The interplay between local identity, state policy, and economic change is at the core of the violent events in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. The Chinese government’s predicament in finding a workable policy in response is severe, says Temtsel Hao on the DemoracyNow:
For the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other non-Chinese minorities, the great concern is how far Chinese authority can resist increasingly populist opinion and retain this limited neutrality. The answer to this question will affect how far and how much non-Chinese minorities can identify with the state. As China’s society becomes more loose and state power recedes, government policy is more and more subject to social influences.
The Chinese authorities face a tough choice over how they maintain the state’s legitimacy and deal with ethnic relations (see Tsering Shakya, “Tibet and China: the past in the present”, 18 March 2009). If they seek to respond to growing Han Chinese ethnic nationalism by accelerating assimilation of non-Chinese groups, this would provoke the minority-nationalist causes with which the Chinese state found some accommodation in 1949: national self-determination and national liberation. But if they seek to amend and improve existing multi-ethnic arrangements to improve inter-ethnic relations in autonomous regions, they risk severe problems with Chinese business interests and popular opinions.
China has no easy way out. The fires of Lhasa, and now Urumqi, cannot be extinguished without the most intelligent and sophisticated policy mix. But even that might not be enough. Several genies are out of the bottle, and flying free. Welcome to the 21st century, China.
Temtsel Hao is a journalist with the BBC World Service, based in London.