A banal dispute over the price of a snack on an anonymous street in central China has triggered a fireball of angry comment in the Chinese blogosphere, revealing deep and widespread resentment at the way Beijing treats ethnic minorities under its rule.
But not because the authorities are too harsh on Tibetans and Uighurs, as an outsider might think: The overwhelming majority of comments blame government policy for being too sympathetic to them.
The incident highlights a vast gulf between foreign and Chinese views of official ethnic policy in a country where Tibetans and Uighurs complain about gross mistreatment, but many members of the majority Han ethnic group claim that it is they who suffer reverse discrimination.
Most foreign observers, and many ethnic minority members in China, say that the policies Beijing claims are designed to promote minority rights and living standards are merely a façade, and that officials pay only lip service to autonomy.
Nothing illustrated that argument better than the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when the government proudly presented representatives of China’s 56 ethnic groups, all in folk costumes – and who all turned out to be Han actors and actresses.
But some prominent Han intellectuals are arguing that government policies benefiting minorities are misguided and should be scrapped.
The fight over nutcake
The current storm of commentary, which has generated more than 2.5 million blog posts on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social networking platform, began when the police in Yueyang, a city in Hunan Province, announced on Weibo that a fight had got out of hand on Monday.
A minor riot had ensued after an altercation between Uighur venders of nutcake (a sticky nougat-like confection) and a Han customer, it seemed. The police said they had compensated the Uighurs for the loss of their nutcake, sent them back to Xinjiang, their majority-Muslim home province in the far west of China, (see map) and arrested one of their (Han) assailants.
This apparently unequal treatment drew resentful attention to a 30-year-old official government policy – unevenly applied – to treat minority lawbreakers with more leniency than their Han counterparts.
“The police have to act in a more gingerly fashion with regard to minorities, especially Uighurs,” says Barry Sautman, an expert on China’s ethnic policies at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology.
The goal of that policy, Professor Sautman says, is “better relations between ethnic minorities and the state, and it probably has lessened the antagonism among some members of minority groups toward the state.”
But the policy has provoked almost universal criticism from the bloggers who made the Yueyang incident the top trending issue on Weibo on Tuesday.
'Minority ethnic protection should be curbed’
“Some law enforcement bureaus indulge Uyghur criminals and such behavior damages the interests of the majority,” wrote a blogger called Cao Junniu, whose post was typical of thousands of others. “Minority ethnic protection should be curbed.”
“The country should have a citizen policy, not an ethnic policy that divides people into different ranks,” argued another blogger, Wang Kuangzheng. “It is sad that those who do not benefit are angry, while those who do benefit are not grateful.”
The policy on legal treatment is part of a wider set of affirmative action privileges reserved for members of China’s ethnic minorities; they are not subject to the restrictions of the “one child policy,” they have extra points added to their school leaving exams to help them gain entrance to university, and they are entitled to priority access to small business loans, for example.
That such positive discrimination should spark resentment among some Han citizens, who make up 95 percent of China’s population, “is normal,” says Ma Dazheng, an ethnic policy analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-linked think tank.
Some prominent Chinese intellectuals close to the government, such as Professor Hu Angang, also argue that the policy encourages minorities to build their ethnic identities at the expense of their national, Chinese identity, which could pose security risks for the Chinese state. Tibetans and Uighurs both live in border areas.
Even leading spokespeople for minority groups, such as Tibetan blogger Woeser, believe that the privileges policy should be scrapped.
“Most of the benefits are meaningless in reality,” argues Woeser, and pale into insignificance against the background of political and ethnic discrimination to which Tibetans and Uighurs are subjected, she says.
“The authorities indulge petty criminals but they crack down on ethnic minorities’ political rights,” Woeser claims. “Canceling the privileges would at least reduce Han resentment.”