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Notes from… China via NYC

1 August 2006

Interview: Zoe Gray, MRG International Advocacy Officer

At a conference in New York, representatives of three very different communities gathered to share experiences for the first time. As Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uyghurs discussed life under the PRC, it became clear that while the world reads about the inexorable rise of Chinese development and how the country is changing, it is at a cost, and that cost is being exacted from the people who don’t fit the state model of the perfect Chinese citizens.

The Mongolians, the Tibetans and the Uyghur peoples mainly live in “autonomous regions” in China. These are officially called the Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR)[1] and Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR). Each ethnic community has its own distinct cultures, traditions and language. And each area is rich in the world’s most precious and essential natural resources, such as oil, gas, minerals, and water.

The people who live in these regions are governed by a policy on minorities that is projected by the PRC as good enough to be a model for other countries. But in reality the policy is flawed, and does not effectively promote the minorities’ rights. In fact, the policy also comes with a legal caveat – its protections are second to the project of nationalisation. Any attempt to express your religion, your culture or language is seen as against the national project of unity. People are branded “separatist” or “splittist” and considered to be terrorists. This is where the problems begin.

Take the shining new Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Gormo (Golmud) in Qinghai Province to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and one of the most remote corners of the world, and you will get to the home of China’s largest statues of Mao. The train is China’s symphony to development; its supporters say it will bring in jobs, open up the area to tourism, allow more trade. But according to Tibetans who live there, political repression has got worse and worse in recent years.

In every region where development is supposed to be bringing prosperity, I heard stories of how it is being used as a tool for national supremacy. Billboard slogans promoting a homogenous Chinese national identity, a lack of jobs for minorities, political exclusion, and a sense of colonisation of land because Han Chinese are moving to the autonomous regions and are being employed in the new offices that are being built. These minorities are being discriminated against out of existence in the name of development.

We met in New York because it is impossible to conduct a meeting like this one in China – minorities, like any dissenters of the Chinese regime, are at risk of reprisal, arrest, exile and torture upon raising their voices. I was impressed by the way people were willing to share information and resources, to share their experiences and to interact. This was an unexpected outcome of the session, and to me seemed very positive. To promote a just and stable society human rights are essential, this means protecting distinct identities and traditions, and ensuring economic, political and social inclusion for all communities.

Interview by Preti Taneja

[1] Large concentrations of Tibetans also live outside the TAR on what is traditionally considered the Tibetan plateau (but is currently part of the Chinese provinces including Qinghai and Yunnan.