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China rethinks autonomy for ethnic minorities; Tibetans, Uighurs and other nationality groups are excessively privileged and over-indulged, many say

July 28, 2009

Friday, July 24th, 2009 | 4:03 pm

Canwest News Service

There is a growing body of opinion in China that its problems with
minorities like the Tibetans, Uighurs and others among the 56 recognized
?nationality groups? is not that they are repressed, but that they are
excessively privileged and over-indulged.

And the finger of blame points not, of course, at the current or past
leaders of the Communist Party, but at the early leaders of the Soviet
Union, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, from whom Mao Zedong and his
revolutionaries took the modern Chinese constitution.

So in the wake of riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa last year and in
Urumqi, the capital of the Uighurs? Xinjiang Autonomous Region, on July
5 when local people vented their anger against Han Chinese, arguments
are being made to do away with the privileges enjoyed by minority ethnic
groups. This debate has profound implications, though it would be
ideologically difficult for the Communist Party to adopt the argument
that its problems stem from mistakes in Marxist-Leninism.

But Beijing has never allowed ideological purity to stand in the way of
practicality. There are some signs, on the Tibet question for example,
that Beijing is quite prepared to reinterpret or set aside the laws on
autonomy if it suits political needs.

These developments in China have significant implications for the
Tibetans? spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, who recently
marked the 50th anniversary of his exile with about 150,000 fellow
Tibetans at Dharamsala in northern India.

The Dalai Lama is 74 years old and has been trying to fashion a working
relationship with Beijing before he dies and the whole issue of the
divine revelation of his reincarnated successor becomes a divisive
issue. He is even contemplating introducing elections for his successor
to avoid Beijing trying to dictate the succession and thus provoke a
split in Tibetan Buddhism.

Last November the exiled Tibetans presented a discussion paper to
Beijing in which they reaffirmed that they are not seeking independence
for Tibet and argued that the Dalai Lama?s position on autonomy for the
Himalayan region is entirely consistent with Chinese law.

Beijing rejected the paper out of hand, and the Dalai Lama?s chief
negotiators are now trying to draft a new paper that will tempt China?s
leaders to negotiate.

The prospects do not look good.

The key document that is spurring debate in China on the ethnic
minorities issue was written by Ma Rong, professor of sociology at
Peking University and published in April, a year after the Lhasa riots
and before the latest bloodletting in Xinjiang.

Ma argues that while European and even the imperial Chinese and
post-1911 republican concepts of nationhood encompassed many ethnic
groups with one citizenship, Communist China after 1949 adopted the
Soviet Union?s laws.

In China, 56 ?nationalities? were recognized, and while not given the
right to separate as was done in the Soviet Union ? and which led to its
breakup 20 years ago ? they do have many special rights.

These include exemption from the hated ?one child? family planning
policy, education privileges, allocations of top posts in local
administrations, and additional financial subsidies and welfare programs.

However, these policies have done little or nothing to improve the
livelihoods of the minority groups, while at the same time they have
stirred up resentment among Han Chinese.

And Ma makes the case that the granting of autonomy rights has
politicized group identity, inspired separatism and acted as a barrier
to the integration of minority ethnic groups into a multicultural China.

?The problem and danger of nationalist separation was therefore actually
created, at least in part, by the authorities of the USSR (Soviet Union)
and China themselves in the process of

nation-building,? Ma wrote in April.

Ma says China should entirely rethink its attitude and policies towards
the ethnic minorities.

It should aim at multicultural integration with the same rights for all
citizens. He holds up the United States and India as countries that have
successfully forged unified nation states out of regional and ethnic

A significant difference between China and those two examples, of
course, is that in China the Han make up 91 per cent of the population
and are politically and economically dominant.  
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