Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Summer Olympics and China’s Challenge with Ethnic Minorities

The long awaited Summer 2008 Beijing Olympics is about to begin in 2 days. For quite some time, security concerns have been in many people’s mind. Not dissimilar to some previous Olympics, there have been many attempts and incidents by some to get attention of world media on various political issues of ethnic minorities with Chinese government. The most serious ones thus far have been the violent protests and crackdowns in Tibet’s (aka Tibet Autonomous Region) capital Lhasa back on March 14 and the attack that killed 16 border patrol police officers in Kashgar city of Xinjiang (aka XinJiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) only two days ago on August 4.

Everyone is familiar with the Olympic emblem of 5 rings (in blue, yellow, black, green, red). Designed in 1913, it symbolizes and promotes harmony and healthy competition of people from the world in all 5 inhabited continents. Coincidentally, for the first 16 years of the Republic since the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China’s national flag was a 5 colored stripes one, symbolizing “All Ethnic Groups Under One Union”; the five were: Han 漢 (red), Manchu 滿(yellow), Mongol 蒙(blue), Hui 回(white), and Tibetan 藏(black). Now one hundred years later, how far has it progressed? you may ask.

Today, China’s population is approximately 1.3 billions out of which 1.1 billions (92%) are Han Chinese. There are about 11 millions Manchus, 6 millions Mongols, 9 millions Huis, and 6 millions Tibetans; each represents less than 1% of the total population. Of course, one needs to look a lot deeper into the history, demography, etc. Historically, Han has been the most dominating ethnic group in central China and continues to do so. Manchus, originated and based in northeastern part of the country, at one time overtook the Ming Dynasty (of Han), found the Qing Dynasty and ruled China from 1644 till 1912 despite the fact they were outnumbered by Hans over 300 to 1. Although historians have continued to debate how and why Manchus successfully ruled China for so long, there is no dispute that sinicization or assimilation with Hans did take place during its rule.

500 years earlier before the Manchus’, Genghis Khan led Mongols and found the Mongol Empire that at its peak, stretched between Moscow and South China Sea as the largest contiguous empire in history. Although Genghis Khan himself did not conquer the whole China, his grandson Kublai Khan did and the Yuan Dynasty by Mongols ruled China for almost 100 years from 1271 till 1368. But in this case, assimilation with Hans did not go through its full course then. Outer Mongolia eventually proclaimed independence in 1924 with Soviets’ manipulation and intervention which remained a satellite state of the Soviet Union till 1992 when it became a democratic country known as Mongolia. Although there are about 6 millions of Mongols live in various part of China (that is about twice the number of Mongols in Mongolia), they spread across northern and western regions with a major concentration in Mongol autonomous region (also referred to as Inner Mongolia), accounting for about 17% compared to 79% of Han Chinese there.

Tibetan people, on the other hand, has been roaming on high plateau in the backdrop of Himalayas and observing the Tibetan Buddhism for over 1500 years. As one of the most isolated, mythical, feudal and theocratic entities in the world till 50 years ago, there have been a lot of fascinations and interests by Western world (and Hollywood! see movies like Lost Horizon, 7 Years in Tibet and Kundun) about Tibet. Adding to the “excitement”, since the 1959 exile to India of the current (reincarnated) 14th Dalai Lama who serves as both the civil and religion head, Tibet Government in Exile and many Tibetans have been seeking the independence of Tibet including neighboring areas of Tibet Autonomous Region where there are significant Tibetan populations.

Today, there are almost 3 millions of Tibetans living in Tibet Autonomous Region that account for almost 93% of the population there. Chinese government has been encouraging settlements from other parts of China (primarily by Han people) and maintained a tight control over the region. The power conflict is obvious: nationalistic, single Communist Party controlled China that promotes state atheism against pro-Tibet Independence movement that desires preservation of Tibetan culture, political powers and religious practice. Given the non-violent approach by Dali Lama and teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, the movement has been largely peaceful. It is however not clear how much longer some of the younger generations will remain patient with such an approach as evident from recent violent protests.

Hui, sometimes referred to as Chinese Muslims, are more identified by their common Islamic customs and religion practice than particular physical features. Hui people have diverse origins and long history of migration and integration, starting with Arab and Persian merchants settled in South East China back in 7th century and later those from central Asia in 13th century when Mongols ruled the Eurasia. There have been more cooperation than confrontations between Hui and Han people in general.

This brings us to another major Islamic ethnic group – the Uyghurs that are concentrated in Southern XinJiang 新疆 (means “New Territory”). Their Turkic language and Caucasian feature made it un-mistakenly non-Han. To give you some idea about its people and culture, the hit movie The Kite Runner was shot in fact in Kashgar, an oasis city in XinJiang on the ancient Silk Road, due to its resemblance to Kabul and safety concerns of Afghanistan.

Today, XinJiang, or more precisely XinJiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is the largest administrative area of China that spans about 1/6 of the size of the country. It locates in Western China and enjoys an important strategic position not to mention its rich natural resources including oil reserves. It is south of Russia, north of Tibet Autonomous Region, west of Mongolia, and is bordered to a few central Asia countries including Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanstan. Of almost 20 millions people, there are about 9 millions (or 45% of the population) Uyghurs. Han Chinese followed right behind (41%) due to aggressive settlement policy by the Communist China government since 1949 (prior to which Uyghur population was over 75% of the whole population). As usual, there is a whole spectrum of lovely Uyghur people. For decades, there have been however some militant and religious extremists who subscribe to Islamic fundamentalist’s cause and seek to create an independent Uyghur nation in XinJiang; thus a preeminent security threat to the Beijing Olympics more so compared to Tibetan. The attack the other day in Kashgar serves as a reminder.

Why should we be surprised by all these? While I do not condone violence, I can imagine the frustration of minority groups or the weak, be it religious, ethnic, racial, economic, or by any other physical or abstract attributes. Sustained frustration can lead to desperation that can lead to violence; the spiral has been repeated daily everywhere in varying degrees and speed throughout the history of mankind. The problems that China has had and is facing with ethnic minorities are fundamentally no different from those with any other nations. Unfortunately there are no known or obvious solutions that would make everyone happy and meet all ideals.

The reality is that the history is being written everyday by everyone although some are arguably more influential than others. Minorities need to move forward aggressively to avoid being isolated and marginalized economically, thus the distinct possibility of ethnocide. It is however the responsibility of the majority in power to provide genuine helps and resources to make sure the minorities prosper and succeed as a member of the family that can only be good for everyone. What is the point of belonging to the same nation when you don’t treat each other like an equal fellow citizen?

Talk to you soon!

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