The ethnic riots in Urumqi last week - described by authorities as the worst since the establishment of the People's Republic 60 years ago - left at least 184 people dead and reflect the failure of Beijing's policy towards its minorities. While China's population is relatively homogeneous on the surface, with Han Chinese accounting for more than 90 per cent, it also includes 55 ethnic minorities, with Tibetans, and the Uygurs of Xinjiang , two of the largest.
This month's riots involving Muslim Uygurs - a Turkic people who are the dominant ethnic group in the region - following the disturbances in Tibet last year, show that all is not well.
As was the case last year, Beijing accused 'separatists' operating overseas of having planned and organised the violence. Last year, it was the Dalai Lama; this time, it was Rebiya Kadeer, a former businesswoman who now lives in the United States and is president of the World Uygur Congress. However, if ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uygurs had a strong sense of Chinese identity, it would be difficult for outsiders to fan the flames of independence. The very fact that violence on such a scale took place suggests a strong sense of national identity is lacking.
Ethnic minorities have had a roller-coaster ride. Depending on the political environment, they have been viewed as potential fifth columnists or 'younger brothers' deserving of special treatment. During the Cultural Revolution, many people changed their ethnic identification from minority to Han to avoid persecution but, more recently, it has tended to be the other way round as minorities became the beneficiaries of Beijing's policies.
For all of China's talk about a 5,000-year-old civilisation, the concept of China as a multi-ethnic nation state is relatively recent. There was no such concept during the dynastic period, which lasted until the 20th century. The last imperial dynasty was that of the Manchus, when the Han Chinese themselves were subjects.
Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, advanced the idea of a republic constituting five ethnic groups - the Han, the Manchus, Mongols, Hui or Muslims, and Tibetans. And the communists then presented a more sophisticated portrait of the Chinese people as being made up of 56 ethnic groups, including the Han majority.
On the surface, China has a policy of favourable treatment for ethnic minorities. For example, they can have more than one child and are held to lower standards for university admission. Moreover, members of ethnic minorities are appointed to high-sounding positions, such as vice-chairmen of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. But these tend to be largely ceremonial posts.
Beijing also takes pride in broadcasting figures of the progress made by minority areas under its tutelage. Xinjiang's economy, for example, has grown by 10 per cent a year for the past 30 years.
However, it does not broadcast the fact of large-scale migration of Han Chinese into the region. In 1949, Han Chinese accounted for about 6 per cent of Xinjiang's population; today it is 40 per cent. Indeed, Urumqi, the capital, is now 75 per cent Han. This has made the Uygurs, who number about 8.4 million in China, feel marginalised even in their own homeland.
One problem is that, within China, there is little official encouragement for scholars to study the situation of ethnic minorities. While ethnic studies is a major scholastic field in the US, research of this kind is not encouraged, if not actually prohibited, in China. The result is that, whenever problems arise, Beijing sees 'separatists' without a deeper understanding of the underlying social and economic issues, as well as genuine grievances. The current demolition of most of the historic oasis city of Kashgar is one example of cultural insensitivity.
Beijing needs to review its minority policies and articulate clearly the kind of multi-ethnic society it wishes to establish, along with its position on preserving minority culture and lifestyle. With clearly stated objectives, both Chinese and foreigners can judge whether Beijing is acting according to its proclaimed policy goals.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator