People walk across the street in Yanji, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s northeastern Jilin Province. / Korea Times
By Andrei Lankov
In 1952, the nascent Communist government of China declared that a large area in the country’s northeast would become the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture, a home for the Chinese Koreans.
The newly established district occupied an area of 42,700 square kilometers, just a bit less than half the area of South Korea. Its population was largely Korean: in 1953 ethnic Koreans constituted 60.2 percent of the total. They were children and grandchildren of migrants who crossed the border into Manchuria between the 1880s and early 1940s.
As was customary in Communist states, the government went to great lengths, creating and supporting Korean language media and education. Every bit as boring as their Chinese counterparts of Mao’s era, the ethnic Korean newspapers and radio delivered the same ideology packaged in Korean.
The ethnic education was a success story: even in China, not known for a neglect of education, Koreans soon showed themselves to be unusually successful academically. This education was largely achieved in Korean language schools which until the mid-90s were remarkably better run than normal Han Chinese schools.
Of course, contrary to what Beijing propaganda publications say, the life of Koreans in China was not uninterrupted bliss. The Koreans suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, there were occasional cases of ethnic discrimination, but in general the Chinese ``minority policy’’ should be lauded. At least, for half a century the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture existed as a sort of Korean quasi-state within Chinese borders.
And then things began to fall apart. From around 1990, the ethnic Korean population of Yanbian began shrinking. Koreans schools are being closed for the lack of students, and even where schools exist parents are increasingly unwilling to send their children there. Yanbian is being de-Koreanized, with the share of the ethnic Korean population dropping to 36.3 percent in 2000 (from 60.2 percent in 1953). This process is not a result of some deliberate discrimination or cunning policies of Beijing. Rather, Koreans have become the victims of their own success in China.
Economic reforms brought fast growth. In the past, the horizon of aspirations for most ethnic Koreans was something like graduating from a high school, settling down in a local village and becoming a good farmer who could afford to have rice on the table at every meal. Now, success is increasingly associated with a college degree and/or migration to a large city, perhaps even to Seoul.
However, college education is in Mandarin, and entrance exams are in Mandarin, too. The Korean parents know that Chinese language schools give their children better chances to go to college. The result is a dramatic decline in enrollment in the Koreans schools. In a middle school in Longjing where in the 1970s there were 400 students, now there are merely 39 students.
This decline accelerated recently: the number of children enrolled in Korean schools in 2000 was merely 45.2 percent of the 1996 level. In the 1990-2000 period 4,200 Korean teachers, or some 53 percent of the total, left their jobs due to the closures of schools. This does not mean that Koreans are worse educated _ on the contrary, the last two decades has witnessed a great education boom. But the education is increasingly conducted in Mandarin, not Korean.
Another part of the ethno-demographic crisis is the low fertility of the ethnic Koreans. The Koreans’ birth rate has always been lower than that of the Han Chinese, even though, being an ethnic minority, they are exempted from the ``one child policy.’’
This again reflects the higher education levels of the ethnic Koreans: everywhere in the world better educated groups tend to have less children. In 2000, the average Korean woman in Yanbian had 1.0 births in her lifetime. This is below the current level of South Korea which is seen as disastrously low.
Migration is also taking its toll. A large number of ethnic Koreans have moved away from their village communities. Some of them even came to South Korea _ either for good, or just to make some money doing unskilled jobs. But for most of them the destination of choice are the large Chinese cities, like Shenyang or Beijing. Young women are especially prone to this pull of the cities, so in some villages there are virtually no young women left (but a good supply of hopeless bachelors).
While in the city, Korean settlers tend to maintain close relations with other Koreans, but they still live in a Chinese language environment, and hardly speak much Korean. The chances of marriage with a Han Chinese are high, and children from such marriages are usually monolingual (actually, this is the normal situation in marriages between those who come from majority and a minority groups respectively).
According to the 2000 census, there were 801,210 ethnic Koreans living in Yanbian. This was a small decline compared to the previous census of 1990 when there were 822,810 ethnic Korean inhabitants in the area. However, the population of Yanbian keeps growing, and the share of the ethnic Koreans, once a majority, is steadily going down.
If the current trade continues (and, in all probability, it will), it is projected that by 2020 the share of the ethnic Koreans in Yanbian will drop below 25 percent. The low share of population will mean more closed schools, less interaction with fellow Koreans and, of course, further assimilation.
This assimilation through success is by no means unique to China. Similar trends can be seen in Korean communities elsewhere.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.