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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Sichuan Family and Tibet's Future

June 2, 2008

By Yan Sun
The New York Times
May 30, 2008, 6:57 pm

One sign that life in China is getting back to normal after the
catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan is that the Olympics and Tibet are
again attracting the world's attention — though it's hard to know
what "normal" means in China these days.

Many around the world have been puzzled and disappointed at the
average Chinese people's reaction to the unrest in Tibet and to the
overseas movement in support of Tibetan protesters. The Chinese
people are equally puzzled, because they see the Tibet issue as more
complex than what protest slogans and advocacy groups may suggest.
Comments in the West like those of the actress Sharon Stone, who said
that the recent earthquake may have had something to do with the bad
karma over the Chinese government's treatment of Tibet, only add to
the Chinese bafflement.

My own family's history reflects the complexities of the issue in China.

My hometown of Sichuan is joined with Tibet and is close to Xinjiang,
two restive ethnic provinces in recent times. More than
geographically, they are close to me because of family connections.

During the long Mao era, two of my mother's sisters faced a dilemma
when they graduated from college: be assigned to locations separate
from those assigned to their fiancés, or to accompany them and
volunteer together in a hardship minority region. In 1954, one of my
aunts and her fiancé, both agriculture majors, chose to go to Khotan,
in Muslim Xinjiang. In 1968, my younger aunt and her fiancé, English
majors, chose Ngawa, a Tibetan autonomous region. This was a site of
the unrest in March 2008, and its southern edge was the epicenter of
the recent earthquake. They taught minority students at local
teachers' and technical colleges. Over the years, a third aunt and
other relatives from the Sichuan countryside joined relatives in
Xinjiang, for personal opportunities.

They had no incentive to stay permanently, being unaccustomed to the
local climate and living conditions. As soon as job mobility became
possible in the early 1980s, my two college-educated aunts and their
families moved out of Xinjiang and Ngawa.

But by then, the effects of their long-term personal sacrifices were
apparent. Their children had poor schooling and had difficulty
adapting to more competitive environments, yet, because they were
Chinese, they did not qualify for admissions quotas for minorities.
The contrast with my cousins in urban Sichuan and the coastal East
was sharp. The latter relatives include successful professionals,
entrepreneurs and C.E.O.s. They own cars and nice homes, some even
villas and mansions.

One cousin from Xinjiang decided to move back there, joining new
groups of Chinese who move voluntarily to the less developed regions
for expanding opportunities. Other non-college educated relatives
have remained in these regions.

The Chinese government's western development programs have entailed
dilemmas. On one hand, Beijing is seen as encroaching when it
encourages development in the poor regions. But on the other, without
the programs, Beijing may be blamed for regional inequality. For my
relatives, who enjoyed few necessities for decades, development is
good for everyone.

Such perception gaps are a key source of disputes over China's
policies in Tibet. Here in the West, I hear accusations that the
government has sponsored the expansion of Han Chinese influence in
Tibet. From my aunts' perspective, they went under duress but helped
terribly backward regions. They taught minority students who were the
first generation to have any schooling, let alone college educations.
 From my cousins I see differences in world views, in attitudes
toward work and study, and in job skills. Growing up in less
developed regions has made them less competitive, just like the
native people of those regions.

Yes, many Chinese migrants do better economically than the natives in
the hard-pressed regions, and this is a source of ethnic tension in
both Xinjiang and Tibet. Corruption, especially when committed by Han
officials, worsens the problem. Economic progress, however, does not
just divide the Han and locals, but also the locals themselves. In
Tibet, the monastery is no longer the sole ladder to social and
economic status, as development expands opportunities for ordinary
Tibetans. The competition with modernizing forces, amid rising
Lamaism, has created disaffection among today's monks, becoming a
major source of recent agitation.

Chinese nationalism over territorial issues also has its family
roots. British opium ruined many male members of my extended family
and drained generations of family wealth. Japanese bombings destroyed
family businesses. One uncle died fighting the Japanese invasion.
Such family histories, reinforced by emotion-tinged history classes
on foreign imperialism in modern China, ingrain in many Chinese a
sense of righteousness when it comes to the controversy over Tibet's
sovereignty: for example, China would not have briefly lost Tibet in
the early 20th century if not for British meddling.

Chinese difficulty in appreciating the ethnic dimension of the
Tibetan issue stems partly from those school lessons, where history
is taught along class lines, not ethnic ones. Mao's "liberation" of
Tibet is perceived in terms of ending its medieval serfdom and
theocracy. The view of religious elites as the former rulers of that
system hinders Chinese empathy for the monks' cause. Propaganda
influence or not, the normative gap is real for many Chinese.

The melting pot that is my extended family, as well as ethnic
Beichuan and Wenchuan -- among the hardest-hit areas in the
earthquake — represents hope for a healthy, multiethnic China. This
melting pot aspect of Chinese society is often forgotten.

I myself learned that some close cousins traced their lineage to
Mongolian tribes that first conquered China in the 12th century and
brought Tibet along in the 13th. It is hard to associate those
wealthy and well-adapted cousins with nomads on the prairies. But it
gives me confidence that all Tibetans too will become prosperous
middle class like my half-Mongolian cousins, only a lot sooner.

Yan Sun is professor of political science at the City University of
New York, Queens College and the Graduate Center. She is the author
of "The Chinese Reassessment of Socialism" (Princeton, 1995) and
"Corruption and Market in Contemporary China" (Cornell 2004).
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