Wang Lixiong: The Elephant and the Mouse

In the wake of a deadly attack by knife-wielding assailants in the Kunming train station, and amid growing tensions between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese, some Chinese writers and intellectuals are calling for an eradication of demarcations between nationalities as a way to mitigate inter-ethnic hostilities. Han Chinese writer Wang Lixiong wrote an essay for the New York Times’ Chinese website critiquing this approach. Translated by the Rangzen Alliance:

Seen from the perspective of minority nationality figures, to assert that nationality autonomy and the demarcations between nationalities are problematic in that they strengthen nationality consciousness and solidify the problem of nationality boundaries, and then to trace the worsening state of China’s nationality relations back to this, is clearly to have an elephant in the room but to deal with the matter only by pointing out the mouse in the corner. Secondarily, although nationality autonomy as currently implemented is indeed phony, it at least provides a means for using one of the contradictions among the authorities against another, allowing minority nationalities a formulation for defending themselves. Abolishing nationality autonomy then would tear down this last protective barrier.

It’s true that the United States does not have demarcations between nationalities. This is taken by Ma Rong as grounds for eliminating support for nationalities. But this constitutes a selective avoidance of the most important element: U.S. protections for human rights. When there are human rights there are nationality rights, because a nationality is a nothing but a collectivity of human beings. The U.S., lacking demarcations between nationalities, has the richest diversity of ethnicities precisely because it has human rights protections. The root cause of China’s nationality problems is primarily the lack of human rights. But the need to place the blame on nationality autonomy avoids the real causes and misdiagnoses the malady. And it’s thoroughly useless for bringing about reforms in nationality relations. [Source]

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Economist after the Kunming attack called on the Chinese government to ease tensions with ethnic minorities by directing economic development to their communities:

There is a large military presence in China’s west. The government seems to believe that unless Uighurs and Tibetans are held in check by force, the western regions could break away. That is always a danger. But suppression, which leads to explosions of anger, may increase the risk, not mitigate it.

The only way forward is to show Uighurs (and Tibetans) how they can live peacefully and prosperously together within China. The first step is for the party to lift the bans on religious and cultural practices, give Uighurs and Tibetans more space to be themselves, and strive against prejudice in Chinese society. Economic development needs to be aimed at Uighur and Tibetan communities. Otherwise, there will be more violence and instability. [Source]