Over at the blog Chinageeks, the proprietor, C. Custer, takes a skeptical view, to put it mildly, of Tibetan independence and the Free Tibet movement. In part of a response to a comment on his post about a Free Tibet concert in Taiwan, Custer writes, “What about other ethnic minorities, shouldn’t they get countries too?” I wanted to highlight this because it’s a line I hear pretty frequently, often in the form of “China has 55 ethnic minority peoples — they can’t all become independent (or have home rule), can they?” (As an aside, I’d like to point out that there are more than 56 ethnic groups in China. The Utsuls of Hainan, for instance, are not counted in that total. The Lhobas and Monpas of Tibet are counted as separate ethnic groups, but Sherpas are not, for arbitrary reasons. Some Mongol-related groups are counted separately, and others are just counted as Mongols, again arbitrarily. The idea that you can apply a fixed number to the ethnic diversity of a huge reason is silly, and smacks vaguely of Orientalism).
Back to topic, the implication of “What about the other 55 ethnic groups?” seems to be that there is special pleading going on in favor of Tibet. No. It’s not special pleading to notice the differences between things that are different. In fact, Tibet is sui generis. It’s kind of weird to not notice how different the Tibetans’ situation is. It’s obvious that Chinageeks Custer is well-intentioned, but it’s hard not to wonder about the intentions or willingness to notice facts of some of the other people who use this argument. Tibetans historically constitute a fairly cohesive people numbering in the millions who live on a large area of land. And this is not just a fact gotten out of a history book, as in the case of Manchuria or Inner Mongolia, it’s a living fact on the ground: Tibetans still heavily predominate in Tibet (I estimate about 20% of the PRC’s land area is inhabited by Tibetans — a few of the outlying areas of traditional Tibet have become majority-Han). A large part of the Tibetan area was ruled by a central government (having the additional legitimacy of being based in Lhasa, Tibet’s ancient political and cultural center) that was established before the Qing dynasty, was recognised by and incorporated into the Qing, and then continued without interruption after the fall of the Qing until it was eventually destroyed by force. Prior to the creation of the PRC, Tibet was an independent state by any standard other than international recognition; and it had limited international relations with Nepal and the British Empire, as well as informal contacts with Japan. Tibet has its own independent literary tradition, going back more than 1,000 years, and has made major contributions to world culture. Tibetans from Ngari to Labrang go to prison for flying the same banned flag.
For most of the 56+ ethnic groups living in the PRC, one couldn’t say the same on any of those points (and it’s not an exhaustive list). Some of them are similar in some respects, but not in others. The Uyghurs, so much in the news lately, have the next best case to be made, and yet, even for them, there is considerably more ambiguity. For instance, while Tibet was de facto independent during the Chinese Republican period, Uyghur independence was tenuous and lasted only for a little over a year. Before and after, Xinjiang was dominated by non-Uyghur warlords affiliated alternately with the Kuomintang and with the Soviet Union (the Second East Turkestan Republic was a Soviet puppet state). Meanwhile, Tibet was pursuing an alliance with the British, and after the 13th Dalai Lama’s death there were elements in the government that were moving closer to Nationalist China, but Tibet was nobody’s puppet. Another difference is that there has been a lot of movement of peoples around Xinjiang in the several few hundred years, with the result that there are more different groups mingled and scattered across the area (which is also true of some of the Tibetan border areas, but on a smaller scale). People say that these other groups don’t look favorably on the prospect of being ruled by the Uyghurs. Whether it’s true that they actually prefer being part of China, I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I want to be clear that I would be happy to see an independent or autonomous Uyghur country in part of Xinjiang, but we still need to be able to look at the historical and current facts clearly.
When I say that certain facts obtain with the regard to Tibet, and not for other minority peoples in China, that certainly doesn’t mean that the others are less worthy of rights or should be ignored. The concept of human rights holds that all individuals deserve certain rights regardless of their circumstances. Yet, groups of people are treated quite differently from each other in terms of political rights. This is, I suppose, because having a sovereign state for each ethnic group, even when their populations number in the thousands, would make the international state system, which is currently ascendant, untenable. Looking at Tibet in its historical and current context, it looks like a nation. If the Tibetans are not entitled by right to their self-determination, who is? What self-determination is left?