There are a lot of discussions, including some in China, about Chinese government policies concerning ethnic minorities. The extraordinary Gongmeng report on the failure of these policies in Tibet and the early-July demonstrations of Uighurs in Xinjiang have brought new and deserved attention to the autonomy structures in these regions. It is increasingly evident that the crisis situations in Tibet and Xinjiang are, above all, the results of long-festering problems related to Chinese misrule of distinct peoples, and scholars and activists debate whether the implementation of genuine autonomy is even possible within the current Chinese state and its Communist Party structure. Recently, the envoys of the Dalai Lama were criticized by an American academic as “functionally illiterate” for allegedly misconstruing the promise of dialogue with Chinese officials on autonomy for Tibetans, and a Chinese scholar proposed that autonomy laws be abolished altogether in favor of assimilating minorities into the national Chinese culture.
Tibetans bristle at being referred to as an ethnic minority of China, even though it is true that Tibetans, as a distinct ethnic people, are a minority in relation to the Chinese who make up 90 percent of the population of the People’s Republic of China. This sensitivity to nomenclature among Tibetans is rooted in the complex issues of culture, religion and national identity, race and history. Few Tibetans make any claim on the five thousand glorious years of Chinese cultural history about which the Chinese wax poetically.
Tibetans are indigenous to a geographic area roughly analogous to the Tibetan plateau, and they continue to live primarily within those boundaries. Would then a discussion of regional autonomy based on the principles of indigenous rights, rather than minorities’ rights, be a significantly different discussion? For example, as indigenous people, Tibetans are not an ethnic minority agitating for special distinction within the majority population; they are an indigenous people struggling for the actualization of their internationally recognized rights, including self-determination, within the boundaries of an historic homeland.
This switch from Tibetans as an ethnic minority to an indigenous people would threaten the basic tenet of China’s official storyline on Tibet—its claim that Tibet has always been a part of China. Moreover, as a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the People’s Republic of China is pledged to honor its commitment to the rights of indigenous people. Consider the following articles:
Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the State.
1. Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.
2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
(d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration;
(e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.
While the full implications of a new approach must be determined by the stakeholders in the future of Tibet (i.e., the Tibetan people), it is clear that there is more to the issue of autonomy than minority rights.