Unity an illusion without real respect for diversity

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 July, 2009, 12:00am

It is hard to think of a taboo subject more sensitive than one which challenges the unitary character of the Chinese state. Yet recent events in Xinjiang suggest the need for a discussion of whether a policy of rigid centralism and an insistence on the imposition of Han culture throughout China is viable in the long term.

Although China officially recognises 55 minority communities and has established five so-called 'autonomous regions', there is scarce evidence the Communist Party favours any form of genuine autonomy for these areas. Beijing pursues a determined policy of imposing Han culture, particularly language, across the nation and has made herculean efforts to ensure that ethnic minority regions are resettled by Han Chinese so that they cease to be the majority population in their own areas.

Indeed, in Urumqi , the capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region, this objective has been accomplished and the Uygur people are now in a minority. There is also a determined effort to increase the Han population of Tibet , which has also recently seen rioting with a distinct ethnic edge.

In some areas with a distinctive ethnic minority community, notably Inner Mongolia , China has all but stamped out the local language and what remains of local identity. In the tolerated world of Chinese politics, all that remains are regular displays of minorities appearing in national costume at meetings of bodies such as the National People's Congress, where they add colour but no substance to the proceedings.

Only in Xinjiang and Tibet has there been continued and violent resistance to Han rule, although other minorities communities, such as the Kazakhs, also have a history of challenging domination from the centre. Beijing inevitably explains these challenges as being provoked by external agitation. The eruption in Xinjiang is blamed on incitement by the exiled Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer, and the exiled Dali Lama is squarely blamed for any unrest in Tibet. It would be naive to argue that these leaders play no role, but what most objective observers find is that the street violence is both spontaneous and unorganised; taking both the Chinese authorities and the leadership of the ethnic groups by surprise.

It shows that simmering resentment can surface at any time despite the existence of one of the most powerful and determined police states in history. These disruptions also demonstrate that the burning fire of resentment is far from extinguished and cannot be quelled by force alone.

Beijing assumes that time, economic progress and the iron hand of the state will eventually prevail and that the nation will happily emerge as a united people. These thoughts were shared by the leaders of the now fragmented Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, not to mention the divided Indian subcontinent and many former European empires.

So the question to be asked is: how different is China? Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, clearly appreciated that China was not that different and envisaged a reasonable degree of self determination for the major minority groups. But Sun's views were quickly set aside by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and, of course, by the leaders of the People's Republic.

China has since become more intolerant of regional autonomy and often looks very much like an occupying power in both Tibet and Xinjiang. The people of these regions are largely regarded in Beijing as both backward and ungrateful for the enormous level of economic assistance they have received. This mindset encourages a view that any resistance must be a product of external provocations because the people themselves are gullible and cannot think for themselves.

China stresses the unity of the nation above all else but will not tolerate a proper discussion of how unity can be achieved among its many nationalities. Today, this is what makes China truly different.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur

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