Why does Xi’s China not value ethnic minorities? Look at these women shine

The Image Formers section investigates how a photo determines our view of reality. This week: cheerful Chinese women in traditional costumes.

Arno HaijtemaMarch 10, 202314:04

They will be the sparkling center of attention on Sunday after the opening ceremony of the Chinese People’s Congress in Beijing. The international news agencies refer to the women, rather crudely, as ‘representatives of ethnic minorities’. In their multicolored costumes and elegant headdresses, they embody the cultural diversity of the People’s Republic of China. They radiate joy, because the whole world should know: President Xi Jinping also sees and hears them at the congress. They also exude confidence, as the text on the phone case of the woman on the right testifies: The world is yours.

Men in gray suits

The women, both in the square in front of the Great Hall of the People and inside (as can be seen in other photos), are the sprouting crocuses in a field that is still winter. Middle-aged and older men in gray suits dominate the annual convention, where 2,948 representatives from all corners of China gather to hear the course the president and his supporters have mapped out for the near future. Contradiction is not expected there, unlike patience, only the powerful leaders have a microphone. It is logical that photographers pick the most beautiful flowers in that field of ready-to-wear suits. And perhaps also understandable, albeit sloppy, that in the euphoria of a rare photogenic moment they forget to ask where the women are from.

About the author

Arno Haijtema is editor at de Volkskrant and writes about photography and the way news photos shape our worldview, among other things.

When the photos are enlarged, the ID badges on the women’s chests are legible. The four in predominantly red and blue clothing, it was discovered Volkskrantcorrespondent Leen Vervaeke, belong to the Zhuang minority. The woman with the silverware belongs to the Miao. Both peoples originate from the southern province of Guangxi. With nearly 17 million souls, the Zhuang make up 1.27 percent of China’s population, the Miao with 9.5 million 0.7 percent. Those badges also show that traditional clothing is not their daily outfit. Usually, as their passport photos suggest, they wear light blue shirts with a tie – the trademark of the office clerk.

Whether they spontaneously decided to put on their festive attire or were encouraged to do so by the party is, of course, impossible to ascertain. But that they fit seamlessly into the Communist Party’s propagandistic framework is undeniable. They confirm the image of China as a great one family of manof a world empire that knows unity in diversity and where minorities are therefore respected.

Fate of the Uighurs

The photo may evoke different, contrasting associations in a well-informed Westerner. He thinks of the fate of the Tibetans, whose country has been occupied by China since 1950. Or the oppression of the Uyghurs in Western China, who have been imprisoned en masse in concentration camps because of their Islamic faith to be ‘re-educated’. These are less welcome thoughts in the Chinese dictatorship, but the party propaganda department probably won’t lose any sleep over them.

The Chinese gaze, Vervaeke wrote earlier this week, is turning away from the West and is focusing more and more on countries south of the equator. Free press, which reports on human rights violations, for example, is less self-evident in many of those countries than in the West. Only 33 regular China correspondents were allowed access to the media center of the People’s Congress, a fraction of the total. Sixty journalists with little prior knowledge were flown in from southern countries, selected and paid by China. They receive plane tickets, an apartment and a monthly allowance.

Anyone who is welcomed in Beijing in this way is likely to view the Chinese version of cultural diversity more favorably than a critical Xi watcher. And is more receptive to the zest for life that these Zhuang and Miao radiate. This one does.