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China Shaping Its Soul in Tibet and Xinjiang

September 13, 2009

by Muhammad Sacirbey
September 12, 2009 -

China's treatment of Tibet and the Uighurs, (of the Xinjiang Autonomous
Province), has followed the pattern of an exchange of allegations and
counter-charges. China simply expects to prevail by having an infinitely
greater capacity to resonate by the logic of its rapidly expanding economic,
political and military power. This methodology can achieve Beijing's
immediate objective of drowning out criticism, though it may well be at a
non-refundable price to China's longer term development as seen from the
outside and within.

The unfolding situation in these two provinces has obvious importance for
the peoples most immediately affected. It will also help shape China as a
country that is growing into its new found economic and political power or
one around which issues of human rights will be whispered for fear of
offending Beijing's hierarchy. Some of course will not whisper even if
largely powerless. Confrontation will mutate.

Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan cautioned Chinese authorities regarding the
potential "genocide" committed against the Uighurs. This starts bringing to
the surface a term with international, legal implications from a leading
Muslim majority country. The reaction of the Chinese government exhibited
hypersensitivity without particular inclination to reflect upon the actions
of some of its own officials and citizens. Similar considerations have been
long reflected regarding the issue of Tibet and China's sensitivity.


It is not fair to simplify any debate such as this, and especially as an
outsider, but perhaps the offense is mitigated by the motive.
.  Does China policy in Tibet and Xinjiang reflect a commitment toward
multi-ethnic society or an effort at "colonization"?
.  What are the options to bring the matter into sustainable balance,
consistent with China's sovereignty and the rights of the Tibetan and Uighur
indigenous populations?


"Colonization" is a term that is increasingly applied to describe the policy
of Beijing toward these two provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. The majority Han
Chinese has been encouraged to settle in these provinces and appears to be
benefiting from official favoritism in most arenas of political, economic,
social and cultural life.

China does counter that many of the ethnic minorities are also favored in
some key ways, including higher education slots and exemption from the "one
baby" policy. It certainly may be difficult to draw a single sentence
conclusion as to whether China is encouraging the "colonization" and rule by
the Han majority or whether it is simply applying policies of
multi-ethnicity throughout its borders.


Comparisons to the American experience from a century earlier are not
flattering to either China or the United States. While much of America's
society was evolving its commitment and application of pluralism in the
first few centuries of its discovery, others were the victims or exempted
from inclusion, particularly Native Americans and African Americans. The
exploitation of the "other" by societies overtly committed to principles of
multi-ethnicity and pluralism is not unique. "Colonization" is the legacy of
many western democracies but also African and Asian "empires." China itself
was the victim of imperial ambitions in the middle of the last century.

The models applied in the past to attain pluralistic societies may be
inadequate for today. In historical perspective, some such policies may even
reflect hypocrisy or more self-serving imperial ambitions. The sins of our
fathers cannot be the model for today and tomorrow's pluralistic societies,
regardless of the avowed motives then and now.


China's policy toward Tibet and the Uighur must be evaluated in the context
of today's standards, including those adopted by the United Nations toward
indigenous populations. Commitment to pluralism and tolerance for indigenous
peoples is marked by a respect for both the physical welfare and for the
cultural and religious identity of the people as a group and individuals.
>From the Tibetan and Uighur perspective, there is ample evidence that China
is marginalizing the linguistic, cultural and religious identity of these

Official policies have served to discourage utilization of the local
language in education, political institutions and business. Religious
observance is not only frowned upon but also not allowed with respect to
those members of the group(s) who hold positions of authority within the
state. Aside from official policy, there is an intrinsic denigration of
local culture and religion that many of us who experienced Communist
authority are more familiar with. After decades of promoting atheism
authorities may have also further become insensitive to their own


China's sovereignty and territorial integrity is not at issue. Resolution
can only be encouraged, not imposed. There are however more objective
criteria by which Chinese authorities may be evaluated. That is why the use
of terms such as "genocide" by Prime Minister Erdogan does raise the
international stakes. The Dai Lama's ability to reach so many of the world's
political, social and cultural leaders will keep the issue from being filed
away as a "cold case."

China's tremendous economic rise has not yet been similarly reflected in its
political evolution. Part of the solution is in the context of China's
broader development toward a more democratic and open society. Consistent
with that is also a committed application of the methodologies respecting
true autonomy within China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Allegations of Al-Qaeda involvement in Xinjiang, even if to be proven
credible, cannot deflect the grievances of the Uighurs who are quickly
becoming an ostracized minority in their own ancestral homeland. Regardless
of the causes of the recent rioting in Xinjiang, the longstanding case of
Tibet reveals a Chinese leadership that oscillates between too much
sensitivity and an overly defensive attitude to seeming indifference.

China is an economic, political but also cultural power that the world must
recognize in all its dimensions. Its leadership role should not be avoided,
either by other global leaders or its own. The most effective way to impress
its role as deserving deference is for China to exhibit practical and
rhetorical respect for cultures and religions distinct from the majority
with in its own borders.

Of course, there still remains a fundamental question that many in China
still ask: What is the nature of modern China's soul or does it even have
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