Tensions between China’s majority Han population and various ethnic minorities tend to simmer just below the surface. But the issue is now stirring open debate following this month’s coordinated knife attack on a train station in the southern city of Kunming that killed 29. The attack has been blamed on separatist extremists of the Uyghur people, whom Beijing had also held responsible for the 2009 Ürümqi Riots in northwest China.
From Beijing’s view, the aftermath of the March 1 killings fits into the broader social issue of ethnic minority policies. A look at popular and official state media coverage over the past two weeks shows one overriding goal for the government: to tamp the flames of inter-ethnic resentment and maintain social and political stability.
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The Kunming station where the attack took place (40fifw0)
Chinese media does acknowledge the existence of inter-communal troubles, while simultaneously blaming such troubles on religious fundamentalism and foreign interference. Xinjiang, home to millions of Muslim Uyghurs, and Tibet, are the two most restive areas.
Phoenix Television — a Hong Kong-based channel that is one of the few private broadcasters allowed into the mainland Chinese market — recently aired a press conference by Padma Cholong, head of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s People’s Congress. Cholong discussed the differences between ethnic problems in Xinjiang and in Tibet, and made a point of condemning U.S. President Barack Obama for meeting with the Dalai Lama.
The Second Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress (the most important political meeting in China this year) recently wrapped up in Beijing. Coverage of minority issues addressed by the Congress was predictably optimistic. The constant themes being stressed are progress, prosperity, and unity.
A piece from Sohu News entitled "Delegate: Promote Minority’s Distinctive Culture, Strengthen the ‘Silk Road’ Cultural Exchange" was also characteristically upbeat. It focused on the vice-chairman of the Chinese Dancer’s association Dilinaer Abdullah — a Uyghur delegate to the National People’s Congress. Instead of addressing inter-ethnic strife, the article looked at efforts to preserve Uyghur folk dancing.
This emphasis on dance is interesting. Western media coverage of China often condemns the Chinese government for appropriating ethnic minority culture for its own political purposes. In the "Latitude" blog of the New York Times, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote: “Chinese officials like to paint a picture of China as one big happy multicultural family. To that end, the state pushes the stereotype that ethnic minorities are little more than entertainers who sing and dance in bright costumes.”
Which brings us to coverage from Dongbei Wang regarding ethnic minority affairs in the National People’s Congress: “Minority Delegates’ Special Hats”. This photo compilation shows the distinctive and seemingly impractical hats worn by ethnic minority delegates to China’s most important political meeting of the year.
Festive hats and dancing can only go so far to promote inter-ethnic harmony in China. However, it is possible that some more sophisticated efforts may be at play. In the wake of the Kunming attacks, Chinese television began to prominently feature Shila Amzah, a female contestant in China’s hugely popular I Am a Singer television competition, who was wearing a traditional Islamic veil.
Millions of passengers waiting in Chinese train stations were shown Amzah’s spirited performance over and over again. Although some Chinese Internet users pointed out Amzah’s supposed resemblance to Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, she is actually from Malaysia. Nevertheless, the fact that a religious Muslim wearing a traditional headscarf was prominently featured on Chinese TV in the days following the worst Islamist terror attack on China in modern history may say much more than any declaration from party headquarters.
*Brendan O’Reilly is a writer and educator based in Mainland China, specialized in China foreign policy. He is the author of 50 Things You Didn’t Know About China (Alchemy Books, upcoming). He blogs at chineserelations.net.