China Shaping Its Soul in Tibet and Xinjiang


by Muhammad Sacirbey


China’s treatment of Tibet and the Uighurs, (of the Xinjiang Autonomous Province), has followed the pattern of an exchange of allegations and counter-charges. China simply expects to prevail by having an infinitely greater capacity to resonate by the logic of its rapidly expanding economic, political and military power. This methodology can achieve Beijing’s immediate objective of drowning out criticism, though it may well be at a non-refundable price to China’s longer term development as seen from the outside and within.
The unfolding situation in these two provinces has obvious importance for the peoples most immediately affected. It will also help shape China as a country that is growing into its new found economic and political power or one around which issues of human rights will be whispered for fear of offending Beijing’s hierarchy. Some of course will not whisper even if largely powerless. Confrontation will mutate. 
Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan cautioned Chinese authorities regarding the potential “genocide” committed against the Uighurs. This starts bringing to the surface a term with international, legal implications from a leading Muslim majority country. The reaction of the Chinese government exhibited hypersensitivity without particular inclination to reflect upon the actions of some of its own officials and citizens. Similar considerations have been long reflected regarding the issue of Tibet and China’s sensitivity.

It is not fair to simplify any debate such as this, and especially as an outsider, but perhaps the offense is mitigated by the motive.
.  Does China policy in Tibet and Xinjiang reflect a commitment toward multi-ethnic society or an effort at “colonization”?
.  What are the options to bring the matter into sustainable balance, consistent with China’s sovereignty and the rights of the Tibetan and Uighur indigenous populations?

“Colonization” is a term that is increasingly applied to describe the policy of Beijing toward these two provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. The majority Han Chinese has been encouraged to settle in these provinces and appears to be benefiting from official favoritism in most arenas of political, economic, social and cultural life.
China does counter that many of the ethnic minorities are also favored in some key ways, including higher education slots and exemption from the “one baby” policy. It certainly may be difficult to draw a single sentence conclusion as to whether China is encouraging the “colonization” and rule by the Han majority or whether it is simply applying policies of multi-ethnicity throughout its borders.

Comparisons to the American experience from a century earlier are not flattering to either China or the United States. While much of America’s society was evolving its commitment and application of pluralism in the first few centuries of its discovery, others were the victims or exempted from inclusion, particularly Native Americans and African Americans. The exploitation of the “other” by societies overtly committed to principles of multi-ethnicity and pluralism is not unique. “Colonization” is the legacy of many western democracies but also African and Asian “empires.” China itself was the victim of imperial ambitions in the middle of the last century. 

The models applied in the past to attain pluralistic societies may be inadequate for today. In historical perspective, some such policies may even reflect hypocrisy or more self-serving imperial ambitions. The sins of our fathers cannot be the model for today and tomorrow’s pluralistic societies, regardless of the avowed motives then and now.

China’s policy toward Tibet and the Uighur must be evaluated in the context of today’s standards, including those adopted by the United Nations toward indigenous populations. Commitment to pluralism and tolerance for indigenous peoples is marked by a respect for both the physical welfare and for the cultural and religious identity of the people as a group and individuals. From the Tibetan and Uighur perspective, there is ample evidence that China is marginalizing the linguistic, cultural and religious identity of these groups.

Official policies have served to discourage utilization of the local language in education, political institutions and business. Religious observance is not only frowned upon but also not allowed with respect to those members of the group(s) who hold positions of authority within the state. Aside from official policy, there is an intrinsic denigration of local culture and religion that many of us who experienced Communist authority are more familiar with. After decades of promoting atheism authorities may have also further become insensitive to their own intolerance.

China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is not at issue. Resolution can only be encouraged, not imposed. There are however more objective criteria by which Chinese authorities may be evaluated. That is why the use of terms such as “genocide” by Prime Minister Erdogan does raise the international stakes. The Dai Lama’s ability to reach so many of the world’s political, social and cultural leaders will keep the issue from being filed away as a “cold case.”
China’s tremendous economic rise has not yet been similarly reflected in its political evolution. Part of the solution is in the context of China’s broader development toward a more democratic and open society. Consistent with that is also a committed application of the methodologies respecting true autonomy within China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Allegations of Al-Qaeda involvement in Xinjiang, even if to be proven credible, cannot deflect the grievances of the Uighurs who are quickly becoming an ostracized minority in their own ancestral homeland. Regardless of the causes of the recent rioting in Xinjiang, the longstanding case of Tibet reveals a Chinese leadership that oscillates between too much sensitivity and an overly defensive attitude to seeming indifference.
China is an economic, political but also cultural power that the world must recognize in all its dimensions. Its leadership role should not be avoided, either by other global leaders or its own. The most effective way to impress its role as deserving deference is for China to exhibit practical and rhetorical respect for cultures and religions distinct from the majority with in its own borders.
Of course, there still remains a fundamental question that many in China still ask: What is the nature of modern China’s soul or does it even have one?

© 2006-2009 The European Courier  .  Reprinted with permission of M. Sacirbey