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The Elephant and the Mouse

posted Mar 24, 2014, 5:19 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Wang Lixiong (Translated by Elliot Sperling March 13, 2014)

  While travelling in Europe in the summer of 2012 I made a special trip to Munich. As a longtime observer of Xinjiang issues I’d hoped to call on some of the core people in the World Uyghur Congress; to meet with them face-to-face and understand their thinking. I telephoned and was asked to send a letter. I did so but received no response from the other side. Clearly they were refusing any contact with me. At the time I really didn’t understand. Among Han I’m considered to be someone close to the Uyghurs: I sympathize with them; I’ve written a book criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s Xinjiang policies; and I’ve been arrested and imprisoned in Xinjiang. Moreover, friends had made introductions for me in advance. Why was I refused even a cursory meeting?

The recent incident in which Uyghurs attacked and killed Han in Kunming has precipitated a mood of hostility towards Uyghurs among many Han, including intellectuals who in normal times are critical of the authorities. Even those opposed to the CCP regime have similar attitudes. This isn’t strange. When they’ve confronted major nationality issues in the past they’ve always enacted the same scene. In this instance Liu Junning, an important figure among China’s liberals, has published an article entitled “Rethinking the Policy of Regional Nationality Autonomy in Light of the Kunming Incident” [《从昆明事件反思民族区域自治政策》] (Wall Street Journal [Chinese Edition], March 4, 2014). In it he reiterates the views put forth several years ago by Ma Rong, a scholar who operates within the system, and blames China’s worsening nationality problem on the disparate treatment and hardening estrangement caused by regional nationality autonomy and the demarcations between nationalities. He considers these as the root causes of an unceasing escalation in nationality enmity and conflict and puts forward the same proposal as Ma Rong: eliminate regional nationality autonomy and the demarcations between nationalities in order to remove nationality hostility.

The view put forward by Professor Ma Rong received praise from different sides, both inside and outside the system, and has been considered a hot topic for quite some time now. If we can say that at the time it caused nationality figures to worry about what measures the regime might adopt as a result, now, when important figures among Han liberals are making similar proposals, things are going yet one step further and causing them to see the Han, whatever differences of opinion they might otherwise have among themselves, as a cohesive whole with regard to the nationality issue.

Seen from the perspective of minority nationality figures, to assert that nationality autonomy and the demarcations between nationalities are problematic in that they strengthen nationality consciousness and solidify the problem of nationality boundaries, and then to trace the worsening state of China’s nationality relations back to this, is clearly to have an elephant in the room but to deal with the matter only by pointing out the mouse in the corner. Secondarily, although nationality autonomy as currently implemented is indeed phony, it at least provides a means for using one of the contradictions among the authorities against another, allowing minority nationalities a formulation for defending themselves. Abolishing nationality autonomy then would tear down this last protective barrier.

It’s true that the United States does not have demarcations between nationalities. This is taken by Ma Rong as grounds for eliminating support for nationalities. But this constitutes a selective avoidance of the most important element: U.S. protections for human rights. When there are human rights there are nationality rights, because a nationality is a nothing but a collectivity of human beings. The U.S., lacking demarcations between nationalities, has the richest diversity of ethnicities precisely because it has human rights protections. The root cause of China’s nationality problems is primarily the lack of human rights. But the need to place the blame on nationality autonomy avoids the real causes and misdiagnoses the malady. And it’s thoroughly useless for bringing about reforms in nationality relations.

Of course, on this point I don’t consider Liu Junning and Ma Rong to be alike. Junning’s final proposal for resolving matters is based on individual equality and full autonomy within a federal system. But I think I should say that even within a democratic society with full human rights protections one cannot totally disregard consideration of special safeguards for minority nationalities. For example, the character of the Han is to pursue profits first, while Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols are more inclined to pursue religious beliefs and happiness. This doesn’t allow them to mix well in the big market economy pot with over a billion Han; it’s like forcing monks to fight with soldiers. The result is to leave Tibetans lamenting “we lost what we had, pursuing what we didn’t need.” Thus, if regional nationality autonomy is to be really implemented, then controlling immigration, safeguarding the environment, protecting the indigenous nationality’s way of life, continuing cultural traditions and safeguarding religious beliefs take on an irreplaceable function. This world cannot have only one sort of lifestyle; nor can it be left with only one culture. Without the protection of regional nationality autonomy any one of China’s nationalities would be hard pressed to avoid being wiped away without a trace by the Han who outnumber them by a hundred thousand to one.

In addition, if one day regional nationality autonomy is abolished, the “Middle Way Approach” that the Dalai Lama has advocated for decades—i.e., the exercise of a high degree of autonomy by Tibetans in Tibetan areas—will have no grounding. And if the “Middle Way Approach” is left behind, on what will a future democratic China rely, in order to dispel the nationality hatreds that have been engendered by autocratic oppression, and to attain reconciliation and establish a common nation? Liberalism cannot just be about concepts and long range views. It also has to consider applications and procedures. In the U.S. which has no nationality demarcations, are there not also Indian reservations?

Though Junning’s essay only represents the opinion of one person, I worry that it will easily result in minority nationality figures seeing Han as all of one sort. They may consider that irrespective of whether it’s the Han Government, Han intellectuals, or the Han democratic faction, they all still share the same Han chauvinist position and, even if it’s unintentional, still instinctively ignore the demands of minority nationalities. As a result, I’ve gained some more understanding of the cold shoulder I received in Munich. Overseas Uyghurs consider that the lesson that history has repeatedly given them is that regardless of what sort of seemingly different Han they’ve come into contact with, the Uyghurs have always come out the poorer for it. Because of this they simply don’t entertain contacts with Han. And they’re particularly on guard against those Great China advocates waving the banner of democracy. Presently overseas Uyghurs have chosen the Libyan and Syrian methods: to place no hope in the Han and, counting only on themselves, to make use of China’s highly oppressive rule as an essential element in provoking nationality resistance. They will not stint in making great sacrifices, using the flow of blood to arouse the attention and sympathy of international society while awaiting a future in which China will be too riven with internal strife to turn its attention to the West. That then would be the historically opportune moment to implement Xijiang Independence.

It was this attitude on the part of overseas Uyghurs that the Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti, who was arrested by the police in January of this year, analyzed for me. Among the Uyghur dissidents with whom I’ve come into contact, he’s the only one who publicly states that he is not seeking independence, just the implementation of nationality autonomy within the framework of China. He himself ought to have become a bridge between Uyghurs and Han. The path he has chosen is the Uyghur version of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach. But other Uyghurs universally reject it. They believe that facts have already proven that the Dalai Lama has caused Tibetans to waste 30 years without achieving any results and that arresting Ilham and accusing him of the crime of “splitting up the country” once more proves that the “Middle Way Approach” is simply a case of wishful thinking.

Originally published at Chinese-language website of New York Times:

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