates us, and the same scapegoating for the horrific pandemic. 

This can enable us to truly sympathize with the plights of minorities in our home country — namely Uighurs and many others including Hui, Tibetans, Mongolians and Kazakhs. There is evidence that many Chinese citizens at Cornell did become more aware of their plights. On Cornell Confession Wall’s Instagram page — a Chinese free-speech platform provided by an anonymous Chinese student at Cornell, where people talk mostly about “gossipy” stuff — the controversy of “Xinjiang Cotton” has been lively debated. This has also been given significant attention back in China as the government has ramped up a boycott campaign to retaliate against international brands boycotting Xinjiang products. I am genuinely surprised to find so many other like-minded Chinese Cornellians who also detest what our government has done.

Still, many comments that defend the current policy against Uighurs insist on drawing a vast distinction between the “American” and the “Chinese” dimension. One could argue that, just like how many Chinese citizens in America do not consider themselves a minority here, despite the way American society deems us, many Han Chinese individuals refuse to genuinely consider themselves as the privileged ethnicity in China, the “white people” of China, for instance.

If we dig deeper, “whiteness” can undoubtedly be manifested not only in the racial dynamics of the West. Unlike minority races, “whiteness” is often the “absence of race,” the “default man.”  America’s utilities and services have been designed to serve this default “white man,” causing immensely harmful consequences to others. It is no wonder, then, that as the politically dominant group in China that is also 90 percent of the country’s population, Han Chinese are considered the “default man” in China.

In China, Han ethnicity is the “absence of ethnicity.” For a country that simultaneously wants to embrace the idea that China is a “multiethnic” country and somehow a “Han nation-state,” there, of course, will exist a racial dynamic in the Chinese dimension that is comparable to the American dimension. Han Chinese are in a scenario where we are the “white people” of China, whose ethnic privilege also grants us an equal amount of moral culpability to the atrocities that are ongoing in our homeland. But, in America, we are among a greater minority who are victims of senseless and violent hatred because of our ethnicity.

Indeed, to be “woke” on the American dimension while completely indulging in the Chinese dimension is glaringly hypocritical. But what I fear more is that what fuels this cognitive dissonance is rather diabolical self-interest. How can you wake someone up, if they only pretend to be asleep? 

Weifeng Yang is a masters student at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]. Poplar Sovereignty runs every other Wednesday this semester.