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Getting Started to Understand China

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To understand China -- well, there's a lot to understand, but we have to start somewhere.

The first thing to know is that China is an ethnostate.

Mainland China, whose official name is the People's Republic of China, is dominated by a single ethnic group called the "Han." The Chinese population is 91.6 percent Han, almost 1.3 billion of them. Over 50 other ethnic groups live in China, but as second-class citizens.

Minorities are second-class citizens because the Han, like almost all ethnic groups throughout history, value their own people's welfare more than the welfare of other groups -- i.e., they are ethnocentric.

It's not purely a racial thing. The Han see themselves as descendents of people who lived during China's Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Many of them are, but many are not. What they have in common are history, culture, attitudes, and language -- along with a certain amount of disdain for other ethnic groups. One computer technician in China stated in extreme terms what most Chinese feel much more mildly, and some hardly at all:

"The multiracial nationalism we have now in China ... is a big scam. It [forces] us Han, the core of China from the beginning of time, into submission. All that this nationalism has done is weaken China. You can’t just destroy the distinction between civilization and barbarism, incorporate a bunch of barbarians into our nation, and expect a strong nation." (Kevin Carrico, The Great Han, p.1, University of California Press, 2017)

When the Han think of barbarians, they don't just mean minorities: they mean anyone who isn't Han. Up to the 20th century, the Chinese official who handled diplomacy with other countries was called "the manager of barbarians."

In that attitude, the Han are similar to the ancient Greeks, who felt that all non-Greeks were somewhat inferior. It was the Greeks who gave us the word "barbarian" (βάρβαρος), which mocked foreign languages as nonsense syllables that sounded like "ba-ba-ba-ba."

And also like the Greeks, the Chinese are proud of their culture and its achievements. Their civilization has been around for 3,000 years or so. For most of that time, China was surrounded by smaller, weaker states to which it was easy to feel superior. But now, both for China and for the rest of us, it's a whole new world. We'll have to figure it out together.