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Yawning Gap Between Promise and PerformanceP. K. Balachandran Special to Salem-News.com
“China will not help the Tamils secure justice and political autonomy...”
(COLOMBO, Sri Lanka Ceylon Today) - On paper, the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has an impressive policy on the ethnic and religious minorities, with all the rights expected from a modern state guaranteed.
But performance falls far short of promises in crucial matters, particularly in the political sphere.
No wonder a delegation of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), which spent ten days in China earlier this month at the invitation of the Chinese Government, came back to Sri Lanka disappointed. “China will not help the Tamils secure justice and political autonomy.
The Chinese believe that the solution for the problem of religious or ethnic minorities lies in economic development and the grant of economic opportunities, rather than political autonomy,” said the leader of the delegation and ITAK Propaganda Secretary, Nadesapillai Vithiatharan.China has five autonomous regions which enjoy a degree of self-governance.
But clearly, Beijing’s accent is on economic development rather than on giving substantive political autonomy to these regions.“The overall view was that the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka had been solved because guns had been silenced. There was no realization that the basic political issues over which the Tamils had struggled in various ways, still remained unsolved, and crying for attention,” Vithiatharan said.
However, a careful examination of the Chinese model shows that economic development is not sufficient to manage minorities and promote national integration. And if the model is applied in sincerely, inefficiently and insensitively, it could itself generate separatism and unrest. Despite economic development, the Autonomous Regions of China have seen a lot of unrest inviting adverse comment from an increasingly human rights-sensitive world.
According to the Constitution of the PRC, all ethnic groups are equal. The State protects the lawful rights and interests of the ethnic minorities and upholds and develops a relationship of ‘equality, unity and mutual assistance’ among all ethnic groups. Discrimination against, and oppression of, any ethnic group, are prohibited. The Constitution guarantees all freedoms, including, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly to discuss and demonstrate.According to a government White Paper (china.org.cn) the representation of the minorities in the National People’s Congress (NPC) is more than their population would warrant.
For example, in 1998, there were 428 ethnic minority deputies in a House of 2979 or 14.84% of the membership, which was five percentage points higher than their proportion in China’s population. The White Paper points out with justifiable pride that while the pre-communist regimes did not recognize the minorities, the PRC did.
It conducted surveys and set up Autonomous Regions (ARs). There are now 55 recognized ethno-religious minorities and five ARs plus smaller autonomous districts. The Zhuang, who were not a self-conscious minority, were unilaterally accorded a separate identity by Premier Chou-En-Lai and assigned an autonomous region.
The Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region (GZAR) has registered significant economic progress and is today a show piece. The ITAK was taken to GZAR.The five ARs are: Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR); Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (INMAR); Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region (GZAR), Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR);and the Ningxia-Hui Autonomous Region (NHAR).It is laid down that the administrative head, and the deputy head of an autonomous area should be from a minority community.
Theory and Practice
China’s attitude to the minorities has tended to change from time to time. In the earlier years (the 1950s), the government was accommodative. But the Tibetan uprising of 1959, spearheaded by the Dalai Lama, led to Han Chinese domination. The Han Chinese are almost 92% of China’s population.
According to China Review brought out by the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG), the Cultural Revolution saw much hostility towards the minorities, their language, culture and rights. The rise of ethnic and religious consciousness the world over in later years, only added to the fears of the Han Chinese. The fact that TAR, XUAR and INMAR are on the borders, with potentially hostile countries across the border, has led to greater vigilance and control on the part of the State.
The rise of aggressive Islam across the globe and the US-led ‘war on terror’ have together led to an enormous militarization of the ARs on the Western borders. China has settled millions of Han Chinese in XUAR, especially on the international border, in order to check foreign-inspired separatism.TAR is a major missile and air base.
The Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (REAL) enacted in 1984 after the Cultural Revolution, and revised in 2001, restored the rights of the minorities, at least formally. In 2006, President Hu Jintao announced a policy of building a ‘harmonious socialistic society’ promising ‘Rule of Law, Democracy, Unity and Vitality.’ But in actual practice, many of these ideals and laws are flouted to the favour of the Han Chinese.
For instance, while the administrative heads in the ARs are necessarily from the minority communities, the head of the regional Communist Party, the real repository of power, would be a Han Chinese. These Han officials are expected to ‘help and lead’ the minorities under their charge. The job of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is basically to promote ‘stability, national unity and the interests of the state.’ In addition, REAL enjoins the ARs to “place the interests of the state as a whole above anything else and make positive efforts to fulfill the tasks assigned by the state organs at higher levels.” In other words, they are expected to push the agenda of the Central Government.
According to the Minority Rights Group-Human Rights in China (MRG-HRIC) report of 2007, the ARs had not been able to pass any self governing regulations. This was because the mandatory approval from the NPC Standing Committee had not come. “This is in contrast to the process for ordinary provinces which are only required to report to the NPC,” the report pointed out.Furthermore, most laws enacted by the ARs simply reflect the national law with minor alterations. This is because the minorities are not represented at the highest policy making levels, whether in the government or the CPC.
No minority individual has ever been a member of the CPC’s Central Committee, which is the highest level of authority in the party. The Hindu reported on 14 November, 2012, that in the 25-member Politburo, there was not a single person from China’s 55 recognized minority communities.
Implementation Triggers Discontent
Although the Central Government is of the view that economic development, educational advancement and economic integration, are a deterrent to separatism, and has implemented far reaching economic and educational programs in the ARs, faulty and motivated implementation has triggered ill-feeling, violent protests and separatism.Except for GZAR, the others ARs are still backward as compared to Han Chinese provinces.
According to the China Statistical Year Book of 2005, the ‘illiteracy rate’ was 10.3% for the country as a whole, but for Tibet (TAR) it was 44.63%. Education is ‘compulsory’ in China, but is not free. As the minorities in the backward areas cannot afford the school fees, uniforms and books, many parents do not send their children to school.All public hospitals in China expect an initial deposit for treatment. It is widely reported that the poor among the minorities fail to get medical attention because they cannot afford it. The problem is complicated by the increasing privatization of health. This is shown in the Under-5 mortality rates.
While the overall national figure is 39.7 per 1000 births, it is 57.2 in TAR and 65.4 in XUAR. The maternal mortality ratio for the country as a whole in 2004 was 48.3 per 100,000 live births, but for TAR it was 310.4.Despite huge investments in infrastructure and significant improvements in the living conditions since integration with China in the early 1950s, poverty is still widespread in the ARs. The PRC and CPC see the ARs as places with vital natural resources to be mined and transported to the Han Chinese growth centres in the East. TAR has oil, but its extraction brings no benefits to the Tibetans. Immigrant Han Chinese take up most of the well paid jobs in the developing sectors. They are better qualified and are also Mandarin proficient.
Although, by law, the local language is an official language, Mandarin proficiency is insisted upon. Even Mandarin-proficient local youth complain that job givers prefer Han Chinese to them. Uyghurs have complained about notices saying: “Uyghurs need not apply”.The emerging job market has resulted in Tibetans, Uyghurs and other linguistic minorities taking to Mandarin education.
The mother tongue is used only at the very early stage of schooling. In a sense, they have no choice, as Tibetan and Uyghur language schools are being merged with Mandarin-medium schools. Mandarin is considered better suited to teach the sciences. Human rights workers say that these tendencies may result in the obliteration of indigenous languages, literatures and cultures. Indeed, an official study conducted in April 2005 found that nearly 40 minority languages were on the verge of extinction in China.In XUAR, which has a Muslim majority, mosques are under government control.
Children are not allowed to go for religious studies. They cannot even say their prayers or read the Quran. “Separatists always use religion to indulge in damaging activities,” said Wang Laquan, Head of the XUAR Communist Party. He made it clear that the government’s objective was not to protect Uyghur culture but to raise their living standards. “The bottom line is that cultural life is based on people having enough to eat. If people don’t eat enough nobody can sing or dance,” he said.
Clashes and Self Immolation
The minority policies of the PRC and CPC have led to widespread violence in TAR and XUAR. Katherine Palmer Kaup, author of Creating the Zhuang: Ethnic Politics in China (Reinner Pulications, Boulder, Colorado, 2000) says that between 1990 and 2000, there had been dozens of clashes in TAR and XUAR with about 500 being killed in each case.
Self immolation has been common among Tibetans protesting against Chinese rule. According to the Economist Han-Uyghur riots in 2009 and 2010, had led to new regulations to combat the three enemies of the Chinese state, namely, ‘terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.’
Special thanks to Tamil Elders in London
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