The rise of China and those left behind: a study of the Chinese government’s treatment of ethnic and religious


Chris Haynes 0029115 03/12/04

Introduction China’s ascent has proven that a formerly communist country can become capitalist and significantly increase its prosperity levels. However, the effects of the rise of China have not benefited all of its 1.4 billion citizens. The multicultural, egalitarian nationalism of Mao Zedong’s creation have faded away, probably for good, and deliberately or not, it has left many behind. Cultural violence plagued Mao’s time. Disparities of wealth have increased dramatically since Mao’s death, and if history is any guide, this problem will grow worse. But while its peasants and farmers have suffered under Deng Xiaoping’s liberal reforms, its ethnic and religious minorities have suffered since Mao. Those hardest hit by the rise of China, the ethnic and religious minorities, are the focus of this essay.

Nationalism has been a key driver of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s success in uniting the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, certain groups have not been fully integrated into nationalist sentiment. Any threats to this nationalism, this artificial feeling of oneness that is applied as a blanket to so many people, the CCP will inevitably consider “subversive”. And it seems that several ethnic and religious minority groups, both old and new, have faced great hardship in coping with the changes brought by the PRC. But first I consider the general economic problems that have caused social unrest.

Economic disparity—who is losing? The First National People’s Congress on September 20, 1954 stated the following:

The People’s Republic of China is a unitary multinational state. All the nationalities are equal. Discrimination against or oppression of any nationality, and acts which undermine the unity of the nationalities, are prohibited. (Mackerras,


Why, then, has China’s development favoured some groups over others? Li Cheng, Associate Professor at Hamilton College, writes that China has gone from one of the world’s most egalitarian countries to one of the least. “The period of ‘reform without losers’ has been replaced by ‘reform with many losers.’” (Li, a121) Li also indicates a high unemployment rate and no substantial social safety net, and says that these factors increase the chance of social unrest. (a123) Another potential threat to state stability is the mass of internal migration of farmers and other labourers, (b1123) including peasants displaced and resettled after the Three Gorges Dam project. Many are driven to the cities and add to China’s mass of urban unemployed. The east coast of China is “blessed with natural advantages and granted a head start in liberalisation,” (Economist) and the interior of China has lagged behind. The poorest areas consist of non Han minorities such as Tibetans, Muslims and Mongolians. “By 1996, Chinese leaders began to perceive a threat to social (read political) stability.” (Economist) They took measures to curb poverty by urging foreign business to invest in remote areas and encouraging local governments to offer tax and other incentives. But local protectionism, provincial, county and city governments’ blocking of goods from elsewhere, continues. (Economist)

There are 55 official minority nationalities in China. These minorities cover approximately five eighths of China’s territory, much of which is rich in natural resources. The Han majority often occupies plains, arable land, towns and cities, while

some four fifths of the country’s minorities take refuge in the more mountainous (and less suitable for agriculture) land, with the exceptions of such groups as the Manchus and the Koreans. (Mackerras, 198) Self sufficiency in minority regions, such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai, is extremely low and although this dearth of economic vigor is somewhat offset by state subsidies, it is clear that the people are not allowed access to the benefits of the natural resources found where they live. (201)

Religion and the government Since the creation of the PRC in 1949, China has been an officially atheist state. It has tolerated some other religions and their followers to some extent, but others it has deemed subversive and unpatriotic, and thus a threat to the CCP’s nationalist policy that legitimises its monopoly on power. Some religions are traditional: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. But three groups that fall into the category of subversives are the Buddhists of Tibet, the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Falun Gong. The first two periodically face brutal repression at the hands of the government. The Falun Gong, however, a more recent cultural phenomenon, is considered heretical and has suffered terribly as a result of its illegality.

Tibet Buddhism was brought from India to Tibet around 779 AD. It spread to Mongolia during the rule of Altan Khan. The Chinese government claims that Tibet has always been a part of China; Tibetans say that Tibet was an independent nation for centuries before 1950. It is likely that both cases are incorrect. (Dillon, 12) Like Xinjiang, Tibet has been part of

China since the Qing dynasty from 1644 to 1912. Tibet’s de facto independence lasted from 1913 to 1950. One author calls Tibet “[t]he territory which has caused the greatest problems for the CCP government.” (Mackerras, 148) In late 1950, PLA troops advanced on Tibet and drove the Dalai Lama out in fear. Under pressure from the central government, the Dalai Lama appointed representatives who signed the Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. Tibet became an Autonomous Region but the CCP would handle its external affairs and the PLA could enter at will. (149) Tibet had lost.

Several uprisings since 1959 have been brutally suppressed, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 raised the level of attacks on Tibetan Buddhism. Demonstrations throughout Tibet in 1957 became violent as religious Tibetans marched into government offices and some of the demonstrators were killed by police. The Tibetans’ cause was gaining international recognition. (Dillon, 13) In July 2000, the Tibetan government, in exile in India, after a crackdown the previous month, reported that the CCP aimed to totally eliminate Tibetan culture. (14) Based on CCP policy since 1950, this idea is not unthinkable. Things are not much better for the Muslim Uighurs.

Uighurs There are an estimated 20 million Muslims in China, and most of the Muslims who do not speak Chinese are in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Some Hui, the Chinese speaking Muslims, also live in Xinjiang. However, the Turkic speaking Muslims, mainly the Uighurs, have been subject to greater control from the government and are granted far less freedom of religion than the Hui. “At times when Hui mosques have been

open and busy with worshippers, Uighur and Kazakh mosques remained closed, even in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, which is generally stable and thoroughly under Chinese control.” (17) A separatist movement with a long history was suppressed from 1949 to 1976, but at the end of the Cultural Revolution it gradually developed into an opposition to the government. There is evidence that at the moment the government is attempting to overwhelm the existing Uighur population by encouraging Han immigration. Economic development is an attempt to entice their migration, some say, and while it relieves some of the worst cases of poverty, Uighurs consider these new economic incentives are going to the Han and not to the Uighurs. New conflicts have thus arisen in recent years. Riots in the 1950s against the Chinese authorities have resulted in a difficulty of ascertaining the religious affiliations of the people. The CCP banned all religious organisations other than state registered ones, and civil authorities and police closely monitor all religious activities. (18) But the violence has not abated.

In Baren in southern Xinjiang in 1990, a group of Muslims were protesting the CCP policies of birth control, nuclear weapons testing and the exporting of Xinjiang’s resources westward. A mass protest developed, and police and army were sent to quell the riots. From 15 to over 60 protesters died, depending on the report, and over 100 were arrested. 50 mosques were closed and the construction of 100 more was halted. (19) A series of trials of separatists in March 1999 found eight people executed and 45 others imprisoned for ‘illegal religious terrorist activities.’ (20) Despite the suffering the Tibetans and Uighurs have endured, there is a general consensus among observers that the Falun Gong has suffered worse.

Falun Gong In October 2002, members of the Falun Gong spiritual religious sect filed a class action lawsuit in a US federal court against Jiang Zemin, alleging that Jiang and the government’s Falun Gong Control Office committed acts of torture, genocide, violations of the rights of life, liberty, security of the person, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, against the Falun Gong. To the Falun Gong’s dismay, the US State Department rejected this claim because Jiang Zemin had been head of state, and under the US’ customary practice of international law, it will not convict a current or former head of state. (American Society of International Law, 977) Nonetheless, the members who had put forth the charges had made a point about their plight in China.

Started by Li Hongzhi in 1992, the Falun Gong draws on Buddhist and Taoist teachings, meditation and qigong, the art of deep breathing exercises. It is the most popular of the new religions, with some estimates as to its membership at 70 to 100 million. It has posed unique challenges to the central government. Being Chinese in origin, it could not be dismissed as a foreign import. It is not overtly religious “as its main public manifestation is the practice of qigong exercises, which is commonplace in China.” (Dillon, 21) And its members are generally urban, educated, middle aged and even include members of the CCP and the armed forces. (21) In April 1999, 10,000 followers of Falun Gong protested peacefully outside the Zhongnanhai in Beijing after some government sponsored magazines attacked Li Hongzhi (who now lives in the US) as a fraud and a profiteer. “Its growing influence terrified the Chinese government, which a few months later ordered a decisive and nation wide crackdown on the movement.” (Li, a112) Other sources say it

was also a demand for dialogue with the government in reaction to the harassment and detention of its members over the previous months. Amnesty International reports that tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been detained arbitrarily and repeatedly. In prisons, labour camps and psychiatric hospitals, they are subject to ill treatments such as torture. Besides the clear human rights violations in general, it is concerning that the Chinese government has not provided any evidence that those it has detained have committed crimes as defined under international law. (Amnesty International)

The government’s fear of the Falun Gong seems to stem from its ability to mobilise, and thus influence, so many people in Chinese society, coupled with its rapid expansion. The government wants to control information and thought as tightly as it can, in order to maintain the nationalist sentiment that has kept it in power since 1949. Moreover, the onslaught on the Falun Gong began at a time of some social upheaval. The Information Centre of Chinese Democracy and Human Rights estimated over 100,000 people engaging in public demonstrations in 1999. (Li, a123) As a result, they have branded the Falun Gong as “a threat to social and political stability.” (Amnesty International) The government controlled press has made various allegations about the Falun Gong, likening them to terrorists and cults, and has published articles of the recantations of members under duress (Dillon, 22) and one on the virtues of atheism and anti religion. (21) Having claimed it eliminated the Falun Gong in 1999, the police arrested hundreds of its supporters in Tiananmen Square at National Day celebrations on October 1, 2000. (22)

This testament to the government’s lies and incapacity to stop the movement will likely push them harder to crack down on it in future.

Conclusion The rise of China has left groups of people and even entire regions scrounging for the prosperity their compatriots enjoy. Some of these people are Han but many others are ethnic and religious minorities. Some, like the Tibetans and the Uighurs, have striven for independence at great cost to their livelihood, their culture and their dignity; others, like the Falun Gong, who do not come from just one place, have peacefully challenged the government and found themselves bearing the wrath of China’s leaders. If the way things have gone in the past for these people is any indication, and China refuses to democratise, there is little hope that its minorities will become independent any time soon.

BIBLIOGRAPHY American Society of International Law: Head-of-State Immunity for Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, pp 974-977. 2003, The American Journal of International Law, Washington, DC.

Amnesty International: The crackdown on the Falun Gong and other so called “heretical organisations”. 2000, Amnesty International.

Li Cheng: a) China in 1999: Seeking Common Ground at a Time of Tension and Conflict. From Asian Survey, 40:1, pp 113-22. 2000, The Regents of the University of California/Society, Berkeley, California. b) Surplus Rural Labourers and Internal Migration in China: Current Status and Future Prospects. From Asian Survey, pp 112245. 1996, The Regents of the University of California/Society, Berkeley, California.

Dillon, Michael: Religious Minorities and China. 2001, Minority Rights Group International, United Kingdom.

Economist, the: China’s Divided Economy. From the Economist print edition, January 14, 1999, p. 40. 1999, The Economist Newspaper Limited, London, England.

Mackerras, Colin: China’s Minorities: Integration and Modernisation in the Twentieth Century. 1994, Oxford University Press, New York.

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