National Post, September 29, 2009
In the run up to the 60th anniversary of China’s founding on Oct. 1, Chinese rulers would like to be talking about their achievements: three decades of jaw-dropping economic growth and China’s arrival on the world stage as an indisputable great power. Instead, they have been busy worrying about ethnic uprisings. Two of the country’s ethnic minority groups, the Tibetans and the Uighurs, stand ready as party spoilers who refuse to forget the collective beatings that they have received from the central government.
The Tibetan and Uighur cries of anger have sent shock waves around the world. This past July, numerous Uighurs — who are a Muslim Turkic ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region — staged anti-Chinese riots that killed nearly 200 people and injured more than 1,000. In March of last year, similar chaos erupted in Tibet and nearby areas.
The grievances of the Uighurs and the Tibetans are wide-ranging. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Xinjiang in 1949 and Tibet in 1950; the Chinese communist government has since then taken control and severely restricted native cultural and religious practices. In recent years, Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group that makes up 90% of China’s population, have been pouring into — and seemingly taking over — Tibet and Xinjiang thanks to government incentives (the Han population in Xinjiang increased from 6% in 1949 to 40% in the 2000 census). As the Han settlers prosper, the native minorities complain of discrimination in employment and education. Meanwhile, the government has been extracting the rich natural resources of the two regions (Xinjiang is estimated to have 40% of China’s total coal reserves and more than a quarter of its oil and gas reserves; Tibet holds nearly half of China’s mineral resources).
The anguish of Tibetans and Uighurs in China is daily voiced by their advocates watching from afar. Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent human rights activist for Xinjiang’s Uighurs, describes herself as “very sad” about the upcoming 60th anniversary of China. Beijing has branded her as the extremist mastermind behind the July riots in Xinjiang (a charge she vehemently denies), but she angrily condemns the Chinese government for having bestowed upon the Uighurs of Xinjiang “60 years of backwardness and suffering.” For his part, the Dalai Lama, exiled in India and considered by Tibetan Buddhists to be a living god, has accused the Chinese government of engineering a “cultural genocide” in Tibet.
The majority Han Chinese population, however, has not been hesitant to say, “We hate you back.” After all, recent riots in Xinjiang and in Tibet have been directed against them, not just the Chinese government. In both regions, wanton minority attacks against Han Chinese residents have resulted from the ethnic uprisings.
The inter-ethnic conflict appears intractable. In Xinjiang this past July, an angry mob of Han Chinese roamed the streets of the capital days after the Uighur riots seeking revenge killings. Meanwhile, many of the Han Chinese in Xinjiang and elsewhere complain bitterly about the preferential treatment Uighurs and other minorities receive from Beijing, including exemption from the country’s one-child policy and bonus points for university application.
Beijing insists that its governance of Tibet and Xinjiang is just, emphasizing that it brought the two regions out of their respective backwardness (such as serfdom in Tibet) and into economic modernization. This story line has not dissuaded the minorities from rioting or the Han majority from feeling resentment. In response, the Chinese government alternates between heavy-handed measures, such as martial law and mass arrests, and token gestures, such as the sacking of mid-level local communist officials responsible for law and order in Xinjiang.
Ultimately, the Chinese system gives the politically disgruntled few legitimate avenues to voice their dissent. Tibetans who disagree with the government are often branded as separatists, and Uighurs in Xinjiang as terrorists. The same system provides few incentives for the ethnic majority and minorities to seek reconciliation. Sadly, even as China prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary with great fanfare, the country’s ethnic conflicts — and beatings — will no doubt rage on.