Tue, Jan 04, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Unending ethnic conflict in China

By Yu-wen Chen 陳玉文

The issue at stake is how to resolve territorial disputes. China is a massive country composed of various ethnic groups, each with different historical, political and socioeconomic ties with China dating back to before the modern Chinese state, the People’s Republic of China, was created. For Chinese leaders, this is a daunting task.

China is not the only country in the world seeking and experimenting with models to reduce ethnic tensions. The Chinese government has sought expert opinion, even from foreign sources, on possible ways of improving its governance in regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. This indicates a fascinating aspect of the Chinese state: It is an authoritarian one, but has the potential to reform and transform. China is observing and learning. The regime has tried economic development and incentives, coupled with suppression of dissidents. Clearly, this model has not worked well.

In principle, international governmental organizations such as the UN, ASEAN and the Organization of African Unity, respect the sanctity of state sovereignty and have a rather discouraging position toward attempts by domestic groups to secede from their state.

Such aloofness, interestingly, has stirred backlashes from domestic and international non-state actors. They show sympathy to the cause of national self-determination or at least believe that there is a human rights issue behind every such quest. Hence, it is highly likely that more human rights issues concerning Inner Mongolia will be brought up in the international arena in the future.

Disputes in the name of identity, manifested in many protracted ethnic conflicts, are still rampant today. This does not just occur in China. Chechens in Russia and Basques in Spain are quintessential examples of ethnic conflicts that have attracted international attention and support. With ethnically defined non-state actors trying to play a role in international politics at a time when the traditional dominant functions of states are being somewhat eroded, we need to capture the true nature of the conflict being debated and search for new modes of managing such disputes for the maintenance of peace and to reduce the occurrence of such human tragedies.

Yu-wen Chen is a visiting research fellow at La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security in Australia.

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