True minorities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2009, 12:00am

Beijing last month issued a white paper on ethnic policy. The timing was interesting, coming after the riots in Tibet last year and the recent violence in Urumqi . However, the paper gives no indication that the government thinks there is anything wrong with its ethnic policy. Instead, it sets out to explain to uninformed foreigners what China's policy is and insists that it is working perfectly well.

At a press conference to mark its release, a Chinese official asserted that, through the white paper - which 'summed up our ethnic policy and practice' - the government hoped that 'international society could have a better understanding about the reality [on which] our policy is based'.

The white paper explains that 'China practises the system of regional ethnic autonomy' and this means that 'under the unified leadership of the state, regional autonomy is exercised and organs of self-government are established in areas where various ethnic minorities live in compact communities'.

However, it is silent on the Dalai Lama's proposals last year for greater autonomy for Tibet within China as well as demands by more radical Tibetan groups in exile for full independence. The proposals were made during the eighth round of dialogue in November between the Dalai Lama's envoys and Chinese officials, and were rejected by them as 'independence in disguise'.

In fact, what the white paper leaves out is much more interesting than what it focuses on. It insists that the government's ethnic policy is 'correct and in line with China's actual situation' and had 'fostered the unity and harmonious coexistence of all ethnic groups'. Yet it says nothing of the riots in Tibet last year just before the Beijing Olympics; nor does it talk about the July violence in Xinjiang , for which a number of people, mostly Uygurs, have been sentenced to death.

Indeed, the white paper seems much more interested in asserting Chinese sovereignty over territory inhabited largely by ethnic minorities. It asserts that the minorities have given 'their allegiance to the central government and their identification with Chinese culture'. 'Today,' it says, 'the Chinese nation has become a name with which all ethnic groups in China identify themselves and to which they give their allegiance.'

The white paper emphasises that equality among ethnic groups is 'a cornerstone of China's ethnic policy'. It adds that 'all ethnic groups have the freedom to preserve or change their own folkways and customs' and 'ethnic minority workers can enjoy paid holidays when participating in their own major festivals and celebrations'.

But it does not mention what is perhaps the biggest threat to ethnic minorities' efforts to preserve their lifestyle and culture: the inundation of traditional ethnic minority areas by Han Chinese immigrants so that the ethnic minorities are now threatened with being a minority in their own homelands. It does not address the issue of Han migration and is silent on measures to control such immigration, so as to preserve the culture of minority areas.

This issue must be addressed if Beijing is serious about respecting ethnic minorities and treating them on a basis of equality. Even though the total population of ethnic minorities has increased over the past 60 years, the whole idea of autonomy is undermined when Beijing allows Han Chinese to gradually outnumber ethnic minorities in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

If the state really 'guarantees the legitimate rights and interests of all ethnic minorities', then it must guarantee that they are not marginalised in their own regions. Already, Han Chinese residents are the largest ethnic group in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and Tibetans are a minority in Lhasa as a result of the influx of migrants from other parts of China.

As long as ethnic minorities feel they are losing their identity amid a continuing inflow of immigrants, no amount of talk of equality, financial investment, economic development or even privileged treatment for admission to universities is going to help. Minorities need assurance they do not face ultimate extinction.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator