Sotomayor and Ethnic Diversity in Communist East Asia by mattsteinglass
June 1, 2009, 10:18 pm
Filed under: United States, Vietnam

Matthew Yglesias makes more or less the same point I did the other day about how recruiting diversity is part of effective governance:

Beyond the specific history of the Supreme Court, one might just note that this is how government in diverse societies works. Congress—and especially the House—delivers a certain kind of diversity “automatically.” And presidents have always used their cabinet selections as a way of both illustrating the breadth and scope of their political coalition and simultaneously cementing it.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate more since coming to Vietnam is that the virtues of cementing a diverse alliance in a diverse society aren’t just recognized by democratic parties. They’re recognized by Communist parties, and they’re one of the reasons the Vietnamese and Chinese Communists defeated their nationalist rivals. If you come to a session of Vietnam’s National Assembly, you’ll see all sorts of people wearing traditional ethnic-minority garb — Ede and Jarai from the Central Highlands, Hmong from the mountainous north, and so on. Ever since Ho Chi Minh began fighting the French in the “Viet Bac” (mountainous northern Chinese border region) in 1941, the Vietnamese Communist Party has been aggressively recruiting ethnic minority leadership. Some minorities which supported the Communists early have always received specially favorable treatment, which is in part why the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nong Duc Manh, is an ethnic Tay. Some of these leaders may be classic “tokens”, more loyal to their patrons in Hanoi than to their supposed constituency, but they are there nonetheless and they help the Party project its legitimacy into communities it might otherwise lose control over.

In contrast, one of the brilliant ideas failed US-backed nationalist dictator Ngo Dinh Diem came up with during his nine-year rule of South Vietnam was to forcibly “Vietnamize” the ethnic minorities of the central highlands — convert them to Catholicism, bar use of their indigenous languages in schools, and so forth. Diem also saw no need to include many Buddhists in his governing coalition; his own clique of Catholic buddies and family members was fine for him. And so Diem developed a narrow base and polarized most of the country against him, and wound up full of bullet holes in the trunk of an armored car.

In China, it turns out, the Party used similar strategies. Guangxi Province, a mountainous poor region along the Vietnamese border, is currently considered the traditional home of an ethnic minority called the Zhuang. But according to at least one academic, the Zhuang didn’t actually exist as a discrete coherent ethnic group until the Communist Party created them. When the Party came to power, it had problems projecting its authority in Guangxi because local leadership was too fragmented and diffuse; the clans there all spoke different dialects. So the Party decided, using a Stalinist model of the “nationalities question”, that they all belonged to a minority called the Zhuang, and it recruited a bunch of locals to send to a Zhuang Party Cadre Training Institute, and started researching local folk songs and tales and producing propaganda musicals about putative Zhuang folk heroes from the 8th century who stood up for the peasants against the landlords. And things developed from there, and now there’s a giant Olympics-style choreographed sound-and-light show representing “traditional” Zhuang culture in Yangshuo, directed by Zhang Yimou.

Anyway, libertarians may simply find all of these points to be nefarious confirmation that “identity politics” is an attempt by the State to extend its power. To me, it’s just a fact about governance: the wise prince seeks to include members of all the communities he rules over in his government. Though it can also be useful to cut your opponent’s coalition down to a small size and then exclude them entirely and drive them crazy, such that they isolate themselves into ever-smaller fragments. Which may be part of what Obama is accomplishing with the Sotomayor selection.


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