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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Is racism at the core of China’s Tibet problem?

May 25, 2015

By Gray Tuttle

Foreign Affairs, May/June 2015 - For all the tremendous change China has experienced in recent decades—phenomenal economic growth, improved living standards, and an ascent to great-power status—the country has made little progress when it comes to the treatment of its ethnic minorities, most of whom live in China’s sparsely populated frontier regions. This is by no means a new problem. Indeed, one of those regions, Tibet, represents one of the “three Ts”—taboo topics that the Chinese government has long forbidden its citizens to discuss openly (the other two are Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989).

But analyses of China’s troubles in Tibet and other areas that are home to large numbers of ethnic minorities often miss a crucial factor. Many observers, especially those outside China, see Beijing’s repressive policies toward such places primarily as an example of the central government’s authoritarian response to dissent. Framing the situation that way misses the fact that Beijing’s hard-line policies are not merely a reflection of the central state’s desire to cement its authority over distant territories but also an expression of deep-seated ethnic prejudices and racism at the core of contemporary Chinese society. In that sense, China’s difficulties in Tibet and other regions are symptoms of a deeper disease, a social pathology that is hardly ever discussed in China and rarely mentioned even in the West.

When placed next to the challenge of maintaining strong economic growth, fighting endemic corruption, and managing tensions in the South China Sea, China’s struggle with the legacy and present-day reality of ethnic and racial prejudice might seem unimportant, a minor concern in the context of the country’s rise. In fact, Beijing’s inability (or unwillingness) to confront this problem poses a long-term threat to the central state. The existence of deep and broad hostility and discrimination toward Tibetans and other non-Han Chinese citizens will prevent China from easing the intense unrest that roils many areas of the country. And as China grows more prosperous and powerful, the enforced exclusion of the country’s ethnic minorities will undermine Beijing’s efforts to foster a “harmonious society” and present China as a model to the rest of the world.


Estimates vary, but close to 120 million Chinese citizens do not belong to the majority Han ethnic group. Ethnic minorities such as Kazakhs, Koreans, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs, and other groups represent only eight percent of China’s population. But their existence belies a commonplace notion of China as a homogeneous society. It’s also worth noting that, taken together, the regions of China that are dominated by non-Han people constitute roughly half of China’s territory and that if non-Han Chinese citizens formed their own country, it would be the 11th largest in the world, just behind Mexico and just ahead of the Philippines.

Although Tibetans represent only about five percent of China’s non-Han citizens, their struggle attracts significant international attention and is in many ways an effective stand-in for the experience of the other minority groups. Tibetans have long been treated as second-class citizens, deprived of basic opportunities, rights, and legal protections that Han Chinese enjoy (albeit in a country where the rule of law is inconsistent at best). The central government consistently denies Tibetans the high degree of autonomy promised to them by the Chinese constitution and by Chinese law. The state is supposed to protect minority groups’ cultural traditions and encourage forms of affirmative action to give minorities a leg up in university admissions and the job market. But such protections and benefits are rarely honored. The state’s approach toward the Tibetan language well illustrates this pattern: although the government putatively seeks to preserve and respect the Tibetan language, in practice Beijing has sought to marginalize it by insisting that all post-primary education take place in Chinese and by discouraging the use of Tibetan in business and government.

More overt forms of discrimination exist as well, including ethnic profiling. Security and law enforcement personnel frequently single out traveling Tibetans for extra attention and questioning, especially since a wave of protests against Beijing’s policies—some of which turned violent—swept Tibet in 2008. Hotels in Chinese cities routinely deny Tibetans accommodations—even those who can “pass” as Han, since their identity cards designate them as Tibetan. Worse, since 2008, the state has placed new restrictions on Tibetans’ civil rights, forbidding them to establish associations devoted to issues such as the environment and education—something Han Chinese are allowed to do.

Even in Tibetan-majority areas, where Tibetans should enjoy some advantage, Tibetans earn lower incomes relative to Han Chinese. Deprivations of that kind are part of a broader, more systemic inequality that characterizes life for Tibetans in China. Andrew Fischer, an expert on Tibet’s economy, has used official Chinese government statistics to demonstrate that Tibetans are much less likely to get good jobs than their Han counterparts due to the lack of educational opportunities available to them. Even in Tibetan-majority areas, where Tibetans should enjoy some advantage, Tibetans earn lower incomes relative to Han Chinese.

It is hard to know exactly what role racism or ethnic prejudice plays in fostering these inequalities. In part, that is because it is difficult to generalize about the views of Han Chinese toward Tibetans and other minorities; just like in the West, public opinion on identity in China is shaped by the ambiguity and imprecision of concepts such as ethnicity and race. Still, it is fair to say that most Han Chinese see Tibetans and other minorities as ethnically different from themselves and perhaps even racially distinct as well.

That was not always the case. In the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals and officials talked about Tibetans and Chinese as all belonging to “the yellow race.” By the 1950s, however, such ideas had gone out of fashion, and Mao Zedong’s government launched a project to categorize the country’s myriad self-identifying ethnic groups with the aim of reducing the number of officially recognized minorities—the fewer groups there were, the easier they would be to manage, the government hoped. This had the effect of creating clearer lines between the various groups and also encouraged a paternalistic prejudice toward minorities. Han elites came to see Tibetans and other non-Han people as at best junior partners in the project of Chinese nation building. In the future, most Han elites assumed, such groups would be subsumed by the dominant culture and would cease to exist in any meaningful way; this view was partly the result of Maoist tenets that saw class consciousness as a more powerful force than ethnic solidarity.



Perhaps the most striking aspect of contemporary racism and ethnic prejudice in China is its continuity with the past. Throughout the many convulsions China has experienced in the past century, there has never been a watershed moment or turning point in Chinese thinking about race and ethnicity. And regardless of communism’s putative colorblindness, racial and ethnic identity was central to early, pre-Maoist versions of Chinese nationalism, which never ceased to influence the country’s political culture.

Although traditional Chinese thought posited the superiority of Chinese culture, it was not explicitly racist. But during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese intellectuals who had studied in Japan—which, during that period, was self-consciously embracing many Western ideas, including some relating to race—began bringing home new, more essentialist ideas about race and ethnicity. Chinese scholars adopted the Japanese term minzoku-shugi (minzu zhuyi in Chinese), which Chinese speakers use today as the equivalent of “nationalism.” But as the historian Frank Dikotter has argued, minzu zhuyi “literally meant ‘racism,’ and expressed a nationalist vision of race.”

In 1921, Sun declared that China must rid itself altogether of the idea of separate races. “We must facilitate the dying out of all names of individual peoples inhabiting China, i.e., Manchus, Tibetans, etc.,” Sun said. He had a specific model in mind: the United States. By the 1920s, the question of China’s racial and ethnic identity began to take on greater importance as the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen sought to transform the crumbling Chinese empire into a modern state. In 1921, Sun declared that China must rid itself altogether of the idea of separate races. “We must facilitate the dying out of all names of individual peoples inhabiting China, i.e., Manchus, Tibetans, etc.,” Sun said. He had a specific model in mind: the United States. “We must follow the example of the United States of America,” he said, in order to “satisfy the demands and requirements of all races and unite them in a single cultural and political whole, to constitute a single nation.”

Of course, at that time, the United States was hardly a paragon of racial justice and tolerance. But in the decades following Sun’s remarks, the U.S. civil rights movement began the process of eliminating legally sanctioned discrimination and reducing prejudice in society. Although racial inequality remains a serious problem in the United States, individual and official views on race have changed dramatically during the past century.

The story is far less hopeful in China. Although China’s constitution and ethnic autonomy laws create the appearance of progress, there are no mechanisms for enforcing the vision of equality put forward by those texts. Put simply, there is no Chinese Department of Justice or Chinese Supreme Court to which Tibetans can appeal to fight discriminatory practices.

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