Chancellor, Jammu Central University, & former High Commissioner to Pakistan
India has consistently held that people with Indian ancestry settling abroad, whether in Mauritius, Fiji or the UK, owe their primary loyalty to the country they live in, while cherishing their spiritual, cultural, familial and economic ties with the land of their forefathers. This policy has served us well in countries with large populations of people of Indian origin. China, however, tends to treat its diaspora as people who owe their primary loyalty to the land of their forefathers. More so, with respect to people who inhabit territories on, or adjacent to, the Chinese mainland. Singapore, which also has a Han Chinese majority, is, however, a shining example of multi-cultural and multi-religious harmony.
In a recent study undertaken in Singapore’s National University, Singaporean-Chinese scholar Wei Shan, describes the cultural and religious insensitivity shown by the Chinese in ruling China’s Muslim majority, Uighur-dominated Xinjiang province. China acts ruthlessly, in the belief that the Uighurs should integrate into a Han-dominated China, discarding or marginalising their cultural and religious practices. Wei Shan notes that elitist projects across Xinjiang, like Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South and Central Asia, are administered in the belief of racial superiority of the Han Chinese. He notes: ‘The average annual income of a Han Chinese person in Xinjiang is approximately $4,120, whereas the average income for Uighurs is approximately $1,830. This is also much lower than even other ethnic minorities in China.’
Recent files published by the International Commission of Investigative Journalists reveal the extent to which China has gone to assimilate Uighurs, compelling them to discard their cultural and spiritual heritage. The files also provide details of how an estimated two million Uighurs, who have been forced to live in ‘camps’, are forced to speak in Mandarin and wear Chinese attire. Their captors have guidelines that ‘effectively serve as a manual for operating the camps’. The camps are run ruthlessly. Children are separated from parents and face a vigorous programme of indoctrination, while their Chinese captors even determine when to ‘let detainees see relatives, or even use toilets’.
The reaction of the world has, predictably, been muted. Earlier this year, 23 countries led by the US addressed a letter to the UNHRC, calling for it to urge China to close down its ‘camps’. China, in turn, persuaded 54 countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Pakistan, to address a letter to the UNHRC, praising China’s ‘remarkable achievements in Xinjiang’. While 27 members of the UNHRC backed the US-led resolution, 54 countries toed the Chinese line. Even China’s Central Asian neighbours like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan lacked the courage to condemn Chinese actions against their ethnic kinsmen!
The challenges that China faces on its eastern shores in Hong Kong and Taiwan are, however, different and need to be handled far more carefully. Beijing claims that both these territories are an integral part of ‘One China’. China avers that it can effectively integrate Taiwan and Hong Kong into a single entity, with the philosophy of ‘one country, two systems’. This is easier said than done, as the Communist Party in the mainland is not given to tolerating diversity, dissent or religious freedom. The last six months have shown that there is also little prospect of such a system surviving in Hong Kong, which has experienced a virtual shutdown. Despite warnings by Beijing, thousands of protesters have remained undeterred. They have publicly voiced their demand for greater freedoms, including demands for withdrawal of the proposed legislation for extending the power of courts in the mainland to residents of Hong Kong. The clash between democratic freedoms, on the one hand, and rigid one-party rule of the mainland on the other, was inevitable. The Chinese-nominated Chief Executive of Hong Kong was inevitably caught in the crossfire. The people of Hong Kong have stood firm in the face of repression for over six months, and continue to do so.
China is also in a quandary on what to do in Taiwan, which like Hong Kong is a striking example of how economic growth can thrive in a Han-Chinese dominated democratic society with full freedom of religious beliefs. About 35% of the population of Taiwan is Buddhist, and a similar number is Taoist. The entire population of 23.5 million speaks ‘Taiwanese Mandarin’. Taiwan has its own democratic constitution, an independently elected President and government. Moreover, it has significant defence capabilities and a close relationship with the US. It periodically receives threats from China if it is seen falling out of line. India has a senior diplomat heading its ‘office’ in Taiwan. Sadly, New Delhi has not been able to exploit economic opportunities in Taiwan, especially in securing investments and benefiting from its sophisticated electronics industry.
China, which has huge ambitions of expanding its maritime frontiers, even in violation of international conventions on the law of the sea, can no longer pretend to be a benign power. Despite its growing economic and military power, China’s intolerance for dissent and diversity could well land it in trouble, not just with its entire Muslim population, but also with its own Han people, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Recent reports from Taiwan indicate that less than 10% of its people favour uniting with China, and that not a single candidate in the forthcoming presidential election would dare to advocate closer ties with China.
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