Recent riots in Urumqi have been attributed by the Chinese government to the instigation of Rebiya Kadeer and her World Uyghur Congress. This may distract from a potential public debate on ethnic policies that badly need reform.
Years ago, in a high school politics class, I heard our teacher tell us a story about a Han soldier in Tibet. When this soldier saw broken pieces of human body being exposed at mountaintop and pecked at by birds of prey, not knowing this is a part of the Tibeten “sky burial”, he chased the birds away to “protect” the body parts. This immediately led to tension between local Tibetans and the Chinese army. In the end, the army gave this soldier the death sentence. This anecdote is an illustration, no longer an extreme one given what happened on the Urumqi streets, of the ugly sides of China’s “minority policies”. Some may think that the Hans are bullying the minorities, which are largely misleading, or misled in the first place. On the contrary, in many cases China is trying to achieve reconciliation between ethnic groups by reversely discriminating against people from larger ethnic groups so that minority rights are protected. Every life is precious, that of a Han and that of a Uyghur. One should not crush one to appease the other. The government should focus more on true equality among peoples, the rule of law, and ways to promote forgiveness and healing. Using preferential treatment for minorities to achieve harmony is like giving kids candies to keep them happy. One day, kids will grow up and blame their parents for rotting their teeth.
Preferential treatment, or reverse discrimination or protection policies, created new discrimination of a more subtle nature affecting more people. In the late 70s and early 80s, Hu Yaoban, then the communist party chief, decided to let the ethnic groups reassert themselves in a series of policies in favor of minority groups, including the notorious 60% rule (in which 60% of the overall quota for college enrollment, job recruitment and military recruitment in these areas go to the minority groups). Hu didn’t know the can of worm he was opening. Since then, the “pax romona” type of peaceful co-existence of ethnic groups in Mao’s time was no more.
Preferential treatments towards the minorities only led to, in the words of David Sacks and Peter Thiel in describing affirmative action in the US, “heightened racial sensitivity”, which then became “a source of acrimony and tension instead of healing.” For instance, if a student applying for college has minority background in China, he or she will get “added grades”. This could make such a difference that in a rather revealing scandal, 32 middle school students in Chongqing forged identities as minorities in the college entrance exam this year. They were then identified and stripped of their “status” as minority students. What would a Han parent think when he or she has to send his or her only child (family planning policy does not apply to minority groups either) to rat races such as the Math Olympics and months of midnight oil just for the benefit of a meager increase of grade in the college entrance exam when a minority child is automatically entitled to such increase?
I do not know whether it is sad or funny, but such treatments are not perceived by minority groups to be doing much good in the long run. Some minority intellectuals have even complained that these policies will lead to mediocrity and a mentality of entitlement among their peoples.
What happened in education is just an example of the many ethnic policies skewed towards the minority groups. In other areas, special treatments are legion. For instance, most minority groups are not subject to the one-child policy that the Hans have to abide by. Criminals with minority background generally receive lighter punishment and this is even legalized through a government mandate in 1984 which says: “for criminals with minority backgrounds, insist on ‘catch fewer and give less capital punishment (than their Han counterparts), and in practice, practice more leniency towards them.” (5th mandate from the Chinese Communist Party, 1984) (中共中央1984年第5号文件：”对少数民族的犯罪分子要坚持’少捕少杀 ‘，在处理上一般要从宽”。) Such policies actually reduce Hans to second-class citizens in a country which is often reputed to be bullying the minorities. More importantly, this leniency actually rewards certain criminals with minority backgrounds. Some are known to run the streets stealing and robbing knowing that the police cannot do much about them. They could be caught, but quickly released. Otherwise, this criminal issue will be framed into an ethnic issue. This damaged the very reputation of some minority groups and increased the tension between minority groups and the Hans. I do not know if politicians know what they are doing! But based on the recent developments in Xinjiang, I have read that the government is threatening “severe punishment” to rioters, which seems to indicate signs of change in such policies.
Many affirmative action type of policies are well-intended, but can quickly turn sour. On July 8, 2009, Wall Street Journal carries a major feature article (interestingly next to two photos about Xinjiang’s violence), which also challenges the affirmative action in favor of the economically disadvantaged Malays as “risk to Malaysian growth” (Affirmative Action Spurs Asian Debate, Page A1 and A14).
I once asked an American lady why America does not celebrate Women’s Day on March the Eighth and she said, “True equality means you don’t have to be treated differently.” In like matter, if we really want to treat minority groups with respect and dignity, then give what they ask for (actually what we all ask for): equality. Stop this Chinese version of Affirmative Action which is going on a much larger scale with much more serious consequences, such as frustration, bitterness, and hatred.
President Hu Jintao may have claimed not to “zheteng” (impose whimsical change), but with the rise of ethnic tensions, it’s time to try something else.