Howard French: China Could Use Some Honest Talk About Race

The New York Times’ former Shanghai bureau chief Howard French is visiting Shanghai and writes a commentary on what China could learn from the painful history of race relations in the U.S.:

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.