BEIJING (AFP) — Beijing's China Ethnic Culture Park features what it calls "precise re-creations" of life for all China's 56 ethnic groups, but one thing seems in short supply: actual ethnic minorities.
"There are no Uighurs here," said a Han Chinese security guard in the forlorn-looking section devoted to that restive Muslim ethnicity from western China's Xinjiang region.
"There haven't been any for several years," he said.
A young Tibetan women said all those in her section were from Qinghai province -- not Tibet, which exploded in anti-Chinese rioting in March.
The attraction changed its English name from the unfortunate translation "Racist Park" in recent years. Yet it appears to remain a monument to the ruling Communist Party's longtime message of Han Chinese superiority, rather than national diversity.
That paternalistic role was highlighted this week with the revelation that children representing Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic groups in a key part of the Olympics opening ceremony were actually members of the dominant Han ethnic group, which makes up more than 90 percent of China's population.
Games organisers had claimed the 56 children who carried out the national flag in the ceremony in a moment meant to showcase national unity were from each official ethnic group in China.
But they were actually all Han, Yuan Zhifeng, deputy director of the Galaxy Children's Art Troupe to which the children belonged, told the Asian Wall Street Journal.
The apparent fakery came after ethnic tensions in China made headlines this year with long-simmering resentment against Han Chinese rule in Tibet and Uighur-populated Xinjiang erupting into violence.
To world audiences, the opening ceremony incident may have appeared insensitive to minorities, akin to having white Australians represent aborigines, but in China it is routine, said China minorities expert Dru Gladney.
"I would not be surprised if some ethnic minorities in China were offended by this but they are also accustomed to it," said Gladney, a professor at Pomona College in the United States.
"In the West, we are obsessed with authenticity in such matters but it's different in China. I'd guess many Chinese would not have a problem with it."
Beijing Olympics organising committee vice president Wang Wei reflected such sentiments when asked about the ceremony's "ethnic" children.
"I see nothing wrong exactly with (where) the children are from... it is a tradition in China in terms of giving a performance," Wang said.
Gladney said it was Communist Party policy to promote the image of a harmonious and colourful collection of minorities following the lead of the "more developed" Han.
Han Chinese, meanwhile, are regularly seen on television dressed as other minorities.
During the annual sessions of parliament, the roughly 3,000 dark-suited delegates to the rubber-stamp body are sprinkled with minority delegates who, according to party protocol, show up in full traditional regalia.
However, only 16 of the 204 members of the Communist Party's Central Committee are minorities, with the rest being Han, according to government data.
At the ethnic culture park, three women lounged in the heat of the Mongolia section in traditional Mongolian gowns.
Speaking perfect Mandarin, they insisted they were Mongolian, but when asked to say common phrases such as "Welcome to the Beijing Olympics" in the Mongol language, they could not.
"Some things are harder to translate into our language," said one.
Gladney said China has done much to improve the lives and basic services of minorities across the country and vast numbers of them back the "national unity" message. But others worry.
"I think the fear for many is: does harmony and unity ultimately mean assimilation and surrendering their own identity and autonomy?" Gladney said.
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