March 12, 2012

The Myth of Ethnic Harmony

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A week ago today, a young Tibetan named Dorje set himself on fire and burned to death in Sichuan Province, China. It was the third Tibetan self-immolation in three days, and the 25th in the last year. It started with monks and nuns, though the protest has recently spread to laypeople. For the Chinese government, committed to the myth that China’s ethnic minorities live in content subservience to their benevolent Han Chinese masters, these protests are deeply problematic. Tibet is on fire, and its suffering demands to be reckoned with.

What compels these Tibetans to burn themselves to death? Anyone asking that question is met with two answers: the Tibetan answer and the Chinese answer.

The Tibetan answer: The self-immolations are non-violent protests against the systematic eradication of Tibetan culture by the Chinese Empire. Since invading Tibet in 1951, Chinese forces have demolished thousands of Buddhist monasteries, temples and shrines, desecrated and burned hundreds of thousands of sacred Buddhist scriptures and massacred tens of thousands of Tibetan civilians. The atrocities committed, especially in the name of Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution, are too numerous to describe here in detail.

These days, the Chinese government goes about destroying Tibetan culture in more insidious ways. Its policies and the new Beijing-Lhasa railroad encourage Han Chinese to settle in Tibet, flooding Tibet with Chinese culture. Schools increasingly push Mandarin Chinese onto students and discourage the Tibetan language. Buddhist monks and nuns are subjected to “Patriotic Education,” during which they are forced to pledge allegiance to Communism and renounce the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese version of events is, of course, completely different, and more in line with the myth of ethnic harmony. Chinese officials claim that the self-immolations are not political protests symptomatic of widespread discontent with the Chinese occupation of Tibet, but rather acts of terrorism, the work of “outcasts, criminals and mentally ill people manipulated by the exiled Dalai Lama.” All would be well in China if not for the machinations of outside agitators.

This claim is premised upon a fundamentally different version of history from that told by the Tibetans. From the Chinese Communist perspective, in 1951 the People’s Liberation Army freed Tibet from the oppressive yoke of feudalism and ushered in a new era of economic prosperity and harmony. From that point on, Tibetans have been a happy (but non-threatening) part of the Chinese family.

The Chinese myth of ethnic harmony is best encapsulated, not by the image of a Tibetan setting himself on fire, but rather by that of Han Chinese tourists splashing each other with buckets of water at an “ethnic theme park.”

Ethnic theme parks are wildly popular among Han Chinese, the ethnic group that makes up 96 percent of China’s burgeoning population. Here’s an example of how these theme parks work: Traditionally, the Dai people of Southwest China splash each other with water for the duration of one three-day festival every year. But in the Dai Minority Park, an ethnic theme park owned and operated by Han Chinese, every day is festival day. Busloads of Han Chinese come to ogle what the park advertises as the “warmest and sweetest Dai princesses” and participate in “traditional” water fights. The entertainers staffing these theme parks are sometimes actually members of the ethnic minority they are dressing up as, but they need not be.

After they’re done experiencing the “authentic” cultures of ethnic minorities, the Han Chinese get back on their buses and return to the city. The myth of ethnic harmony has been reinforced: China is one big happy family, whose ethnic minorities prosper cheerfully under the benevolent stewardship of the Han. We saw the same myth being constructed in the 2008 Olympics, when Han Chinese children, dressed up as members of the 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities of China, carried a huge Chinese flag as part of the opening ceremony. Meanwhile, Tibet is on fire, burning for a day when the Tibetan people can once more speak their own language and practice their own religion.

So what’s an Empire to do when its ethnic minorities don’t play along with the myth of ethnic harmony? In trying to understand how the Han Chinese Empire deals with this question, it may be fruitful to examine how the White American Empire deals with the same question. What do we do with the people who were on this land before us?

Well, after the mass murder, biological warfare and forced relocation, we, like China, tried to systematically eradicate their culture. Starting in 1869 and continuing into the 1970s, over 100,000 Native American children were forced to attend government schools where Native customs, clothing and language were all banned, and students were forced to practice Christianity. Students in these schools also faced physical abuse, starvation, intense manual labor, sexual abuse and, in similar schools in Canada, medical experimentation and forced sterilization.

These days, we, like China, use festivals, most notably Thanksgiving, to construct our own myth of ethnic harmony: America is one big happy family, whose ethnic minorities prosper cheerfully under the benevolent stewardship of the White Europeans. In one 2008 incident in California, schoolchildren dressed up as Native Americans and pilgrims for a Thanksgiving parade and festival, and actual Native Americans protested the event, holding signs that said, “Don’t Celebrate Genocide” and “You Are Not Honoring Anyone.”

These protesters aren’t setting themselves on fire, but I think they’re sending a similar message, from the minority to the majority: Everything is not okay. We’ve had atrocities committed against us. We haven’t forgotten, and you can’t just make those atrocities go away. If you steal an entire continent and try to wipe out an entire people, you lose the right to claim ethnic harmony. In America, as in China-occupied Tibet, the victims of Empire scream out in the midst of our festivals, “Murder! Murder!” Here in the American Empire, we’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring those screams. Who knows how long the Chinese Empire will be able to do the same.

Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tom Moore