Ma Wenting used to think that distinguishing members of the Muslim Hui minority from Han Chinese was easy, as the former do not eat pork. At least, that was before she took the national college entrance examination, or gaokao. Once the gaokao was over, Ma, herself a member of the Hui ethnic minority from Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, was surprised to find some of her pork-eating classmates' ethnic status written as Hui.
Like Ma's classmates, many students decide to change or take the risk of faking their ethnic status in order to obtain extra points in the gaokao, one of many benefits available to ethnic minority groups.
China is home to 56 ethnic groups, and in order to ensure that this diverse range of people can live together in harmony, the Chinese government has introduced a series of policies for ethnic minority groups, including "merit points" for the gaokao, exemption from the family planning policy and preferential economic measures to help their regions develop. As a result, many Han Chinese often complain that these policies favoring ethnic minorities constitute "unfair competition."
Ma told the Global Times that policies like these generate jealousy and misunderstanding among Han and minorities right before the gaokao.
"Once I told my Han classmate that I was worried about the exam, and she just said, 'I am the one who should worry about it. After all, I can't get any extra points,'" she said.
"All ethnic groups are equal. The government helps ethnic groups promote their economy and development. It is just like a big brother helping his younger brothers," Wang Hongxiao, director of information services at the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, told the Global Times.
According to the National Population Census of 2010, the combined population of officially recognized minority groups made up 8.49 percent of the whole population, or over 110 million people. These groups live mainly in less developed areas such as Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Guangxi, Tibet, Guizhou and Yunnan.
The feeling among some Han Chinese that the series of policies that favor ethnic minorities are a form of discrimination against Han is a very real one.
"If two villages are both located in a backward area, the one populated with ethnic minorities will get more attention and funds from the government. This is just discrimination against the majority Han," a netizen commented.
Despite these complaints, Wang said the government will continue with the policy.
"Try to think about the big picture. Less than 9 percent of the population is concentrated in areas rich in resources that cover nearly 64 percent of the country's landmass," he said. "The favorable polices show the central government's concerns over these areas and efforts to unite the whole nation."
Under the policies, China's five ethnic autonomous regions have seen increased economic output and improved infrastructure. But some experts express worries that too many policies favoring ethnic minorities will not really help to strengthen this "brotherhood."
While the Han majority complains that the government gives ethnic minorities too many benefits, minorities also express concerns and frustration over the government's policies related to employment.
Tashi Dondrup, a professor at the Southwest University for Nationalities, told the Global Times that some State-run enterprises have discriminated against minority groups such as Tibetans in the wake of riots against non-Tibetans on March 14 in Tibet.
"Some Tibetans have to change their ethnic status and names to Han in order to get jobs. It is not fair for us in competing with Han to get jobs," he said.
Driven by benefits
There have been an increasing number of reported cases of Han Chinese trying to change their ethnic status in order to enjoy the benefits that can bring. They are mainly students trying to get an extra five to 20 points in the gaokao or couples who want to have more children.
In the gaokao, even one point can mean the difference between success and failure. When some 200 students at the Bashu Middle School in Chongqing were awarded 20 "merit points" in 2009, many angry students and their parents questioned if they really were from ethnic minority groups.
According to official policy, an individual's ethnic status is determined by his family history. If one's father or mother is from an ethnic minority, that individual can choose his nationality when he reaches the age of 18. But in reality, it is entirely possible for someone to fake his ethnic status through money or connections to local authorities.
In the case of the Chongqing school, an investigation by local authorities found that 31 of the students had falsely claimed to be of ethnic minority status, including 18-year-old student and gaokao champion He Chuanyang, according to Southern Weekend newspaper. As a result of his fraud, He was rejected by Peking University and Hong Kong University in 2009.
Since then, the authorities have tightened up the process involved in changing one's status, introducing procedures to check a candidate's family history and background. But He's high-profile punishment did little to deter others from trying the same thing. Some 800 students from Inner Mongolia were caught faking their ethnic minority status last year, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Xiong Kunxin, a professor of Ethnic Studies at the Minzu University of China, told the Global Times that while policies related to ethnic minorities are generally working, some improvements need to be made.
He suggests that members of ethnic minorities who go to school in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing should be exempted from the merit point system, while Han students who go to school in remote regions should be awarded extra points.
"To ensure fair play, the merit point system should be amended accordingly in different areas," Xiong said.
Feng Liang, from Feng county in Shaanxi Province, remembers that local Han were very excited when the local government said people whose families had lived in the county for three generations or more were eligible to apply to change to Qiang ethnic minority status in 2008.
Among the county's population of 120,000, only 300 or so were from the Qiang minority group. However, in order to develop the tourism industry through Qiang culture, Feng county was required to become a Qiang autonomous county to bring special funds and other benefits from the central government.
To achieve that goal, Qiang residents would have had to comprise at least 30 percent of the total population. Promising "merit points" for the gaokao, exemption from the family planning policy and a 150 yuan monthly subsidy, the local government managed to convince over a thousand people to apply so that it could change from Han to Qiang, according to Xi'an Evening News.
"Some of my relatives who wanted to have more children were more than happy to send out the application," Feng recalled. However, their happiness did not last long. The move caused huge nationwide controversy, and the county government was heavily criticized for taking advantage of ethnic minority policies.
The provincial ethnic affairs commission quickly put an end to the plan, and all of Feng's family members remained Han. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Feng said.
Director Wang from the State Ethnic Affairs Commission claims Feng county's case is just an isolated one, and there is no significant trend of Han trying to change their official ethnic status.
"We are taking it seriously. Anyone who violates the regulation will face punishment," he said.
He gave an example of a student from Henan Province, whose parents are both Han, using connections to change his ethnic status in another province. The student was expelled from his school, and the mother, an official at a local government, lost her job.
Exemption from the family planning policy also drives many Han Chinese to change or fake their status. According to the policies, each ethnic group is subject to different regulations in accordance with its population, culture and customs. In areas inhabited by minority groups with extremely small populations, ethnic minority couples are encouraged to have as many children as they want.
Zhang Yiwu, a cultural critic and professor at Peking University, told the Global Times that changing one's ethnic status might cause unexpected problems.
"Even though Han and other ethnicities are all Chinese, each ethnic group has its own community and culture, and it is hard for Han to integrate with them," he said. "Changing one's ethnic status, especially young people, might bring about an identity crisis."
The degree to which Han are accepted and can integrate with ethnic minorities varies from group to group. Some are very similar to Han. For example, most Hui are indistinguishable from Han Chinese expect for the fact they practice Islam. But many ethnic groups have their own unique dialect and cultural customs.
Zhang added that faking one's ethnic status is not a problem of integration but of morality.
Zhang Yan contributed to the story