- Thu, 06/09/2011 - 12:00
By Urs Schöttli Jun 09 2011
Looking at the size of the countries and the size of their population, it is common practice to see India and China as similarly complex entities. All too often, it is overlooked that the Republic of India is immensely more diverse than the
People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Chinese constitution proudly recognises no less than 55 ethnic nationalities within the realm of the PRC. However, over 90 per cent of the country’s population are from the Han community. Some of the nationalities comprise only a few thousand members. In comparison, India’s population is much more diverse, not only in terms of ethnicity but also linguistically, culturally and religiously. While the Muslim population in China is a tiny fraction of the total, in India, it comprises more than 140 million people.
China is a unitary state with no federal elements. The provinces are administrative units and do not have the political significance of Indian states. They do not correspond to linguistic or historic entities. Of course, their political importance varies greatly, depending on their economic weight and on their presence in the central leadership of the party. Guangdong, in the immediate neighbourhood of Hong Kong, has a much stronger identity than for example Hebei. For a long time in the 1990s, Shanghai had a particularly strong influence in the Communist Party. Jiang Zemin, former Communist Party of China’s secretary-general, hailed from Shanghai.
The Chinese constitution stresses the protection of minorities and Chinese politicians and academics tend to explain at great length how much attention the government and the party give to the interests of minorities. We have visited several areas where the so-called nationalities form a substantial part of the local population. We can confirm that living conditions there are often better than in the majority Han areas. However, rightly or wrongly, we were under the strong impression that in many ways, these nationalities are showcases and that their influence and identity do not go much beyond what we would call folklore. In their splendid national costumes, they provide colour to the annual assembly of the National People’s Congress, which is dominated by men in ties and dark suits.
Lately, Chinese leaders have put more emphasis than ever on the goal of a “harmonious society”. Obviously, there are strains caused by the rapid social and economic change. Large parts of the Chinese population are losers in the modernisation process. Also, when it comes to important ethnic and religious minorities in the country, harmony all too often proves an elusive goal. In fact, in the case of all the three most important nationalities, the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and the Mongols, Beijing seems to have failed. In discussions about political modernisation and democratisation, many Chinese officials tend to paint the threat of civil unrest, even of a new civil war and the country breaking apart. The truth, however, is that the huge majority of the country is not interested in breaking away. The people in Sichuan or in Guangdong do not want an independent country of their own.
However, exactly among the three most important nationalities, there is widespread dissatisfaction about the rule of Beijing. As there are no independent opinion polls, it is difficult to get a correct assessment about how widespread the dissatisfaction is. It is not possible to know, whether a majority of the Tibetans, who live in Tibet, would want full independence or, — what is today also the demand of the Dalai Lama — real autonomy. Certainly, most Tibetans are weary of the continuous sinification of their homeland. Equally, recent disturbances in Chinese Inner Mongolia, revealed deep-seated resentments against the Han Chinese, who are strengthening their hold, buying up land and marginalising the native people.
Even though China is a much more cohesive state than India, Beijing has greater difficulties to solve ethnic tensions than Delhi. With a myriad of minorities, India has a proud track record since independence. There certainly were mistakes committed or even crimes in dealing with minorities, but there has not been a systemic oppression and marginalisation that have repeatedly been witnessed in Tibet and among the Uyghurs. The main reason for this lies in the distinct political systems of the two countries.
Of course, it is much easier to find a consensus among the leadership of a party that controls all political power, than to govern with complex and ever-changing coalitions. Only a pluralistic civil society and a flourishing multi-party system can deal most efficiently with minorities and minority interests. Of course, Tibet, the Uyghur areas and Inner Mongolia will never be able to separate from China. No party leader in Beijing can make concessions without losing his job immediately. There is, therefore, the danger that in these areas, public discontent and even unrest continues to simmer without any enduring peaceful solution in sight.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)