Friday, August 1, 2008

A Lengthy Analysis of China: The Condescending Han Attitude Towards Other Ethnic Groups and its Effects

Post 6 of an 11 part essay on how the recent unrest in Tibet is a barometer of the various internal issues and the international pressure that China is struggling to deal with.

On a certain level, the direct and far-reaching Chinese control over Tibet and Xinjiang has been driven not only by a desire to effectively rule such areas, but also by an underlying attitude of Han superiority over other ethnic groups – some would even call it racism – that, in its various forms, has stirred up ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang that have contributed to the tumult in such areas.

This condescending Chinese attitude is the culmination of centuries of historical dominance of Chinese civilization in East Asia. Being the first to become civilized in their part of Asia and developing in relative isolation from the other ancient forefather civilizations in India and the Middle East, the Chinese came to view themselves as the center of civilization – the Middle Kingdom – surrounded by a sea of uncivilized barbarians, which naturally made neighboring peoples inferior in Chinese eyes and also instilled the Chinese with the arrogant perception that they were the best in the world. Even now that classical Chinese civilization is no more and China itself is no longer the unquestioned superpower in East Asia, let alone the rest of the world, the Chinese still cling to their ancient pride and consequently look with contempt on neighboring peoples.

Given their stark cultural distinctness from China and the sensitivity of their political situation, the Tibetans and Uyghurs have become particular victims of this sinocentric attitude, and as more and more Han Chinese move into Tibet and Xinjiang, discrimination has become all the more commonplace, particularly in the economic environment. Since Han Chinese now own and operate most of the businesses in Tibet and Xinjiang, hiring and employment for high paying, management jobs have generally favored the Han at the expense of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, who have often had to settle for low income, labor-intensive jobs instead. This socioeconomic gap has consequently made it more difficult for Tibetans and Uyghurs to get access to high quality education, health care, and other services that are usually fairly expensive and are located in the cities as opposed to the countryside, where many Tibetans and Uyghurs live.[1][2] This gap has also made the Tibetans and Uyghurs as a whole seem poor and unskilled in Chinese eyes, only giving the Chinese another excuse to look down on them.

While such discrimination clearly happens in everyday interactions, the problem has most certainly been exacerbated by the actions of the Chinese government. Although it officially insists that ethnic discrimination exists “everywhere in the world except China,”[3] the Chinese government’s policies have in fact strengthened the very much existent ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and the minority Tibetans and Uyghurs. Indeed, the element of Han supremacy seems to have greatly influenced the Han Chinese government’s policies towards Tibet and Xinjiang. The erosion of Tibetan and Uyghur culture, particularly religion, the widespread propaganda in the media and the schools, and the flood of Han Chinese people and customs[4] have done more than just enforce control, but have also worked to drown out Tibetan and Uyghur culture and supplant it with Chinese culture. This suggests that the Chinese government has a greater motive behind its policies than simply to control Tibet and Xinjiang, but to also impose on them what it views as the inherently superior Chinese way of life.

Some of its actions seem to show utter indifference to Tibetan or Uyghur well-being, such as the decision to conduct nuclear tests in Lop Nor in Xinjiang as opposed to a predominantly Han area, which seems eerily similar to the Soviet decision to conduct nuclear tests in the non-Russian region of Kazakhstan. Others, though, particularly those designed to assimilate the Tibetans and Uyghurs into Chinese culture, seem to reflect the idea that in a way, the Chinese government is helping these previously inferior areas by introducing them to Chinese culture. As Hu Jintao himself arrogantly remarked in 2001, “The peaceful liberation of Tibet... ushered in a new era in which Tibet would turn from darkness to light, from backwardness to progress, from poverty to affluence and from seclusion to openness.”[5] Indeed, there may be some truth behind this statement: for years, the now beloved lamas in Tibet wielded significant power in conjunction with local landholders over a mostly enserfed population.[6] But at least these leaders did not try to “liberate” the Tibetans from their cultural identity.

The various Tibetan and Uyghur uprisings, including the latest Tibetan riots, are surely in part a testament to the daily, de facto discrimination the Tibetans and Uyghurs face and the arrogant, sinocentric undercurrent that the Chinese governs them with. The Chinese government, though, clearly either does not understand this or does not care, as none of these uprisings have led them to root out feelings of Han superiority among everyday Chinese or among the Chinese government itself. In fact, during the latest Tibetan unrest, the Chinese government used the ethnic tensions to garner public support for the crackdown, using their control of China’s media outlets to constantly replay images and stories of Tibetan mobs killing, looting, and pillaging, and conveniently leaving out any mention of the harsh Chinese crackdown to follow.[7] What is truly discouraging, though, both for Tibet and for China, is that the propaganda seems to be working: many Chinese have cheered the crackdown and have posted anti-Tibetan remarks on Chinese internet forums.[8]

In choosing to promote such discrimination, China has only given the Tibetans and Uyghurs more of a reason to seek independence, since clearly under the current policies they will be looked down upon and disadvantaged and under the current political system they have no peaceful means of changing such policies. Putting down future uprisings will continue to be a challenging, costly enterprise for China and one which the rest of the world will likely frown upon as China resorts to more and more forceful methods to suppress them. In addition, such discrimination will divide the country and create social and economic turmoil that will hinder China’s ability to prosper. Truly, China’s prolonging of the discriminatory status quo will negatively affect its development, both internally and externally, towards becoming an accepted world power.

[4] See Tibet and Xinjiang under Communist Rule

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1 comment:

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