China Could Use Some Honest Talk About Race

SHANGHAI — When the city of Detroit erupted in some of the worst rioting in American history over a five-day period in July 1967, the Johnson administration responded by naming a high-level commission to investigate the incident and more generally to weigh in on the troubled issue of race relations in the United States.

The panel, known as the Kerner Commission, undertook to plumb three key questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” And in a simple but powerful phrase that helped define the era, it concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

The Kerner Commission did not introduce the concept of minority civil rights in the United States. That movement began to gain critical mass in the 1950s, through direct citizen action by people like Rosa Parks, who refused to surrender her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, and was arrested and tried for her defiance of racism, sparking a 381-day boycott of public transportation by blacks in the city.

What the Kerner Commission did, rather, was signal recognition at the highest levels of American society that the United States had major racial problems, along with civil rights deficiencies that seriously marred our democracy. And recent events in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the country’s most prominent black academic, was suspected of burglary and arrested in his own house, demonstrate that questions of civil rights in America still preoccupy us.

This is the second year in a row of severe turmoil in western China, following the uprising that swept Tibetan areas in March of 2008. The events of recent weeks in China’s Xinjiang region, where were nearly 200 people died during unrest and a dozen members of the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority were killed by police (according to official figures), demonstrate if nothing else how China desperately awaits its own civil rights moment.

The Kerner Commission’s famous old questions would be a good place to start: What exactly happened and why? And an open and honest Chinese conversation about race, ethnicity, religion and identity is long overdue and would go a long way toward healing papered-over divisions that run deep in this society.

The response of the system here so far, alas, has shown no such willingness. The official media, operating in their mouthpiece of power mode, have rushed to certain conclusions about the events, namely that the trouble was instigated by “splittists,” and that sinister foreign forces were at work behind the rioting.

Openness and transparency about the events of Urumqi would be welcome but by themselves would only constitute a first step, no more. China has made great, and often insufficiently acknowledged strides away from totalitarianism in the last generation, but one area where the rigidities of the past linger on is in the politics of ethnicity.

China clings to the fiction that areas where ethnic minorities have historically predominated, places like Xinjiang and Tibet, with distinctive languages and cultures and lingering memories of self-rule, are “autonomous regions.” This, even as these areas are governed by local party leaderships appointed by Beijing and heavily dominated by members of the country’s Han majority. This, also, as Beijing floods these areas with Han economic migrants, for the purpose of settling and securing China’s rough western frontier, raising local living standards and to assimilate the local people into the ways of the Han.

Although this effort lacks in candor and transparency, not to mention the possibility of meaningful input from or consent by the locals, it would be wrong to conclude it is entirely undertaken out of bad faith. The materialists who rule China seem to genuinely believe that economic development is the answer to almost every question, and their favorite statistic relating to Xinjiang is the doubling of the region’s economy between 2002 and 2008.

At best, this statistic is misleading, though. Most of the economic growth in Xinjiang is related to the expansion of the petroleum sector, which is overwhelmingly dominated by Han. Indeed the unrest there seems fueled in part by a sense of among Uighurs that they are losing ground economically to the Han in their own homeland.

I interviewed a Uighur barber in Urumqi two years ago who complained that the newcomers form their own social and business networks and often enjoy government support of one kind or another. This man, who had been trained in petrochemical engineering in Russia, said he had been unable to find a job in that booming sector. Han, he said, hire Han.

A new study, published in the China Quarterly by Brenda L. Schuster, reveals other gaps in the economic statistics. “In life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality and morbidity, Uyghur people are much worse off than Han,” the report reads. It then speaks of how “group specific psychological stress and the socio-economic and demographic changes of the past 60 years could be major factors.”

Many African-Americans, particularly in urban areas, where health indicators persistently lag behind those of the general population, even at similar income levels, would readily recognize such stresses. China, meanwhile, clings to the old Maoist-era fable of the country as one big happy ethnic family, even as it labors hard in Xinjiang to discourage Islamic worship and otherwise dilute Uighur culture.

Two years of violence may not yet make a trend, but this myth has just become a lot harder to sustain, even among China’s Han majority, who may yet come to appreciate that respect for differences rather than forced assimilation is the better recipe for harmony.

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