Unending ethnic conflict in China

By Yu-wen Chen 陳玉文  / 

Tue, Jan 04, 2011 - Page 8

Recently, a number of international newspapers, such as the Washington Post, have covered the news of a Mongolian activist, Hada, who was supposed to be released after serving 15 years in a Chinese prison. Hada was jailed because he advocated the independence of Inner Mongolia, which is part of China. As in the case of Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees advocating independence for Inner Mongolia as a violation of Chinese territorial integrity and it is outlawed. Hada’s whereabouts are still unknown after Dec. 10, the day he was scheduled to be released.

Two implications are worth noting. First of all, we should be observant of the potential internationalization of another ethnic conflict originating from China, which would only exacerbate the conflict between the two parties concerned: a Chinese state striving to maintain its territorial integrity at all costs and some ethnic Inner Mongolians fighting for more freedom and autonomy.

In the international community, the tension between the Tibetans and the CCP is probably the most well-known. This is partly to do with the work of the charismatic Tibetan leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, who has attracted much sympathy and support for the Tibetan cause.

The second conflict hotspot is in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where some, but not all, Muslim Uighurs aspire greater autonomy. The Chinese government has tried to curtail any international support for the Uighur cause. The tragic 2009 clash between Han Chinese and Uighurs in this region, ironically, served as a catalyst for Uighur activists to communicate their issues to the wider international community.

Now, the international coverage of a Mongolian activist’s plight warns us that this less-known China-born ethnic tension is surfacing, no matter how insignificant it appears at present. Although this is a small force operating at the periphery of Chinese society and not many people outside China know or care about what is going on in Inner Mongolia, the Chinese government has not been able to nip this marginalized Mongolian cause entirely in the bud.

Moreover, this time-bomb might even have the potential to draw more international players into the conflict. There is international coverage of Hada’s story and there is even a New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center campaigning for him and for the Inner Mongolian cause. Activists were even able to find sympathetic European parliamentarians to help adopt a resolution to support Hada in the European parliament in 1997.

This symbolic support from members in the European parliament does not have any teeth, but the fact that the Inner Mongolian issue is being discussed in certain international settings alerts us that the conflict is becoming internationalized.

There is no panacea for China’s ethnic conflicts and their expansion to the international arena. Nevertheless, I believe the second implication we can draw is that a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of ethnic and territorial conflicts is imperative.

Most sympathizers take up the Tibetan, Uighur or Inner Mongolian causes under the banner of human rights. They tend to forget the kernel of these conflicts lies in complicated territorial disputes that cannot be simply answered on the ground of human rights arguments.

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.