By Kumar David –
Identity, a hard to understand mystery: Status quo of China’s ethnic minorities
China has been successful in smoothing over potential conflicts with all its 55 ethnic minorities but two – Tibetans and Uighurs. Interestingly these are two large, but not the largest, but they differ from the nation’s 92% Han Chinese in religion, race and language. The 18 million Zhuang are the largest of the 55 officially recognised minorities, but account for only 1.3% of the population. They are the ancient indigenous people of the southern Guangxi Province, but well integrated. Hui (mainly in north-western Ningxia), Manchu of Manchuria and Uighurs of westernmost Xinjiang, numbering 10 million each, come next. Seven million Tibetans, the tenth biggest minority in China account for only half a per-cent of the nation’s population.
Apart from 23 provinces and four giant municipalities, China has five autonomous regions (AR) endowed with more powers than provinces to shelter ethnic identities. Interestingly only one, Tibet, is majority ethnic (90% Tibetan). Two, Ningxia and Guangxi, are one-third ethnic (Hui and Zhuang, respectively) but the two-thirds Han Chinese do not support AR status. In Xinjiang the ratio of Uighurs to Hans is about equal, while Mongols in the fifth AR, Inner Mongolia, are less than 20%. Anxious to forestall charges of unfairness to minorities the Communist Party pushed through AR status for these five; a reverse attitude to the Sinhala majority and government of Lanka.
There are four administrative levels below province (prefecture, county, township, village) structured to provide degrees of autonomy, especially if populated by ethnic peoples. Yunnan Province is a veritable kaleidoscope. It contains seven ethnic groups of half a million or more each, making up a third of the population (16 million) – the rest are Han (32 million). China’s local government system, though intricate, has plastered over possible conflict to a remarkable degree except for Tibet and Xinjiang. The natural identity drivers of minorities seem to have been sufficiently accommodated and ethnic unrest is not a serious issue. (It must be appreciated that this is a broad-brush statement for the purpose of a quick but fair overview). Circumstances in India, Nepal, Burma and Lanka, in similar broad-brush terms, are much less happy.
With two exceptions therefore, it is fair to say that China has dealt with its ethnic problems imaginatively. The proof of any pudding is in the eating and my experiences of travel in China corroborate this but for the two exceptions. I have visited Yunnan, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Tibet of the ARs/Provinces mentioned so far and plan a visit to Guangxi soon.
The other side of the story
This is the felicitous side, now the problem cases – Tibet and Tibetans, Xinjiang and Uighurs. Some of what I say was learnt from a visit to Tibet in 2010 and by drifting up the Silk Road into Xinjiang a few weeks ago. For reasons of space I will be brief about Tibet.
In a previous piece (August 18) I spoke of the wonders of the Silk Road; a magnificent ancient channel of trade, communication and culture, and the path that helped Buddhism reach China. From Chang’an to the Levant the 6,500 km route was studded with bustling market towns of settled communities; locals from the nearby countryside brought produce for sale; Silk Road traders were welcome itinerants. There are gaps in this idyllic picture; empires, tribes and nomads overran each other and supremacy altered; there was tension when ruled and ruler differed in race and religion. Interestingly, it is not too facile an analogy to say that the relationship today between People’s Republic and Uighurs of Xinjiang (and for that matter Tibet which is not on the Silk Road) fits the same mould. That is, Tibetans and Uighurs follow different religions and are racially distinct from Hans (racially Uighurs are people of what was called greater Turkistan). China consolidated its hold on these territories only 60 years ago. Hence the national question in respect of Uighurs and Tibetans must be handled with the wisdom and sensitivity of a Lenin. This, the CPC is incapable of.
If one were to seek simple explanations of why these two are different from the others, the first distinct and obtrusive identity marker is religion; Uighurs are Muslims and Tibetans practice a Buddhism which is very different from the mumbo-jumbo that passes for Buddhism in greater China. Fortunately, the great majority of Han Chinese, subscribe to no religion at all, which thankfully obviates interreligious strife. Think the opposite, think BBS and the Muslims; the point is clear. The second identity marker of significance is that both Tibetan and Uighur differ as spoken and written language from Putonghua and Chinese, respectively.
Two discordant identity markers is serious but the story is further complicated since time has not yet weathered the hardness of difference. Though both Tibet and Xinjiang have off and on been under the suzerainty of the Empire of the Son of Heaven, it was only after the founding of the PRC that they were firmly and irrevocably integrated, or if you prefer, subjugated. And to compound it, the control freaks in Beijing reckoned that mixing political repression with economic development would sort things out. (Wonder whether Gota and Basil went to night school in Beijing?) Splashing out on roads, bridges and structural edifices will not placate identity enthusiasts; Lanka’s regime will get a first taste of this when it is trounced in the Northern PC elections.
What the Rajapakses are spending is, of course, not a drop in the ocean in comparison, nor is it rationally prioritised, compared to what Beijing is pouring into economic expansion in Tibet and Xinjiang. Still the trick is not working in China though the scale of economic change is staggering; Tibetans and Uighurs are as sullen and resentful as Jaffna Tamils. Suites of spanking modern cities of half to three million people now stud the Hexi Corridor (Zhangwe, Jiaguan, Dunhuang) and Xingjian Province (Hami, Turpan, Urumqi, Hotan, Kashgar) at locations which but fifty years ago were quaint market towns left over by the ancient Silk Road. Cleverly designed water supplies from surrounding mountains and smart agriculture have made oasis towns verdant outposts between stretches of dessert.
Power stations and heavy industries (aluminium, coal, cement, construction materials) are springing up; massive power lines and a railway network now crisscross regions which were once camel trails. There is prosperity in the air, food, clothing and durables seem to be plentiful. The world’s largest wind-farm straddles the Hexi Corridor Xinjiang border. One third of China’s natural gas reserves and a quarter of its coal reserves are in Xinjiang; it is the third largest producer of lavender in the world, and 70% of the tomatoes used in Asia for ketchup comes from Xinjiang. It is a province rich in resources though to the eye it is arid and inhospitable dessert.
There is a construction boom in Tibet as well, but it did not seem to me to be as large. The exception is the 2000km Qinghai-Lhasa railway, which at Tanggula Pass (16,600 ft.), is the highest railway in the world. Large sections at high elevation run through permafrost as I witnessed when traversing its length in 2010. Motive power for each train is from a pair of 5100hp locomotives; that is over 10,000hp in total. Track, train and engine are a delight for the young at heart and for the engineer. Other large investments have been made in Tibet in mining, logging, and steel, and as everywhere in China, there is a construction boom.
But growth has heightened not smoothed over ethnic tensions for three reasons. Tibetans resent the large influx of Han Chinese, modernisation is destroying rural and nomadic society, and industrialisation is undermining the natural environment. The same is true in Xinjiang.
Not by bread alone
Notwithstanding economic growth, which within two decades overtook what it took 50 or 100 years to achieve in the heyday of Europe and America, simmering resentment breaks out every few years in the form of ethnic clashes between local minorities and the Han Chinese emigrant population. A warm blooded Mongolian comrade travelling with me was much puzzled: “Do you know any other place where people get rich, living standards improve so quickly, and yet they are unhappy, resent the majority, and criticise the government?” I took my chance to show off my acquired knowledge of the national question and familiarity with identity issues; but no, it made little impression.
There are many lessons for others in China’s successes and setbacks. The most important is that provinces, especially traditional minority homelands, must be afforded a high degree of autonomy and power devolved enabling them to manage their own affairs. This is the secret of success in the majority of ethnic regions. Despite the strangulation of a domineering, over-centralised one-party state, de facto devolution has been adequate to reassure minorities that their identities will not be drowned, and thus fissiparous tendencies have been checked. Stellar growth in the last three decades has pulled three hundred million out of poverty, and though initially confined to the rich Eastern and Southern seaboard, in the last decade investment and improvement has penetrated deep into the country and the far west. (There is of course still a long way to go before China, across the board, reaches middle income per capita status).
The failure of China’s national policy in Xinjiang and Tibet illustrates a problem of different genre. Identity concerns have a life of their own and have to be addressed explicitly, notwithstanding delivering goodies on the economic front. Paying for liabilities acquired on the one with goodwill garnered on the other is not feasible; the two currencies are not exchangeable. Authoritarianism further catalyses conflict by adding an overt political dimension to identity and old historical tensions. Oh well, Beijing and Colombo are learning this the hard way.