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China's Restless Minorities: Chinese Policy in Tibet and Xinjiang

Date & Time

Oct. 18, 2000
12:00am – 12:00am

China's Restless Minorities: Chinese Policy in Tibet and Xinjiang

By Gang Lin

Beijing has launched a "great western development program" to reduce ethic conflict in its underdeveloped western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, and to close the economic gaps between China's prosperous eastern coastal area and its poor western inland regions.

Chinese authorities hope to achieve these goals by pouring money into these two regions for local development and encouraging Han Chinese, the country's dominant ethnic group, to settle there. Like ethnic Tibetans who constitute the majority of the population in Tibet, Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, outnumber other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Will Beijing's new efforts at developing western China reduce ethnic as well as religious conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang? Are the local cultures of Tibet and Xinjiang endangered by Beijing's economic development policies? Two experts addressed these and related issues in an October Capitol Hill breakfast seminar for senior congressional staff sponsored by the Asia Program.

Their remarks focused on the following questions:

How serious are ethnic and religious conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang?

Professor Elliot Sperling of Indiana University argued that the difficulty in integrating Tibet into China is a result of different perceptions of national identity held by Han Chinese and Tibetans. Influenced by Tibetan history and their relations with imperial China, Tibetans think of themselves foremost as Tibetans, not as Chinese. Conscious of this distinct and separate national identity, the improvement of living standards in Tibet has not reduced Tibetans' discontent with Beijing.

Professor Linda Benson of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan reached a similar conclusion regarding conditions in Xinjiang, where, like Tibet, Chinese rule rests on military strength. Beijing's selection of Xinjiang as its main nuclear weapons testing site, the implementation of the one-child-per-family policy in this region, and discrimination against Uighurs by Han Chinese have resulted in frequent disturbances and sporadic separatist activities. However, Benson noted, most of these protests and separatist activities have been on a minor scale and have lacked organization and arms. Therefore, they have not threatened Beijing's hold on Xinjiang.

What has been the impact of economic development and poverty alleviation programs in Tibet and Xinjiang?

According to Benson, Beijing's program of developing western China is aimed at exploiting local resources in Xinjiang on behalf of China's overall economic development, and thus will not really reduce economic gaps between China's prosperous eastern coastal area and its poor western hinterlands. Economic development without concrete benefits for the Muslim population is likely to increase ethnic conflict and separatist activities in Xinjiang.

Sperling emphasized that economic growth and better material conditions in Tibet will not necessarily resolve the region's ethnic problems. Because of historical conflicts between Chinese and Tibetans as well as Beijing's harsh measures against religious freedom and political protests in Tibet, it is difficult to imagine that Tibet would be integrated into China through economic means and the implementation of the great western development program.

How serious is the threat that Tibet and Xinjiang will gradually lose their distinct identities as a result of Han Chinese immigration?

Both Benson and Sperling believe Tibet and Xinjiang will maintain their cultural identities despite increased Han immigration. As Benson pointed out, the language and culture in Xinjiang is primarily Turkic, despite Beijing's claims that Xinjiang has always been part of China. Ethnic Uighurs and the newly arrived Han Chinese are intolerant of each other, and little or no intermarriage has occurred. Benson concluded, therefore, that Han Chinese immigration into Xinjiang is not likely to lessen local identity.

Sperling argued that increasing immigration from China proper into Tibet will strengthen rather than weaken Tibetans' national feeling and their struggle against Sinicization.

What are the implications of these issues for U.S. policy?

Sperling argued that U.S. policy on Tibet has been well-intentioned but ill-informed. According to Sperling, U.S. policy has centered on two primary objectives: preserving Tibetan culture and pushing for negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. However, Sperling contended, the protests and demonstrations inside Tibet during the last decade or more have been for independence, not only cultural preservation. Although the Dalai Lama has said publicly that pushing for Tibetan independence could lead to a potential "disaster," Beijing is waiting for his death and the installation of a new Chinese-educated Dalai Lama in Tibet. Sperling suggested that the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Affairs in the U.S. State Department should devote more time and resources to the Tibet issue with a better understanding of the discrepancy between what Tibetans and Beijing want.

Benson pointed out that U.S. policy toward Beijing and Muslim groups in Xinjiang must reflect an understanding of the geopolitics of central Asia. If Uighurs and other ethnic groups cannot acquire necessary assistance from the United States and continue to be abused by Han Chinese, they will participate in more demonstrations and seek support from Muslim governments in central Asia. Since both the United States and China oppose the spread of the Taliban's influence in central Asia, there is an opportunity for the two countries to work together in this region.

Given that China is already hypersensitive on issues related to Xinjiang, the United States should avoid openly "hosting" separatist organizations from the region. The best role for the United States to play, Benson suggested, is to assist China in its "great western development program" while encouraging Beijing to demonstrate to Muslim groups in Xinjiang that they will directly benefit from this program.

This program highlighted the complexity of China's minority questions in Tibet and Xinjiang. Neither economic development nor Han immigration into these regions is likely to resolve the ethnic problems of the two regions. The two speakers provided different policy options for the United States -- Sperling suggested that the United States should take serious consideration of Tibetans' demand for independence, while Benson suggested that the United States should be cautious about supporting separatist activities in Xinjiang. Their contrasting prescriptions reveal the importance of reconciling U.S. support for human rights and self-government with its need for overall constructive relations with China. This is not an easy task, but a worthy one for the new administration.

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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more


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