In my previous op-ed titled Pakistan honoured at Kunming, I had briefly mentioned about the Chinese province of Yunnan’s “painstaking reconstruction and preservation of the culture of its ethnic groups.” However, this aspect of Yunnan’s success story merits greater detail, since there is a lesson to be learnt for every country has ethnic minorities, but not everyone has handled them as astutely.

China, a large united multinational state, has the largest world population (over 1.3 billion) comprising 56 ethnic groups. According to the 2010 census, Han Chinese account for 91.51 percent while 55 other ethnic groups make up the remaining 8.49 percent as minorities who share China’s vast lands. But at the same time, many live in their individual communities spread over different regions, being mostly concentrated in the southwest, northwest and northeast China.

To ensure that various ethnic groups live together in harmony, the national policy of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities has established five autonomous regions; Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Ningxia and Tibet, as well as numerous autonomous prefectures, counties, nationality townships and towns, where the ethnic minorities granted regional autonomy are entitled to deal with their own affairs. But not every province is a success story because, despite Beijing’s policies to secure the equality and unity of ethnic groups, there has been sporadic discontent in some regions. Take, for example, the Xinjiang province, where restlessness was reported. But several programmes were initiated to bring it at par with the country’s more prosperous provinces and address the sources of disgruntlement.

Nevertheless, Yunnan’s success story needs to be told as it is unique. After our participation in the Kunming Fair, our hosts toured us around where we met different ethnic groups residing comfortably and also participating in the dwells of modern development, yet maintaining their traditional attire, customs, religion, language and ethnic diversity with freedom and pride.

Yunnan has the second highest number of ethnic groups among the provinces and autonomous regions in China, after Xinjiang (which has 47 ethnic groups). The 25 ethnic groups of Yunnan, 15 of which are specific to the province, reside in compact communities. Ten ethnic minorities that inhabit the border areas and river valleys include the Hui, Manchu, Bai, Naxi, Mongolian, Zhuang, Dai, Achang, Buyei and Shui; those in low mountainous areas are the Hani, Yao, Lahu, Va, Jingpo, Blang and Jino, while those in high mountainous areas are Miao, Lisu, Tibetan, Pumi and Drung.

Our first encounter with them was at the Kunming Fair, where various ethnic groups, bedecked in their colourful traditional attire, were lined up to greet the visitors, playing their tribal and typical musical instruments. It was an impressive display, but I dismissed it mentally as an elaborate PR exercise. I have seen similar “dog and pony” shows depicting the US Red Indians or other ethnic minorities in various parts of the world.

In the evening, we were taken to the dance show called “Dynamic Yunnan”, where not only I, but also 102 international media persons from different countries were wonderstruck. It was a grand dance performed by genuine Yunnan ethnic minorities.

The show was so surrealistic, authentic and moving due to the costumes, stage props, lighting, music and stage design, permeating a three-dimensional aura that it left us spellbound; its conclusion brought the entire auditorium to its feet presenting a standing ovation. Certainly, the 110-minute magnificent performance, recreating the essence of religious rituals, traditional songs, classic folk dances and the richness of the culture of Yunnan minorities, left us mesmerised.

Indeed, the judicious handling of its ethnic minorities by Yunnan, making them a part of the mainstream while retaining their traditional identity, merits emulation.

n    The writer is a political and defence analyst.

    Email: sultanm.hali@gmail.com