Papering over the cracks in minority relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2009, 12:00am

The riots in Tibet last year and those in Xinjiang this year have exposed the inadequacies of China's policy for ethnic minorities. Without a significant improvement, social harmony will suffer and, in the worst case, national security will be adversely affected.

The Chinese people strongly support Beijing's sovereignty position on Xinjiang and Tibet, and no foreign government is ready to challenge this claim. But, obviously, much can be done to improve understanding between groups, and the existing policy deserves a serious review.

In the process of rapid economic development, it is not surprising that grievances have emerged among some of China's dozens of minorities, and these should be handled with patience.

A few years ago, ethnic riots occurred on the outskirts of Paris, Amsterdam and other major cities. They resulted in much self-reflection. The fact that even France and the Netherlands, prosperous countries with a high degree of freedom and tolerance, could not avoid ethnic strife shows the complexity of race relations.

Unfortunately, there is very little self-reflection on the part of senior Chinese officials, as demonstrated in a recent press conference. Wu Shimin, a vice-minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, defended China's ethnic policy as a 'long-term success' and indicated that there was no need for a review.

For the indigenous inhabitants of Xinjiang and Tibet, the massive influx of migrants from the Han majority has been a serious concern. Rapid economic development has raised living standards for many minorities. But income distribution has become more uneven and employment opportunities are not equally available.

Violence must be condemned, and the rule of law maintained. But the riots cannot simply be blamed on 'terrorists, separatists and religious extremists'. Such a position is hardly credible in the international community, let alone among the 110 million members of China's 55 recognised ethnic minorities.

It is a fact that people on the mainland do not enjoy complete religious freedom. The language of education among ethnic school children is controversial; insistence on the use of Putonghua in schools is resented.

The emphasis on unity in traditional Chinese culture and the nature of the Chinese Leninist regime offer limited tolerance for pluralism and diversity.

Another blind spot in China's ethnic minorities policy is the belief that high economic growth and generous financial subsidies are sufficient to resolve grievances.

Stability as the paramount consideration should not be an excuse for rejecting a critical review of existing policy. When officials stated that the internet and text messages were the principal tools used in the recent riots, it was actually an indirect admission that the mainland's mainstream media have little credibility among its ethnic groups.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong