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Chinese Socialism and Local Nationalism in the Discourse of Development

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This paper deals with 'development' — a state discourse formulated initially to transform the ethnic minority societies in China's southwest upon the founding of the People's Republic (PRC) — and how this state discourse has inadvertently served the interests of the ethnic elites in the course of China's current economic reforms. Half a century on, socialism on China's periphery has transformed from being an alien concept to acquiring its present catchphrase-status, underscoring a complex learning process on the part of ethnicminority cadres. Going beyond the conventional static view of binaries (typically, as often seen in English writings, Han versus non-Han and state versus society), this study explores the interaction of a wide range of forces within the political system that shape the dynamics of ethnicity and ethnic relations in China. It shows, as much as ethnic cadres are subject to certain restrictions of the local offices in which they serve, their manoeuvring and creative manipulation of the official language exerts equal constraints on the central state, especially in the context of economic development and nationalities policy. Such a mode of interaction generates, and at the same time mitigates the tension within the bureaucratic system. In this light, the 'embrace' of socialism by the ethnic cadres may indeed be seen as an adaptation through which they justify their relationship with the state. The magic of socialism is, therefore, not the ideology itself, but the policy implementation in its name. In a multiethnic region like southwest China, where ethnic identities remain fluid and local nationalism largely reflects inter-community relations vis-à-vis the state, socialism serves a unique conflict management function. This particular mechanism perhaps offers an explanation for the marked contrast between the former Soviet Union and PRC: in the former, socialism collapsed as a political system but not as a set of values, whereas, in the latter, socialism may have lost its appeal to the majority of the population as a set of values, but has not collapsed as a system.


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