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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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July 30, 2008 4:05 AM

Beijing 2008 Q&A: Dr. Stevan Harrell

Posted by Daniel Beekman

(Note: Bus bombs killed two people and injured 14 last week in Kunming, the capital city of southwest China's Yunnan province and the site of August's International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Conference - postponed by local officials this spring.)

On May 22, Dr. Stevan Harrell, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, headlined a 'China Earthquake Forum' hosted by the UW Jackson School's China Studies Program.

Since the 1980s, Harrell has conducted research in Sichuan province, where China's May 12 earthquake shook down villages, killed 70,000 people and left millions homeless.

Harrell, who won't attend the 2008 Olympic games, is considered an academic authority on the Nuosu or Liangshan Yi, a Chinese ethnic minority 8 million strong. Yi people speak a Tibeto-Burman language and reside primarily in China's southwestern mountain areas.

They are related to the Qiang, a people dispersed near the May 12 earthquake's epicenter who were hit particularly hard by the disaster.

Director for the UW Worldwide Program, which conducts undergraduate exchanges in partnership with Sichuan University, Harrell has penned and edited number of books, including Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China - a regional ethnography.

From 1999-2007, Harrell served as the Burke Museum's Curator of Asian Ethnology. In 2000 he founded the Yangjuan Primary School in rural Sichuan, with the goal of advancing environmental sustainability and community development through education.

In 2005, Harrell founded the Cool Mountain Education Fund, a small NGO that awards scholarships to Yangjuan School graduates. His UW students have participated in ecological fieldwork and community service at the Yangjuan School; UW students studying at Sichuan University relayed eyewitness accounts from the earthquake via The Seattle Times in May.

UW students raised thousands of dollars for victims of the May 12 earthquake this spring. About 100 students from Sichuan University have studied in Seattle since 2002; more than 800 Chinese students and scholars are currently at the UW.

I recently interviewed Harrell about the 2008 Olympic Games, the May 12 earthquake and Chinese ethnic minorities for Blogging Beijing.

When did you begin living/researching/working in China?

I've never lived in China. I lived in Taiwan for a total of two-plus years in the late 1960s and 1970s. I first visited China in 1980 as a tour leader, and did my first actual research project in 1988 in Panzhihua, with Sichuan University and the Panzhihua Artifacts Bureau.

What have been the highlights of your career in China?

The highlights are just starting to happen; for the last 6 years I have brought together research (on community organization, ethnic relations, ecological sustainability and elementary education), teaching (of UW undergrads and graduates) and social action (founding and supporting a school) in Yangjuan and Pianshui villages, Baiwu Township, Yanyuan County, Lianghan Prefecture, Sichuan.

(Note: For more on Dr. Harrell's research in Sichuan, check out Fieldwork Connections, which he co-authored.)

Why were you - and why are you still - interested in China?

It was the first foreign culture I ever encountered, in Hong Kong in 1965. I think that if I had encountered Afghanistan or Tahiti first, that would be where my interest would lie. Once you have put in all the time learning about a culture and language, it's hard to switch; I still don't think I have made an effective switch from Han to Nuosu culture.

How were you drawn into studying minority people in southwest China?

After the Mosher affair , it was impossible for foreigners to do field research in Han areas. My student Dru Gladney had done research with Hui in various areas, and encouraged me to give minorities a try.

For readers who know little about Chinese minorities, what are three essential kernels of information?

1. There are as many minority people in China as there are people in Japan, and way more than there are in any one European country.
2. Not all Chinese minorities have active independence movements. In fact, only two of them do: Tibetans and Uighurs.
3. Minority people participate actively in incorporating themselves into the Chinese state, even when they have resentments against the state and against the Han.

What do the 2008 Games mean for China - Chinese people, Chinese government, Chinese minorities, and Chinese academics?

More than anything else, the Games are a chance to show the world that China is a grownup country. That's really about all.

How have the 2008 Olympic Games affected minority people in China?

It seems pretty clear to me that the Tibetan protestors were emboldened by the prospect of international media attention to their grievances. But it backfired on them and on Uighurs through tighter scrutiny.

It also backfired on the backfire-ers through absolutely horrible press coverage of the government crackdown. On the whole, the Tibetan autonomy cause may have been advanced a bit, and the government agreed to another round of direct talks, which like all the previous rounds will probably lead nowhere.

Most people the Games haven't affected at all.

Do you believe the 2008 Games have been organized primarily for international or for domestic consumption?

Both. They are an attempt to excite further nationalistic pride among the populace, and to show the world that China is a modern country that can pull this off.

How have organizers, academics, government, and local people tied ideas about Chinese minorities to the Olympics?

I haven't seen anything.

What is the relationship between Sichuan's minorities and the Tibet Autonomous Region's Tibetans?

There are over two million Tibetans in Sichuan - that is, people classified as Zangzu (ethnically Tibetan). Some of these are linguistically and cultural identical to those in Tibet, particularly those in Amdo, or northeastern Tibet. One of the main regional dialect groupings of Tibet - Kharms - is located mostly in Sichuan.

There are also people in various parts of Sichuan who are classified as Zangzu but speak languages only distantly related to any form of Tibetan. In addition to Sichuan, there are large numbers of Tibetans in Qinghai and Gansu, and a small number in Yunnan.

There are a lot of cultural policies, including school curriculum, that are formulated by committees covering the Tibetans from the five provinces. The TAR population is in the minority of the total Tibetan population in China.

What are relations between Han and minority people like today in the areas you know?

Nuosu people resent Han for being haughty, untrustworthy and dishonest. They also admire Han for being industrious, studious and successful. On the whole, I think resentment may be greater than it was in the past, because there is more contact.

On the other hand, because so many minority people migrate to cities and interact daily with Han, they have probably gotten to know them better. This could be good or bad.

How have the minority people you know been affected by the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan?

No effects in Liangshan. I have one friend from Mao Xian, a Qiang, and a lot of her relatives' villages were wiped out. Tibetans at Jiuzhaigou (a famously scenic national park) lost a huge amount of income because tourism stopped for several weeks; I just got an email saying they have about 400 visitors a day now versus the 12,000 or so a day they normally have during the summer.

How were or weren't the minority people of Sichuan affected by the earthquake in different ways than Han people?

The Qiang were heavily affected because the epicenter was in their area. No statistics available, but I'm guessing a lot of the earthquake's fatalities were Qiang.

In your opinion, how will the May 12 earthquake affect the 2008 Olympic Games?

Not at all. There will probably be a moment of silence or something, but that's it.

What could go wrong at the 2008 Games?

The air could be too polluted for high-level performances. The water at Qingdao could be un-sailable because of algae.

The foreign press will be extremely fed up and will try to report on this and will not be allowed to. The domestic press may feel stifled.

The government may be so tough visas that the stadiums won't be filled. The Chinese might, as the Communists did in Moscow in 1980, cheat to make sure their own athletes win.

Could minority people be involved in making or breaking the Games?

Not particularly. Nobody in China is against the Games, except for a few radicals.

In your opinion, how will these 2008 Olympics play out?

Just like any other - people in Beijing will welcome foreigners, clean up the streets and make a good impression. There will be dramatic moments in the competition itself, used for chauvinistic purposes by American, Chinese and probably Russian television, and appreciated for their intrinsic worth by more sensible countries.

Do you believe the condition of human rights in China warrants protest of the Games?

Not really. The Tibetans weren't protesting the Games in March. They were protesting curbs on religious freedom and other indignities. But I do think the Games provide a good spotlight to show what is right and wrong with China. For most Chinese people this is one of the biggest events of their lifetime. Do-gooder foreigners shouldn't deprive them of it.

What sorts of ties bind China/Sichuan/Sichuan University and the U.S./Washington/UW?

UW and Sichuan University have a lot of academic programs in common. Sichuan and Washington are 'sister provinces,' although our current state government is not very interested in this. The U.S. and China are completely interdependent; each country's economy would immediately fail without the other. This is a big reason why China does not want to invade Taiwan.

What happened to the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Conference scheduled to be held this summer in Kunming?

I don't know, but I think someone in a fairly high position got scared after the Tibetan protests that foreign anthropologists would use the congress to demonstrate sympathy with the protestors and with the Tibetan exile cause - which almost all Europeans and a large number of Americans support. It was too risky just before the Olympics.

Why should people in Seattle care about the 2008 Olympics?

1. They should care if they want to understand why China is so prickly, why China's wounded national pride needs stroking. People in Seattle will understand by paying close attention to the Games and the way the Chinese promote them.
2. They should care if they like sports.

Why should people in Seattle care about Chinese minorities?

There's no particular reason unless they are interested in China. Minority people are a big part of China. Also, if people in Seattle are interested in Tibet, they have to understand the Tibet question in light of the situation of minorities in China. But there is no more reason for Seattleites to care about Chinese minorities than to care about Sami in Norway or First Nations in Canada.


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Posted by EmilyRCI

5:20 PM, Jul 30, 2008

Radio Canada International present a unique, innovative web series 'A NEW FACE FOR BEIJING'.

The series is about a 25 year-old Chinese-Canadian, Jennifer Hsiung, who moved to China to work for CCTV international as their sports anchor 2 years ago. The series documents her integration into the Chinese community and the transformations of Beijing in the last few months.

The atmosphere in Beijing is electric, and the series captures the environment and mood of the people in the capital as the Opening Ceremony fast approaches.

The series is shot by Jennifer's sister Tiffany and together they offer a different lens through which to view Beijing from the point of view of CBC's and ABC's living in the city. This unique viewpoint has made the series a great success so far.

We invite you to look online and make your own opinion heard at

Recent entries

Aug 5, 08 - 05:05 AM
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Aug 2, 08 - 12:39 PM
What would Peking Man think of the 2008 Olympics?

Jul 30, 08 - 04:05 AM
Beijing 2008 Q&A: Dr. Stevan Harrell

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