Horrific as events in China’s far western province of Xinjiang have been, outbursts of ethnic violence in the People’s Republic are hardly surprising to non-Chinese observers. I have never been to Xinjiang so I can’t comment on the specific situation there, but I have experienced first hand the condescending paternalism that informs the Chinese Government’s view of minority groups.
Until recently my day job was with a state-owned magazine publisher in Beijing. One of my less savoury tasks was polishing the mangled English in Potala, a Government-produced propaganda monthly about Tibet. The publication was 90 per cent in Tibetan, so I was spared having to trawl through entire articles, but for reasons known only to the upper echelons of China’s propaganda machine, most of the pieces featured an introductory paragraph in English. They were the sections I was expected to polish.
Every issue of Potala was replete with images of happy Tibetans and stories of their ever-improving lives. They were invariably described as happy, primitive people who loved dancing, living in a timeless, wild, yet strangely harmonious prelapsarian paradise. The following description was typical:
"The Daxia River flows by Xiahe County in silence, as it has for thousands of years. Brightly coloured prayer flags flutter along the many bridges straddling the waterway. In the background are sapphire skies and clear-cut mountain ranges. Local Tibetans stroll across the scene, sunshine in their eyes and peaceful expressions on their faces."
Not that the stereotyping was restricted to Potala. The following is a description of Tibetans living in the province of Qinghai, taken from the monthly glossy China Today, which I also worked on:
"… the Tibetans are hard working, able to endure hardship, and are noted for being hospitable and good at singing and dancing. They mainly engage in livestock breeding, and have created splendid culture in the fields of religion, literature, medicine and architecture. Imbued with legends, Tibetan people are simple, honest and unspoiled."
These descriptions are models of subtle insight, however, compared with the ham-fisted discussions of Tibet’s "liberation" and the evils of the old theocracy that intermittently appeared on the pages of Potala. An article I worked on entitled "Shift of Destiny — Stories of Former Serfs" began with:
"Talking about their experiences as former serfs, many Tibetan retirees sighed, ‘If it wasn’t for Liberation or Democratic Reform, we serfs couldn’t have been masters of our country, of knowledge, even our own lives.’ ‘How terrible was the old theocracy led by the Dalai Lama. How miserable were Tibetan people’s lives. I struggled through that,’ said Serjue Drolkar, former vice president of Tibet University."
More disturbing than the drivel churned out by the publications I worked on was the inability of my colleagues — all of whom had been educated at top Beijing universities — to see anything problematic in this one-dimensional propagandistic approach. In frustration I once asked the woman on the desk next to me, "Doesn’t it bother you that we use such blatant racial stereotyping whenever we discuss Tibetans in our magazines?"
She couldn’t understand what I was talking about, so I became more specific. "Whenever we talk about Tibetans, they are always described as primitive and happy childlike people who dance all the time, and who are grateful to the Han Chinese for giving them ‘freedom’ and ‘development’. Wouldn’t it bother you if you were Tibetan and always described in those terms?"
"But we regard those as positive things!" she replied with genuine incredulity. "We think it’s good to be happy and simple — and to like dancing."
I sighed and tried another tack. "Do you realise this is how European colonialists used to describe the Chinese — as simple and primitive, and unable to take care of themselves? Why was that so offensive, but it’s a good thing when Chinese people talk about Tibetans in this way?"
"That was different," she replied quickly. "That was colonialism. We are all Chinese." And therein lies the rub.
It’s drummed into Chinese people from the time they can talk that they are victims of colonialism. The Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy partly rests on the fact that they united the nation and expelled foreign powers, establishing borders that are now regarded as timeless, ahistorical lines in the sand set by destiny, never to be questioned, let alone altered. For many Han Chinese, it is simply impossible for their compatriots to act like — or even be perceived as — colonisers in Tibet and Xinjiang, because these areas are part of, and have always been part of, China. Conversely, it was inconceivable to my colleagues that many Tibetans, or indeed Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, might not see things in quite the same way.
The refusal to admit that Han Chinese may have contributed in any way to ethnic tensions makes it easy for the Chinese Government to blame disturbances on shadowy "foreign forces" whenever they occur — although in the case of this week’s violence the chief "foreign" villain is Rebiya Kadeer, a Xinjiang woman living in the United States. Similarly, the "foreign" force invariably blamed for problems in Tibet is the "Dalai Clique".
During last year’s riots in Tibet, and again in this week’s coverage of the violence in Xinjiang, images of Han Chinese casualties were paraded on television to bolster the general sense of Han victimhood, and then, rather incongruously, the media was flooded with messages of ethnic harmony and national unity. Serious questions about why these protests, riots and ethnic killings keep recurring are never asked.
The issues on the ground in both Xinjiang and Tibet are undoubtedly complex, and the Western media tends to labour under its own set of clichés when reporting on these regions, especially when it comes to Tibet. It’s also true the Chinese Government has spent huge amounts on infrastructure in both areas and enforces affirmative action policies for minority groups in terms of employment and higher education. But like the Americans in Iraq, or Australians when it comes to Indigenous issues, many Chinese seem incapable of understanding that people are rarely happy about aid and development that’s forced on them by outsiders at the end of a gun.
Until the Chinese Government, and by extension many Chinese people, can begin to take an honest look at how they relate to minorities, it seems inevitable that hatreds will continue to fester and people will keep getting killed.