International Herald Tribune
Bowring: China and its minorities
Monday, March 17, 2008

HONG KONG: Non-Han minorities may comprise only 9 percent of China's population, but as the violence in Tibet and simmering resentment in Xinjiang indicate, the problem is one that Beijing is unable to resolve.

This is a blow to President Hu Jintao, who is supposed to be an expert on Tibet, where he was once party secretary. He ordered troops as well as police forces into Tibet and Xinjiang last year to guard against pre-Olympic disturbances, but to no avail.

There are three reasons for the Communist leadership's inability to address the issue other than by repression. First, given that Beijing's first priority is government centralization, the official designation of any "autonomous region" in China is a fa├žade.

Second, there is the innate belief in the superiority of the Han race, a notion historically reflected in China's attitudes to all its neighbors as well as toward the non-Han minorities within its borders.

Third, the three regions with significant minority populations that are actual or potential trouble spots are all frontier areas that Beijing regards as strategically important. The minorities in southwest China are no problem because they are small, isolated and near frontiers from which China has never been invaded. The homelands of former invaders - the Mongols and Manchus - still exist, but they are now overwhelmingly Han. But Tibet - with its long history of isolation, immense cultural, linguistic and religious differences and on-and-off independence - is a different matter.

So too is Xinjiang, which means "new territory" in Chinese. It saw brief independence as East Turkestan, or Uighurstan, in 1933 and part of it was again under Soviet tutelage from 1945 to 1949. Its population is still roughly 55 percent non-Han - Uighurs and Kazakhs whose Turkic-speaking cousins stretch all the way to the Black Sea. Moreover, it also has an ethnic Korean minority in the northeast that would likely be agitating to be reunited with Korea if the divided peninsula were a united and prosperous state.

At different times in history, China has sought to defend itself by expanding its western frontiers to create buffer states or subdue foreign enemies. At other times, it has been content to secure its own Han borders but not stretch its resources. Communist China has not formally expanded the borders it inherited from its predecessors. But it has made strenuous efforts to use migration to spread Han people, culture and commercial power into Tibet and Xinjiang. Some Tibetan majority areas were also transferred to Han-majority provinces - Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu. Most recently, at huge cost, Beijing brought the railroad to Lhasa in an effort to reinforce integration.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China's security dilemma has gotten worse. Newly independent states like Kazakhastan may be friendly, for now. But they naturally sympathize with minorities under the Han yoke, and Chinese efforts to present Uighur separatists as Muslim terrorists are wearing thin.

These regions cannot be exempt from China's opening to the outside world. Images of protests and military crackdowns quickly go around the world, evidence of how a wired China is also a more volatile China.

Beijing asserts that the histories and cultures of the Tibetan, Uighur and Korean peoples within its border are "Chinese." China's attempt to turn Mount Paektu, which straddles its border with North Korea and traditionally is sacred to all Koreans, into a Chinese World Heritage site, has infuriated many Koreans.

China is incapable of offering minorities either cultural equality or autonomy. Officialdom and much of the population treats minorities either with suspicion or as colorful tourist attractions. This leads to an informal apartheid - evident in the housing, schools and social organization in Tibet and Xinjiang - reinforced by official arrogance. The Han ethnic basis of Chinese identity is seen even in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, where it is easier for ethnic Chinese born in Malaysia or Canada to get full citizenship than for a Hong Kong-born person of Indian or Philippine background.

For now, the Olympics notwithstanding, China will rely on an iron fist to quell dissent. Over the longer term, Beijing will have consider whether to step up efforts to integrate the minority regions into China through money, infrastructure and migration. That might well raise the level of resentment among Tibetans and Uighurs against their relatively rich, commercially exploitive colonizers. Han Chinese may, however, become increasingly reluctant to live in restive minority regions when a better, safer living is available elsewhere.

It is possible that Beijing might eventually allow a little real autonomy in the hope that separatism can be contained. But it is more likely that China's own rising nationalism will meet its match in the determination of Tibetans Uighurs and Koreans not to be swamped by a Han version of Manifest Destiny.


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