Western media articles and academic writings frequently refer to China’s ethnodemographics — most frequently after ethnic conflict in China’s regions such as Tibet or Xinjiang. The most frequently reproduced soundbite is that the Han majority comprise more than 90% of the People’s Republic of China and overwhelmingly dominate the military and political elite.
But the mere paradigm of the Han and the various ethnic minorities does not tell the whole story — the Han is not a homogenous group. One of the more prominent groups that exist within the umbrella of the Han are the Hakka people, who account for approximately 30 million of the 1,200 million Han people in China. There is no universally accepted explanation for their origin, but they are believed to have originated in Northern and Central China and migrated to the coast and to southern China due to social unrest. The name of this group finds its origin in the migration — new arrivals did not want to state their tribe or clan because Chinese law provided that treason committed by one person could be punished by death upon the clan of that person up to nine generations. With no tribal or clan name, the locals derogatorily referred to these people as Hakka (客家), which means “guest families.” (I should note that this is one, very simple explanation — there are multiple theories as to the origins of the Hakka, and this brief is by no means the one universally accepted explanation.)
During these migrations, the Hakka were moving into land that was already inhabited. And because the farmland was already worked by the native inhabitants, many Hakka men could not farm for their livelihood and instead tended to turn towards careers in the military or public service. Consequently, the Hakka culturally emphasized education. Also, unlike the majority of other Han Chinese women, Hakka women did not practice footbinding.
The emphasis on public service and education has resulted in the Hakka constituting an overwhelming disproportionate number of important Chinese political leaders. The Taiping Rebellion, a Christian-inspired rebellion that almost toppled the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, was led by a failed Qing scholar of Hakka origin, the rebellion originated at a Hakka village, and all the initial followers were Hakka, who formed the core of a disciplined army that included women in their ranks — something that would have been impossible for most other Han ethnics because of footbinding.
Sun Yat Sen, the father of the modern Chinese Republic, was a Hakka who was educated in Hawaii and Japan. And so was Deng Xiao Ping, the reformist leader of the Chinese Communist Party who dominated the People’s Republic of China as chairman from 1978 until the 1990s, despite not holding official senior leadership government positions.
Hakkas are also common leadership figures outside China. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is a Hakka, as is his son and successor Lee Hsien Loong. And in Taiwan, both the pro-independence previous president Lee Ying-yuan, and current Beijing-friendly president Ma Ying-Jeou, are Hakka. Even further beyond the sphere of China’s direct cultural sphere, people of Hakka origin have served in the national governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Australia, East Timor, Guyana, and elsewhere.
Impressive accomplishments for a people who constitute a mere fraction of China’s population. And interesting that it’s a factor that’s never mentioned in the Western press, despite the attention paid to other aspects of China’s ethnodemographics.