I always used to try to persuade my minority friends to not see their problems as ethnic oppression, because the Han were oppressed too. The root cause of problems for every ethnic group in China is the system of dictatorship, and the way to improve this situation is not through ethnic groups fighting each other, but by uniting to change the social and political system. However, while it might have been possible in the Mao era to say that every ethnic group was equally persecuted, since the 1990s, minority groups have clearly been much more oppressed than the Han. In Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region especially, the Han have allied with the government to oppress local ethnic groups.
The transformation of the ethnic issue from that of political oppression into one of ethnic oppression is a very dangerous change. If it were political oppression, only politics would have to change for the oppression to end, and different ethnic groups would still be able to build a new society together. But if minorities think that oppression comes from the Han, political change cannot fundamentally solve the problem; only ethnic independence can lift the oppression. This could be extremely disadvantageous for political transformation in China, because changing the political system would not only fail to make the minorities remain [in the fold]; on the contrary, minorities would take advantage of the weakened power of national control during the period of transition to seek independence. This would, on the one hand, weaken the voice and narrow down the space for action of democratic forces in China, providing fertile ground for fascism and Han chauvinism, and on the other hand, lead to conflicts and revenge killings between the Han and ethnic minorities.
Unfortunately, the situation in Xinjiang is presently developing in the latter direction. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is using nationalism as a psychological tool to confuse and incite, which has indeed achieved the goal of drawing the Han in Xinjiang to the CPC side. However, it has at the same time pushed local ethnic groups into the hostile camp. The kind of hostility [this has created] is not only antagonistic towards the Chinese Communist regime, but also towards the entire Han ethnic group. I have always marveled at the wishful thinking of the Chinese Communists: that they could use an artificial concept of “Chinese nationality” to unite 56 ethnic groups into one nation and then use nationalist agitation to unanimously turn the entirety of China against the outside world at a wave of their baton. Yet, if other ethnic groups do not identify with this concept of “Chinese nationality,” the incited nationalism will not just serve as the regime’s weapon, but can also be appropriated by every ethnic group for its own use to incite and consolidate their own people— thereby serving as the foundation of their quest for ethnic separatism and independence.
The Chinese Communists are highly accomplished in the workings of power. The thousands of years-old culture of political power-play has been synthesized by the Chinese Communists and brought to perfection and to new heights. As I observe how the Communist Party works its power from the sidelines, the image of one of those performances of chair acrobatics often floats before my eyes—chairs stacked up, one on top of another, with someone doing a handstand, a flip, or some other similar trick on top; the chairs, getting stacked ever higher, shake and sway, and it is only the ability of the person on top to maintain balance that keeps them from collapsing. Today’s CPC has reached this astonishingly good skill level too. The chairs have already been stacked to an inconceivable height, but they are still able to maintain balance. Still, there are limits to how long the balance can be sustained. Chairs cannot be stacked ad infinitum. The moment will come when the chairs come crashing down, and when that time comes, the higher the stack of chairs, the harder they will fall. I have absolutely no doubts that they will fall; I am only uncertain as to when.
In contrast to its political power-play attainments, the CPC power clique has very little humanitarian spirit. In the half century that the Chinese Communists have been in power, our humanistic tradition has been severed and education in the humanities has been made insignificant and marginal. Even among the new generation of well-educated bureaucrats, most are narrowly specialized technocrats with knowledge but no soul, who worship the powerful and despise the weak. They rely on the authoritarian system and Machiavellian tactics alone, and are only good at administration and oppression. The directives they readily spout, such as, redouble your efforts, strike hard, impose severe punishments, seem effective for a time, but are in fact only stopgap measures that do not tackle problems at their source almost like drinking poison to quench one’s thirst. The lack of a humanistic spirit means that the power clique has no means of dealing with the more profound realms of culture, history, faith, philosophy, and so on, and its problem-solving is cunning but superficial. It can only quell incidents through emergency measures, like putting out fires.
But the ethnic issue is first and foremost a human issue and one must possess a human soul in order to find the right way of dealing with it. From this perspective, it was kind of inevitable that China’s ethnic problem would find itself in today’s dead end street. Moreover, looking forward, one can hardly hope that the Chinese Communists will be able to break out of it, since a humanistic revival can decidedly not be summoned on short notice, at will.
This piece originally appeared in Chinese in the publication New Century.
Translated by J. Latrourelle