Scaling Back Minority Rights? the Debate about China's Ethnic Policies

By Sautman, Barry | Stanford Journal of International Law, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Scaling Back Minority Rights? the Debate about China's Ethnic Policies


Sautman, Barry, Stanford Journal of International Law


I. INTRODUCTION: THE TIBET AND XINJIANG RIOTS AND PROPOSALS TO
      SCALE BACK ETHNIC MINORITY RIGHTS
II. BACKGROUND TO THE PROPOSALS: CHINA'S CONTEMPORARY ETHNIC
      POLICIES
   A. The Chinese Government's Official Recognition of Ethnic
      Minorities
   B. Ethnic Regional Autonomy: The Centerpiece of China's Ethnic
      Policies
        1. Structures and Politics of the Ethnic Regional Autonomy
          System
        2. An Excursus on Russia: Territorial Autonomy Versus National
          Cultural Autonomy
   C. Preferential Policies: Subsidies for Minority Areas and
      Affirmative Action for Minority People
   D. Other Ethnic Policies
III. THE DEBATE: PROPOSALS AND CRITIQUES
   A. The Leading Proponent: Ma Rong's Proposals
   B. Beyond Ma Rong: Wang Yingguo and Other Proponents
   C. The Critiques: The Blogsphere and Academia
IV.  PLACING THE DEBATE IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES
   A. State Recognition as the Sine Qua Non of Minority Rights
   B. Ethnic Regional Autonomy: Distinguishing the Soviet Case
      1. Differences in Systems: Ethnic Regional Autonomy versus
        Ethno-Federalism
      2. Differences in National Conditions: Core Region, Minority
        Power Concentration
      3. Misunderstanding the Role of Ethno-Federalism in the Soviet
        Collapse
   C. Preferential Policies: Less Effect than Imagined
   D. India as an Exemplar
   E. The United States as an Exemplar
V. CONSEQUENCES OF SCALING BACK ETHNIC MINORITY RIGHTS IN CHINA
VI. CONCLUSION: EXPANDED MINORITY RIGHTS, EQUALITY-IN-FACT, AND
   ETHNIC PEACE

I. INTRODUCTION: THE TIBET AND XINJIANG RIOTS AND PROPOSALS TO SCALE BACK ETHNIC MINORITY RIGHTS

The 2008 Lhasa and 2009 Urumqi riots altered popular perceptions among China's majority Han population about China's Tibetan and Uighur minorities, and thus, Han views about the country's ethnic policy. (1) The riots included anti-Han pogroms, which Chinese media asserted were externally organized by Tibetan and Uighur separatists. (2) Popular Han resentment of minorities became more vocal, especially on the Internet, with complaints that minorities are ungrateful and that leniency toward them spurs separatism and ethnic murder. (3) Uighur attacks on Han in Urumqi during the summer of 2009 led not only to retaliation by Han in that region, but also to discrimination by Han against a different ethnic group of Muslims, the Hui, at the other end of the country, in Jiangsu. (4) Though this was not the first manifestation of Han resentment, it has had a huge effect in generating a national discourse in China about ethnic policies.

Han resentment of minorities, who are seen as having an unwarranted advantage, is not unique: English resentment exists about Scottish privileges, (5) as does white resentment of affirmative action in the United States. (6) Han resentment is also not new. It was manifest against the Hui in nineteenth century Yunnan. (7) More than a century later, Yunnan Han reportedly "are [still] resentful of the preferential policies favoring minority groups like the Hui." (8) Increased Han resentment of the ruling Manchu minority's privileges in the nineteenth century factored in the 1911 overthrow of China's last dynasty. (9) In Xinjiang in the 1940s, Hart resented the power attained by local Turkic elites when the central government's presence dimmed due to civil war in China proper. (10) Forty years on, Xinjiang Han complaints of discrimination in favor of minorities were still to be heard and grew louder after the 2009 Urumqi riot. (11)

Surprisingly, the long history of Hart resentment has not directly impacted China's ethnic policy. Some Han have resented preferential policies (youhui zhengce) for minorities in family planning, school admissions, hiring and promoting officials, bank loans, poverty alleviation, etc. (12) But that resentment did not result in strong ethnic tensions, as indicated by a lack of demonstrations about the policies, despite the staging of hundreds of thousands of public protests in China on many topics in recent years. …

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