The editor of a Chinese trade magazine sipped her tea one afternoon several years ago in a Shanghai tea shop and said: “I think Taiwan should be part of China, but I don’t think it’s worth fighting over.” She went on: “But if we give up Taiwan, then Tibet will try to break away and we will have separatists among the Uighurs in western China and among the Mongols in Inner Mongolia and the Koreans in Manchuria.”
She lamented: “If we let them all go, what will happen to my country?”
That editor’s anxiety reflected a deep fear among educated Chinese who are keenly aware of the expansions and contractions of China throughout history. It underlies Chinese leaders’ deep fears brought about by the recent uprising of Tibetans in Tibet and other regions.
In turn, that explains the ruthless and often brutal Chinese suppression of dissent. It is more than just the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party being afraid of the challenge to their authority and legitimacy.
Those seeking to cast off Chinese rule have divergent objectives. Some Tibetans want autonomy within China to practice their Buddhist religion and preserve their culture. Others want independence. In Taiwan, many people seek independence, many others want the nebulous “status quo” to continue, and a small number want to join China.
Chinese leaders, however, lump all dissenters as separatists or “splittists.”
The executive director of the political activist group Human Rights in China, Sharon Rom, said this month: “Too often the cultural and religious expressions of Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities are labeled by Chinese authorities as separatism or terrorism. In this system, it is not surprising that tensions boil over.”
Of the 1.3 billion people in China, less than 10 percent belong to one or another of 54 to 56 minorities, depending on who’s counting.
They range from the Zhuang, who number 15.5 million in southern China, to a small clan of 2,300 Lhoba in southeastern Tibet. The vast majority are Han Chinese, who take their name from the Han dynasty that ruled a unified China from 202BC to 220AD.
Although small in number, several minorities are closely watched by the authorities in Beijing because of their strategic locations on the borders of China. Tibet sits astride the Himalayan mountain passes into Nepal and India. During a time of Chinese contraction around 750AD, Tibet conquered Nepal and large parts of what is now western China.
The Uighurs, along with a smattering of Kazakhs, Kirgiz, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other Turkic people who are Muslims, live in western China next to the nations of Central Asia.
Some want to set up independent nations; others want to join with Central Asian nations of the same ethnic groups that became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Of the 24 million people in Inner Mongolia, which borders on Mongolia and Russia, only 10 percent are Mongols.
Shortly after it came to power in 1949, the communist government in Beijing flooded that autonomous region with Han Chinese immigrants. That is the same tactic to which Tibetans object today.
In Mongolia, with a population of 2.8 million, there is little sentiment for reunion with Inner Mongolia.
A Mongolian official explained: “There are more Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia than there are Mongols [sic] in both Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. If we were united, the Han Chinese would take over our country.”
Koreans, who number 2 million north of the Yalu River in what was once Manchuria, have been immigrating into northeastern China for several centuries.
Mostly recently that was encouraged by Japan when the Japanese occupied both Korea and Manchuria before World War II.
Because starvation is widespread in North Korea today, North Koreans are fleeing into China to survive — when they can get past the Chinese border guards.
Some of those Koreans contend that their region should be incorporated into North Korea; that sentiment may grow if North and South Korea, divided after World War II, are reunited. In the opposite direction, academics at the Chinese Academy of Social Science have recently claimed that North Korea, known in ancient times as Kogoryo, belongs to China.
A footnote: Informed South Koreans say that Mongol soldiers, when they ruled Eurasia from Busan to the Danube in the 13th century, once camped at the site in Seoul on which now sits the headquarters of the armed forces of the US in South Korea.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
Editor’s note: Johnny Neihu is on leave.
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