Us and Them

11.jpgStudent blogger Mengsha (蒙莎), a member of the Zhuang minority, writes her thoughts about ethnic relations in China and the Tibet issue on the my1510.cn blog, partially translated by CDT:

I suddenly remembered this event. In the summer of 2005, seven of us, all from a student theater group, went to Chengdu to attend a college student theater festival. After the performance, we took a train from Chengdu to go back to Lanzhou. There were only a few passengers in the car, almost all of whom got off within the borders of Sichuan province. After dark, there were only a few Tibetans and seven of us in our car. Soon a railway conductor came and asked us to sit in another car for safety reasons. We took our things and left the car. Now looking back, if I were one of those Tibetans at that time, how would I feel about this? Where did this feeling of “us” being threatened [by “them”] come from?

In my sophomore year I was in a dance group at the university. Our teacher especially invited two Tibetan students from the University of Nationalities to come to teach us. After they gave us lessons, they invited us to come to dance parties in their university. I really wanted to go, but no one else wanted to, so I did not go – because I dared not go there by myself. This psychology is interesting; most of us have never seen any unusual or bad behavior by students of other ethnic groups. But we are afraid of them for unknown reasons.

To me, it is even more puzzling, because I am part of a minority ethnic group myself. I am Zhuang. But my classmates do not seem to think very much of this. My roommates only noticed the difference when we were given “student aid for living expenses” each month: I got one Yuan more than them. How much can you really buy for one Yuan? Two steamed buns. But they will protest exaggeratedly: “This is not fair! You are not poorer than us!” They were just joking with me, and this is because they see me as part of “us.” I was not really being treated differently. We discuss such issues openly. One roommate said, “That is because you look just like us, (I insert: ‘but you always say I look Vietnamese’) and we have similar habits and customs in daily life. If you wear strange clothes, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, and get up in the middle of night to pray, than we may not get along that well.” Another roommate was even more direct: “You are too short. You can’t win if you fight with us.”

…Later in my college life these were small events. Because we had many Muslim students, our university has a special dining hall for Muslims. Last year, the university assigned a Han Chinese as the manager of the Muslim dinning hall, so some Muslim students protested. The result was that some Han Chinese students got really pissed off. Some wrote on BBS: The government has been very accommodating to you people, why are you still not satisfied? Why should we accommodate your customs, instead of you accommodating ours? The government has given you a privileged policy and you still want more? (Please note, there are many such viewpoints in online commentaries about recent events in Tibet.) And the rebuttal post (from Muslim students) then asked, Why does the government consider its policy toward ethnic groups as a “special favor”? Maybe the government itself thinks that’s a “special favor” [not us]? Why whenever we demand something, is it immediately considered as “rebellion”?

These are my experiences of relations between different nationalities in the university. Simply put, the gap comes when both sides cannot communicate with each other.

But if I have to look for more reasons in other areas, I gradually realized that the government and some Han people think of it as charity to give ethnic minorities “favors,” and that these minorities should stay in their place after being given such “favors.” They should not misbehave, or be so different [from Han]. But the problem is, the cultural and religious traditions of minority groups have far deeper historical roots than the government. You cannot expect a little “favor” could change that. As for the gap between people in different ethnic groups, I think they come from the following two aspects:

First, under the current political system, ideology is almost as important as sovereignty. To the Communist Party, it would be best if every Chinese believed their official ideology – so-called Marxism with Chinese characteristics. But there are still many people who believe in religion. And for those who do not believe in religion, the official ideology is not very attractive to them either. Therefore there are three different attitudes: those who loyally believe the official ideology (I really do not want to call it “socialism” or “communism”); those who do not believe but at least do not openly oppose it (I am one of them); and those who do not believe [the official ideology] but have their own beliefs. For the Communist Party, which based its legitimacy to rule on economic performance and nationalist ideology, the last kind is most terrifying. The state’s distrust of those who do not believe in the state ideology diffuses into the society, creating the gap between different ethnic groups.

Second, Chinese political culture has never been interested in protecting an individual’s rights and freedom, because it considers individual rights to be created by the state, and they can be taken back [by the state] at any time. The natural extension of such disrespect for individual rights is disrespect for minority’s rights. People believe it is normal if you are just like others; otherwise, you are abnormal. People always sided with the majority and are afraid to be different from others. There even some people who distance themselves and mistreat minorities in order to show their identity with the majority. This is not limited to the area of relations between nationalities. Also, if we take a serious look at the numbers, we will see many times that those “minorities” are actually a very large group of people.

I think that if the government still insists on impossible goals such as “unifying thoughts,” there will be only more friction between different cultures and people. The best policy is to allow different cultures to co-exist. If a society cannot tolerate different thoughts and different cultures, if it cannot tolerate minorities and independent individuals, then its development is very problematic. Even if one can temporarily suppress those dissatisfactions, it is even worse when those suppressed dissatisfactions accumulate. If I have to say that what I hope China will learn from all these events this year, it should be: more tolerance, more openness, more freedom.