The Discriminatory Complex Beneath Our Consciousness

A Chinese lawyer and journalist with online name William Schue wrote following post on his “Achilles’ Heel” blog:

In another mysterious coincidence, “6.28” is double the number of “3.14.” On the day of June 28, what happened in Weng’an, Guizhou is a repeat of what happened in Lhasa on March 14.

These two incidents–one of which happened in well-known Lhasa, the other in an unknown place, Weng’an–had similar narratives and characteristics. Both were collective, violent events. Both were confrontations between ordinary people and state security forces. In both events, the authorities used a similar propaganda approach to blame the ordinary people who used violence. But there are two important differences between these two events. One is that people connected with the two events belong to different ethnic groups. The second is that the broader public in China took very different views of these two events.

It is difficult to tell public opinion from party newspapers and television stations which are all controlled by the authorities, since they all adopt the same official tone to propogate the same official positions. But if we read online forums such as Tianya.cn or Kaidi.com, these comments do reflect public opinion to a certain degree. We can see from those comments from netizens, [about the 3.14 event] they mostly support the government and are against Tibetan rioters; [about the 6.28 event], they most support Weng’an rioters and are against [local] government.

Both events happened only 105 days apart. Both places are far away from developed regions. In both cases the truth was controlled and blocked by authorities. Under such similar conditions, why did netizens who do not have access to first-hand information have opposing opinions towards those who committed violence? If sympathy toward the weak is the reason that netizens supported the people in Weng’an, then why so few of them support Tibetans, who were also in such a weak position? Why did netizens imagine people in Weng’an were innocent but Tibetans were criminals? If Tibetans were condemned because they used violence, why did people in Weng’an who also committed violence not get the same sympathy (online)?

Reflected in such differences in netizens’ attitudes is the fact that they adopted double standards in their judgment. “Ethnicity” played an important role, if not the only factor, in their judgment process.

The main body of netizens are “pan-Han.” “Pan-Han” are Han people and also those who have already been assimilated into Han culture, such as Manchurians and Mongolians. “Pan-Han” people are influenced by the official ideology of the central government, and by Han nationalism. They believe in the orthodoxy of the Han identity, and alienate other ethnicities.

In the eyes of many “pan-Han” people, those “minorities” who dress in their traditional clothing are violent, cognitively not quite enlightened, still in the primary stage. Only pan-Han people are “civilized” people. From this position, it legitimizes the ruling of Han people in anthropological terms, and reinforces the political belief that, “Those who submit to me will survive and thrive, those against me will be destroyed.”

In China, those ethnicities who are most discriminated against are not those whose populations are so scarce. Instead, they are those ethnicities with a large population who lived together and were not easily assimilated by Han, such as Tibetans, Hui (Muslim) and Uighurs. Those ethnic groups that have very small populations may believe in totem worship, but hardly have organized religious beliefs, and can easily be assimilated by Han culture to become part of the “pan-Han” population. But Tibetan, Hui and Uighurs have strong religious beliefs and cultural characteratics. Their clothing, food, life habits and culture are very difficult to assimilate into Han culture. These strong ethnic characteristics create resentment among those self-centered pan-Han people.

It is true that some people among those ethnic minorities committed theft or violence, but popular perception exaggerated such isolated events and damaged the image of those ethnic groups. News media often avoids touching social issues relating to “ethnic minorities,” afraid of inducing or enlarging conflicts between ethnic groups, but this just buries the problems of “ethnic minorities” underground.

When real information is ignored, what replaces it is rumors. Rumors about “ethnic minorities” certainly contribute to the discrimination against them by “pan-Han” people, and makes those problems even worse.

Therefore, ethnic discrimination in China is not a public topic that can be openly discussed. It has been neglected by the media, so there is not enough attention on the problem. Such discrimination is not so much institutionalized, and most people will not admit they hold discriminatory attitudes towards “ethnic minorities” but such discrimination is hidden beneath everyone’s conciousness. When the conditions are right, such as during the “3.14” incident, such discrimination is incited.

Pan-Han people are influenced by official ideology and other factors, and so they like to legitimize Han rule over Tibetans. In the “3.14” event, the Tibetan people’s uprising against repression harmed the interests of Han people, therefore they were demonized by “pan-Han” people. Tibetans not only did not get any support from Han people, but were severely condemned by them. But in the “6.28” incident, Han people rebelled against Han rulers. It was seen as taking place within the Han ethnicity, and therefore gained the sympathy and support of netizens.

For those who held very different attitudes towards the “3.14” event and the “6.28” event, please take a hard look into your own heart, to see whether you have such a discriminatory complex within you.

July 9, 2008 1:21 PM
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