China and Its Minorities

While protests against China’s policies toward Tibet erupt around the world, Philip Bowring for the International Herald Tribune discusses the greater ethnic minority “problem” facing the country.

Non-Han minorities may comprise only 9 percent of China’s population, but as the violence in Tibet and simmering resentment in Xinjiang indicate, the problem is one that Beijing is unable to resolve.This is a blow to President Hu Jintao, who is supposed to be an expert on Tibet, where he was once party secretary. He ordered troops as well as police forces into Tibet and Xinjiang last year to guard against pre-Olympic disturbances, but to no avail.

There are three reasons for the Communist leadership’s inability to address the issue other than by repression. First, given that Beijing’s first priority is government centralization, the official designation of any “autonomous region” in China is a façade.

Second, there is the innate belief in the superiority of the Han race, a notion historically reflected in China’s attitudes to all its neighbors as well as toward the non-Han minorities within its borders.

Third, the three regions with significant minority populations that are actual or potential trouble spots are all frontier areas that Beijing regards as strategically important. The minorities in southwest China are no problem because they are small, isolated and near frontiers from which China has never been invaded. The homelands of former invaders – the Mongols and Manchus – still exist, but they are now overwhelmingly Han. But Tibet – with its long history of isolation, immense cultural, linguistic and religious differences and on-and-off independence – is a different matter.

Dexter Roberts, in Business Week, argues that the failed development of western China by Beijing has fanned “ethnic resentment aimed at the millions of Han Chinese who have migrated into the region and have taken skilled, higher-paying jobs building the new roads, airports, and power stations.”

For China’s laggard west and its large ethnic minority populations, things looked a lot more optimistic back in 2000. That was when the government launched its grandly named “Develop the West” program. The aim was to use Beijing’s policy and financial support to reverse decades of economic stagnation, boost local provincial economies in part by tapping their rich resources, and ultimately narrow the yawning income gap between the flourishing coastal region of China and its poor western hinterlands. And as an added bonus, the new wealth would help ease ethnic tensions that have for centuries inflamed the loosely controlled western reaches of China (, 12/20/06).

There is no denying that Beijing has tried. Over the past five years alone, the central government has spent more than $40 billion on infrastructure and social programs in the 12 western provinces. Last year fixed-asset investment into western China grew to $397 billion, up 28%, faster than China’s national average of 25%. “Continued progress was made in the large-scale development of the western region,” said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Mar. 5 in his annual address to the National People’s Congress.

However, many of the economic statistics just don’t support that optimistic appraisal. Take overall gross domestic product growth for China’s west. While it grew an impressive 14.5% last year, several percentage points higher than the national average, the region’s total economy still only amounted to $667 billion. That’s less than one-fifth of China’s total GDP. Tibet’s GDP, up 17.5%, was a paltry $4.56 billion, dead last as the smallest economy of any region across China. All together, nine of the western provinces are among China’s 10 smallest provincial economies. “The western development plan is a strategy without effective policies,” says Zhang Baotong, director of the regional development consultancy center at the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences in the western city of Xian.

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