The Chinese Lunar New Year’s Gala is a thirty-year-old tradition that attracts nearly seven hundred million domestic viewers. With its tremendous reach, the Gala is a powerful vehicle for state propaganda. Take last year’s performance, Wo de yaoqiu bu suan gao [My Expectations Aren’t That High], with lines such as, “This is my Chinese Dream…Children go to college…Graduate and get a job” and “Society is equal for stars and peasants,” all themes that President Xi Jinping has articulated as part of the Chinese Dream “to build a moderately prosperous society.”
As a national tradition, the Gala’s images shape social consciousness. Its skits have historically trafficked Uighur stereotypes, feeding culturally essentialist imagery to viewers. To some extent, Han Chinese—nearly 90 percent of the country—have been conditioned to distance themselves from Uighurs. The Gala has therefore historically opposed state attempts to assimilate Uighurs into a national culture.
However, this past Gala departed from stereotypical representation of the Uighur. It has accordingly shown the potential to correct racist tradition and support state assimilation policy.
Preserving a geopolitical wall
For the past forty years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has struggled with Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang, a historically Muslim province bordering Kazakhstan and Russia. According to the Chinese census, about nine million ethnic Uighurs—a Turkic ethnicity comprising 80 percent of China’s Muslim population—live in Xinjiang. Many forces, ranging from a Soviet-backed insurgency to the Arab Spring, have exacerbated the conflict. Today, Uighurs face labor market discrimination and limited religious freedom.
Security issues continue today: nearly nine hundred conflict-related deaths have been recorded over the past seven years. In addition to hard policies that limit violence in the short-term, such as military policing, the government is pursuing “ethnic unity” under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Unity is sought through assimilation of the Uighur “ethnic culture” into a greater Chinese collective “national culture,” as outlined in the Fall 2014 Xinjiang Work Forum.
The CCP’s framework for unification includes banning the Uighur language in elementary schools, sending Han Chinese to Xinjiang to export national culture, providing scholarships for Xinjiang’s brightest students to study in tier-one cities, and broadcasting pro-assimilation TV shows across the province. These strategies attempt to expose Uighurs to national culture from outside Xinjiang. Unfortunately, these strategies are products of tunnel vision. They focus on Uighurs but neglect Han Chinese.
Love is a two-way street
Cultural assimilation requires Han Chinese to accept Uighurs. That is, assimilation requires two parties to cooperate. It is therefore problematic that the Han majority does not embrace Uighur immigrants, even though President Xi recommends that Uighurs move across the country. Uighurs face prejudice and discrimination both in Xinjiang and across the country. When Uighurs leave Xinjiang, many suffer in a similar way to North Korean refugees in South Korea. Beyond linguistic and economic issues, they face intense mistrust and discrimination. Many feel isolated and lonely, effectively preventing unity.
As a tool for influencing public opinion, the annual Gala is responsible for perpetuating racism tied to this discrimination. By preventing Han Chinese from understanding Uighurs, the Gala has historically prevented the ethnic unity that the state deems necessary for political stability.
Overt Uighur stereotypes emerge as early as the 1986 Gala. In one skit, a Han actor pretends to be a Han in regular clothing. In trouble with the police, he then disguises himself as a Uighur. The Uighur has a giant mustache, cheap robe, and a thick accent. He is a cheat, illegally selling low-quality lamb-kebab. He is presented as a lower class criminal, untrustworthy and manipulative. As such, he is depicted as a binary opposite of the Han officer.
In the 2012 Gala, this stereotype implicitly persists. One host described a near-unintelligible accent as “Youdian yangrouchuan de weidao,” claiming the accent was “a bit lamb-kebab flavored,” referencing the same stereotype of the uncultured, dangerous Uighur notorious for selling lamb-kebab. With such racist ideology, the Gala is responsible for perpetuating Uighur discrimination. To a certain extent, these representations shape the public consciousness and promote discrimination.
Less overt examples of racism include culturally essentialist elements. As recently as 2013, Uighurs were included in an amorphous minority collective distinct only as separate from the popular national culture. Note that the minorities were clearly distinguished from the singers—but not from each other.
The Gala has conditioned Han viewers to think of themselves as separate from Uighurs, effectively preventing the majority, or national culture, from absorbing the minority, or ethnic culture. As a result, full ethnic unity under national culture has been unobtainable. Therefore, although ethnic unity has been a goal of the CCP, its Galas have been counterproductive. So, what’s special about 2015?
A new face
This year, over six hundred million Han viewers met Negmat Rahman, the first Uighur host in history. Rahman was clean-shaven, professionally dressed, and fluent in Mandarin. But his name was a distinct transliteration from Uighur. He was clearly not Han. Rahman’s presence directly undermined Uighur stereotypes. He taught the hundreds of millions of Han viewers that Uighurs are not necessarily terrorists, thieves, or “others.” In this capacity, Rahman helps solve China’s assimilation puzzle.
Assuming the CCP desires to assimilate Uighurs into Chinese society, Rahman provided broadcasters the best of both worlds. He appealed to the Uighur minority, making them feel a part of the national collective through the shared Gala, and educated the Han majority, challenging the racism that contributes to separatism. Still, although we can analyze the effects of Rahman’s promotion, the causes remain unknown. It is at least clear that the broadcasters did not make a full about-face. A Uighur woman—state-approved outfit, thick accent, and all—is interviewed during the Gala.
Admittedly, Xinjiang’s conflict is complex beyond the scope of this piece. Nevertheless, cultural assimilation is a fundamental piece of the puzzle—that is why the CCP pursues ethnic unity for stability. Though past Galas have propagated racist ideology, effectively preventing ethnic unity, the 2015 Gala has shown potential for new socio-ethnic ideology. Granted, a perfect Gala will not transform ethnic culture into national culture. Nevertheless, imagery free of cultural essentialism and racist tropes is necessary for the Han half of assimilation. Therefore, this year’s improved imagery is a strategic step forward in the long march to ethnic unity.