SCMP July 16 2009

A myopic world view through the Han lens


Recent issues, from the tragic to the banal, should remind Hong Kong as well as the mainland that international respect in a globalised world requires the rejection of notions of ethnic exclusivity or superiority. China's rise has been peaceful but it has been accompanied by a rise in Han chauvinism.

President Hu Jintao would do well to listen to respected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayib Erdogan following the Urumqi riots. 'We ask the Chinese government to abandon assimilation,' he said, referring to developments in Xinjiang (which some also call East Turkestan) as 'like a genocide'. Mr Erdogan is, in effect, the spokesman for all the Turkic people, stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean to the geographic centre of China, who are united by history, religion and a language whose dialects differ little more than Chinese ones.

Mr Hu might reflect, too, on China's immediate neighbour in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, Kazakhstan. That Turkic nation was, for two centuries, under Russian domination. The Russians attempted to absorb it by settling huge numbers of Russians, Ukrainians and others who would gradually dilute its Kazakh identity. Ultimately, they failed, and Kazakh independence was regained in 1991.

Since 1949, China has tried much the same thing in Xinjiang, once overwhelmingly Turkic and now about half Han. Whatever the immediate cause of the recent disturbances and the ethnic balance of deaths, Uygur resentment is based not so much on poor job prospects for non-Hans - though that is undoubtedly a factor - but on China's attempt to 'solve' the problem of managing a resource-rich region with a self-consciously non-Han population through immigration.

The more China mentions histories of tribute to Beijing, the more that worries not just Turkic peoples but almost every country in East and Southeast Asia which, at some point, is said to have paid such a tribute - though simply as the price of trading privileges rather than as an acceptance of overlordship. The way Beijing handles Xinjiang will send messages throughout the world, and Asia in particular, about underlying attitudes to all non-Han peoples.

At the level of the banal come several troubling incidents. Businessmen from Hong Kong have plenty of experience of abuse of power by Communist Party officials to use trumped-up criminal charges to get their way in commercial disputes. But these mostly happen at the low and middle levels. The arrest of Rio Tinto executives in the middle of very important negotiations with major state-owned enterprises in China suggests that abuse of power for commercial purposes is condoned at the very highest levels. This action will, rightly, put foreign businessmen everywhere on notice about dealings with the mainland.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's own contribution to Han chauvinism is apparent in small but significant ways. Why, one wonders, is a Hong Kong passport - which is just a travel document - a requirement to compete at the Olympics? Holders must be citizens of China, thus providing China with three representations at the Olympics (the other being Macau) while depriving locally born Indians, Filipinos, Canadians and others the right to represent Hong Kong.

The claim that this is the International Olympic Committee's doing is contradicted by the fact that 'sports nationality' rather than passport has long been accepted by the IOC as the basis of representation.

Then there is the huge and vastly disproportionate coverage in the media to cases of swine flu among foreign (non-Han, of course) domestic helpers. Is it dangerous for them to meet in Statue Square? Should they have staggered days off? There is no suggestion, of course, that we should all avoid crowded restaurants or using the MTR. No, let's focus on the non-Hans meeting in the open air.




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