“It is not easy to comment on Tibet” (updated)

Tony, recently back from a fortnight in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, kindly wrote this post for Six on ethnic tensions in China. He begins with Tibet, but it isn’t hard to see the relevance of his conclusions to the current situation in Xinjiang.


“It is not easy to comment on Tibet. Even after a two-week trip there, I still have quite limited knowledge about the whole area. During the trip, I kept asking myself the same question: ‘how to describe the relationship between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans’. It seems that we are living in two worlds. Though most of the Tibetans I came across were kind and honest, I still felt a little bit uneasy to discuss that sensitive issue with them. However, on the Han Chinese side, I was continuously intrigued by the fact that many of them have stereotypes and prejudices when talking about Tibetans.

Take a story that happened on our train ride for example. During lunch time, several young Chinese visitors were chatting with Tibetan students who were studying in Beijing. The former asked the latter what they could eat on campus. The Tibetan girl replied with laughter, “Everyone we come across tends to think that Tibetans only eat zanba. As a matter of fact, we had the same meals as Han Chinese students do in Beijing.” Then the conversation goes on from college life to Linkin Park, with even more confusing looks on our Chinese visitors’ faces.

Similar scenarios came up during our trip to Shigatse, where we had a chance to visit typical local residences. On the way back, many travelers expressed that the Tibetan living style was primitive and their religious beliefs superstitious. What annoys me slightly was that when Han Chinese travelers were talking to local citizens, they kept asking questions such as how much money they made and, to some extent, judged all things in a sense of material wealth. As a Chinese, I think we have a better understanding than the Americans that Tibet is not a Shangri-la paradise. However, instead of romanticizing Tibet, it seems that many Han Chinese, at least some visitors, lack basic respect for the Tibetan culture and religion.

I am not sure how the Tibetans perceive the Han Chinese or how to define the relations of the two ethnic groups in China. Yet it is certain that for almost every state, such racial problems are taken as a formidable challenge. If we look back to the late 1980s, it is the ethnic problems within the Soviet Union that led the Chinese government to seriously judge its own domestic situation. After the collapse of the USSR, Chinese Party leaders drew the conclusion that nationalism and separation activities would be on the rise around the globe. One of the lessons learned by the ruling officials at that time was that ethnic disunity is fatal to the survival of the party. And the CPC thereafter took all efforts to avoid repeating the same mistakes of the USSR.

It is necessary to acknowledge the vitality of national and ethnic solidarity. But I am afraid such principle has gone too far in contemporary China. Instead of frankly pointing out the tensions between racial groups and the flaws in our ethnic policy, the ruling elites, from time to time, blamed ‘evil external forces’ for crimes. Admittedly, various international actors were partly responsible for the accidents. However, we should not overlook the severe flaws and obvious weaknesses within China’s domestic ethnic relations. Acknowledging these problems and having a transparent investigation of why someone committed an act of violence should not be condemned as unpatriotic. After all, it is a formidable task we have to undertake so as to prevent the situation from worsening.

In a nutshell, since Tibet and other ethnic problems have become the forefront of the Sino-Western conflict, one possible solution to avoid miscalculation is to establish a well-managed channel for China and Western countries, thus letting secret talk become open dialogue. Instead of helplessly looking at the escalation of international conflicts, this should be a cost-effective way to let both sides understand the real situation and help our Western counterparts see what might or might not work in China when tackling its ethnic problems.”


Update: Over at CNReviews, Kai Pan dissects Tony’s post … impressed with his observations but in the end disappointed at his seeming “too preoccupied with how China looks in Westerners’ eyes (China’s “face”)”.


  1. The population of Tibetans is negligible compared to HUGE population of Han Chinese. For Most Han Chinese, they have never seen Tibetans and they know little about Tibetans. I believe, this phenomenon also exists in US. How many Americans know the native Alaskans’ life?

  2. Recently I’m still wondering what’s the origin of all the chaos and conflicts. The point I’ve mentioned above may be one of the factors. However, sometimes the reason can be quite simple. Most Hans are used to the corrupt local officials and their refusal of petitioners’ appeals. However, if similar things happen in those autonomous regions, conflicts between government and citizens may easily escalate into ethnic tensions.

    I’ve also heard a lot of Han Chinese complained that the government were so afraid of making new ethnic problems that they dare not punish the thieves and criminals of ethnic minorities (esp. the Uyghurs). Many Hans were thus dissatisfied with such unequal treatments. They claimed that the government failed to protect them and the anger towards the Uyghurs grew.

    There are certainly many other factors. I think after all these disturbances, it is definitely necessary to amend the country’s ethnic policy now.

  3. yeah.we need to create a bridge of better understanding between Han Chinese and Tibetans .But, I also hope Tony to know that judging all things in a sense of material wealth maybe is the best way to evaluate their standard of living ,because no better estimate system can replace it now,isn’t it?

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