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From the Editor

April 29, 2001

Article 4 of the 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) states that “any act which undermines the unity of the nationalities or instigates division is prohibited.” This is cited in the Chinese government’s report on its implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination — which will be reviewed by the United Nations at the end of July — as evidence that the PRC has committed itself to combating racial discrimination.

But enforcing unity is not the same thing as fighting discrimination. This constitutional provision is more indicative of the state’s concern for the unity of its territory and the integrity of its borders than of any commitment to genuine tolerance for cultural and ethnic differences.

The emphasis on unity has deep roots in the ideological construction of the modern Chinese nation. Frank Dik□ter describes how, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain Chinese intellectuals consciously sought to build a myth of a uniform “Han race,” with common descent and culture, in order to create a sense of nationalism among the diverse people who inhabited the Chinese empire. Another scholar, Benedict Anderson, describes this project as “stretching the short, tight skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire.”

As well as adopting the rhetoric of European nationalism, some of these intellectuals incorporated racial theories reminiscent of the worst colonial mindset into their nation-building myths, positing a “yellow race” of superior quality to “blacks,” “browns” and “reds.”

While such unabashed racism is no longer acceptable in the PRC, it has its echoes in the categorization of the cultures of most of the “minority nationalities” as low down on the scale of “social evolution.” As Vicky Boyle writes, for ethnic minority children this generally means that what they are taught in school systematically devalues the customs, history and traditions of their communities. Being told they come from a “feudal serf-holding society” is hardly likely to instill in children a sense of their own worth. The clear implication is that their cultures should be gradually replaced by the “advanced” culture of the civilized Han.

For the young people from Tibet interviewed by Mickey Spiegel, the frustration of being prevented from engaging freely in the study of their own language, culture and history was a major reason for their involvement in protests against Chinese rule and, eventually, for their decisions to flee their homeland. Evidently, efforts to suppress the expression of diversity in the name of stamping out “separatism” often actually sharpen tensions and alienate young, educated people who might otherwise make major contributions to their communities.

However, the freedom for minorities to express their own points of view about their culture and experience is not sufficient to combat racism. Hong Kong is a mostly tolerant society, and certainly its people enjoy much greater freedom than on the mainland. But, as Christine Loh and Kelley Loper show, racist attitudes remain deeply entrenched among many Hong Kong people, and appear especially strong toward people with darker skins, such as South Asians. So far, however, the Hong Kong government has refused to act to outlaw racial discrimination, arguing that “education” is a better solution to the problem.

It seems the Hong Kong government essentially believes that racial discrimination is not a major issue in the territory. In the 1980s, China’s leaders were still insisting that racism did not even exist in the PRC.

The leaders of Henan are similarly attempting to defy reality by asserting that HIV/AIDS is not a problem in their province. Their efforts to suppress the truth mean that thousands of poor villagers infected with the disease through selling blood to collection stations — many reportedly with links to provincial officials — have been left to die, with no effort to provide appropriate medical care or support for their orphaned children. Dr. Gao Yaojie has refused to accept this cover-up, recognizing that ignoring the wide spread of HIV in Henan will only allow the disease to reach epidemic proportions there. For her pains, she has received death threats.

Dr. Gao’s experience is an illustration of the risks faced by those acting as advocates for people who seek to assert their rights in the face of powerful opponents, or who have suffered from abuses of power. As Human Rights in China’s report on the implementation of the Criminal Procedure Law shows, in many ways the role of lawyers seeking to defend clients against criminal charges has become more difficult in recent years. Lawyers who work hard for their clients may even find themselves in the dock as a result.

This reality is not an encouraging sign for the development of the rule of law in the PRC. Tolerance toward criticism and opposing viewpoints is crucial if individual rights are to be properly protected, whether in the courts, or in society. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has demonstrated little such tolerance in recent months, with the detentions of Chinese-born scholars resident overseas being only one example.

Attempting to control an increasingly diverse society with growing links to the outside world using such heavy-handed tactics is bound to fail. As the articles in this issue show, enforcing conformity leads only to tension and violence. Diversity, pluralism and tolerance are not only essential to the fight against racism, they are also the keys to developing a more stable social and political environment.

Sophia Woodman

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