top of page

China’s Minorities Look at the Barrel of the Gun

The problem with China’s minority policy is the syndrome that power comes through the barrel of the gun. Much has, however, changed in this ideological policy since 1978, but the basic platform remains firm. This is the problem of a command system. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees any development, especially dissension of any kind, as a threat to the party’s hold over the country. No one is allowed to suggest an alternative view, or make a suggestion in the public even if it has positive inputs for the party and government to consider. It is, therefore, no wonder that the problems with the minorities, especially the Muslim Uighurs and the Buddhist Tibetans continue to exacerbate.

The huge areas of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in the South West, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the North-West are strategic bordering regions. The Chinese government’s official position is that the South West border (India, Bhutan, Nepal mainly) still remains most insecure. After the July 5 Uighur riots in Urumqi, XUAR may have been added to this perception.

It would not be wrong to conclude that a deep sense of distrust of foreigners has been inculcated among the people through the CCP ideological education campaigns. Han Chinese make up about 94% of the country’s population. In many ways, the minorities, who have their own culture, religion and language and have been unable to identify with an alien system in a short period of six decades, are generally a mistrusted lot, perceived as trying to split the country – an extension of anti-China foreigners.

There are historical reasons for the Hans and the minorities distancing themselves from each other. While the Hans regard them as separatists, the minorities feel that their freedom and independence was taken away by the Hans militarily. Suffice it to say that history is complicated, but can the situation be managed? Not if the Chinese authorities believe in “strike hard” campaigns. The central authorities are more sensitive to minority issues, instead of concentrating only on economic development which really do not reach a large part of the minorities, which is the case now.

Following the July 5 Uighur riots, the Chinese authorities have come down hard on a number of NGOs working in different fields. No lawyer is allowed to take up cases for Uighurs who have been arrested for the anti-Han riots. One of the casualties was the Gongmeng Law Research Center, Beijing.

Gongmeng was working on the grey area of China’s highly interpretable laws, exposing faults of the system to try and give the authorities an alternative perspective, while taking away all the credit from the government. A seminal work was done by it on the Tibetan issue. But that was not acceptable to authorities under the present situation. All their material including computers, have been seized.

To examine the Han-Tibetan divide, Gongmeng undertook a field study in Tibet, focussing on the March 14, 2008 (or 3/14) Tibetan riots in Lhasa which spread to other areas of Tibet. The study’s premise was that such a large social contradiction like the 3/14 incident could not have been created solely by external factors such as the influence of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile abroad; there must have been internal causes, but the (Chinese) news reports gave little detailed consideration to exposing the social roots of these violent incidents. Under the influence of nationalist sentiments, there were some reports that even broadened the mistrust and mutual criticisms between the nationalities. The lack of field research into the living conditions of Tibetans has been detrimental to clearly understanding the nature of social contradictions in Tibetan areas and resolving the problems.

The Gongmeng study succinctly describes the effort of the central authorities to modernise Tibetan areas as the “great destruction and great reconstruction” of political, economic and social structures. The aim is to destroy the old and impose the new. Finance and infrastructural projects have been allocated by the central government, but most of it has been centralized in large cities like Lhasa. Modernization has failed to reach the outlying regions.

The basic industry of Tibet, agriculture, remains unattended. And centres like Lhasa are inundated by more educated and accomplished immigrants like the Hans, and the Hui minorities. Young Tibetans from the countryside who come to Lhasa to seek a better life lose out to the better educated immigrants, leading to frustration. Similarly, the thriving tourist and hospitality industry in Tibet has been drawing in people from the outside to service the hospitality industry-hotels, tourist guides, transport services and other ancillary support systems. This is because the education system has not spread in the main Tibetan areas, and the central authorities have not paid attention.

To put it briefly, the modernization of Tibet, and the “Western Development Campaign” have actually resulted in the marginalization of the Tibetans, as has happened in Xinjiang. In other words, this translates into “deprivation” of a people in their own land. Beijing has missed this completely.

It is imperative to quote an observation of the Gongmeng study: “When the land you are ascertained to living in, and the land of the culture you identify with, when the life style and religiosity is suddenly changed into a “modern city” that you no longer recognize, when you can no longer find work in your own land, and feel the unfairness of lack of opportunity, and when you realize that your core value systems are under attack, then the Tibetan people’s panic and sense of crisis is not difficult to understand”.

It is difficult to encapsulate the problems of China’s minorities in a better and more sensitive way. China is comprised of 66 ethnic groups, the Hans being the overwhelming majority. Tibetans and Uighurs still struggle for their rights. The Mongolian resistance has faded away. The other minorities have become inconsequential or almost extinct, used mainly for setting up centres for tourist attraction. The Huis, mainly Muslim, have adjusted because of certain ethnic similarity with the Hans.

The insensitivity of the Chinese authorities towards the minorities was exposed during the Beijing Olympics, when Han children were paraded as minority children in showcasing ethnic unity. The international community was aghast in the beginning but soon forgot the incident. But it left an indelible mark on the minds of the more thinking minorities. As the study notes, the Republican government of Nanjing, after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, declared the Republic of Five Races; they considered the western region as a cultural boundary, and equated the ethnic peoples as representatives of remote and backward barbarians. Stated and unstated propaganda by the CCP has embedded this concept in the minds of the Hans.

Abuse and insults have been a hallmark of Mao Zedong’s political propaganda. And gratitude was absent in his dictionary. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was called by Mao a “running dog of American imperialism”, forgetting India under Nehru was the second country after the Soviet Union to recognise the People’s Republic of China, and it was Nehru who gave up India’s seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in favour of China.

Post-Mao, Deng Xiaoping brought about greater sophistication in international intercourse when he set the agenda of reform and opening up. He introduced a more pragmatic policy towards minorities when repression of religion was almost removed in minority areas, though religion remained state controlled under the law. This was in the 1980s. Things went into reverse by 1989 because of political upheaval.

President Hu Jintao, who was the TAR Party Secretary in the 1980s, put down protests by Tibetan monks with an iron hand. As President of China and CCP General Secretary, he handles Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan policies.

It was during Hu Jintao’s time in Tibet that abusive and acerbic insults were poured on the Dalai Lama, which continues even today. The Dalai Lama has been called a serpent, and a booklet was issued titled “cut off the serpent’s head”. He continues to be called a devil and other names and, of course, a splittist.

Even after the Dalai Lama renounced independence in his Strasbourg speech of 1978, and opted for genuine autonomy under the Chinese constitution, the Chinese authorities refuse to relent. In 1982, Deng Xiaoping, who was China’s unwritten supreme leader, told a delegation from the Dalai Lama, that anything other than independence could be discussed. The present Chinese authorities have shifted from that policy.

The Gongmeng study recognises the importance of religion among the Tibetans, and it is dismayed that the authorities do not understand it. The study is highly critical of the post 3/14 policy of the authorities seeing “every tree and blade of grass” in Tibet as potential enemy soldier, and denouncing the Dalai Lama for every ill in Tibet.

This writer has written several articles that Tibetan Buddhism is embodied in the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama is all pervasive among the Tibetans in their body, soul and being. The Tibetans belong to a Lamastic society where the Lamas are not only religious gurus, but also educators of their Laws, tenets and culture. The Lamas are not perpetrators of serfdom. In fact they work against the system. But they still remain the identity of Tibetans. In fact, an increasing number of Chinese including among the military are practising Buddhism secretly, as others are following the Falung Gong meditation group.

The 3/14 incident also revealed that many Tibetan high level officials may work for the Chinese authorities, but when it comes to a critical situation they find it difficult to denounce the Dalai Lama.

To a great extent, the situation with the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang is similar to the Tibet situation. The Chinese population in Xinjiang has risen from below 10 percent in 1949 to almost the same as the Uighurs today. In the capital Urumqi, the Han Chinese out number the Uighurs 70 percent to 30 percent, and this 30 percent comprise other minorities like Mongolians, Kazakhs and other small minorities.

The Chinese authorities are constrained by a rigid mind set, and their analysis of the breakup of the Soviet Union. They feel that any political reform including religious freedom, can incite more freedom and independence movements. This is because China is a rigid one party system, and does not have the steam release channels like the Indian democracy has.

The Gongmeng research on Tibet has shown the Chinese authorities flaws in policy which can be rectified. But by closing down this group, the central government feels the problems can be controlled by hard crackdown and propaganda.

The Chinese authorities must realise that the minds among some thinking Han Chinese is changing towards understanding the problems of the minorities against the hard conditioning of the Han authorities.

The March 14, 2008, incident in Lhasa and the July 5, 2009 riots in Urumqi may portend a watershed in Han-minority relations in China. This could, in the long run open up cracks in China’s authoritarian unitary system.

The international community is aware of the marginalization of ethnic minorities who have a historical claim on autonomy, and of the deprivation of their basic human and cultural rights. Beijing’s economic clout has kept them at bay. However, within China, a view is growing that stands in opposition to the autocratic system which has little value of human society as they grew – freedom of thought and life. Nothing, of course, is in the immediate realm. But the dye has been cast. The world is getting even more integrated, and rapidly.

(The author, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience of study on the developments in China. He can be reached at

0 views0 comments