“What about the other 55?”

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?

4 thoughts on ““What about the other 55?”

  1. Interesting post; just wanted to note I think you’re taking what I said a little out of context. What we were talking about is why Westerners are interested in Tibet specifically rather than other China issues, and that question was one of several rhetorical ones meant to emphasize my point. Obviously Tibet’s situation is different — but do all the people at that concert, for example, really know why? Have they even looked into any of the other issues? Taiwanese, of course, are probably more familiar with it than Americans, but I’d bet you at least one in three American ‘Free Tibeters’ would just blink at you if you asked them what they thought about Uighurs, for example.

    I also have a genuine question about the so-called right to self-determination, because I’ve never fully understood it. So, ethnic peoples are entitled to self-determination? Or are they only entitled to that when historically they have had their own nation in the past? What about Tibetans in Sichuan, etc., do they forfeit that right, or should China also forfeit those territories? If so, what about the ethnic Han who live there, do they have a right to self-determination? What if a “people” don’t agree on what they want (i.e. some Tibetans prefer to remain a part of China but with much greater political autonomy, some prefer to reinstate the Dalai Lama, some prefer neither..) How is it, exactly, that one becomes a “people” with the right to self-determination? Obviously, individuals don’t have that right — even in America, I can vote, but if I dislike the government I’m not entitled to form my own nation-state, am I? — but how do you define the group? Tibetans ethnically? Tibetans geographically? What about half-Han half-Tibetans? What about 1/4?

    It just stikes me that there are a LOT of sticking points. Those may seem like a lot of leading questions, but I’m genuinely not trying to imply any particular conclusion, just wondering if you can explain it to me convincingly.

    It’s also probably worth noting that even if you consider Tibet to have been an independent nation in the past — and you certainly can, depending on how you define “nation” anyway — it certainly wasn’t a self-determined form of government. The Dalai Lama was not elected, and common Tibetans had absolutely no say whatsoever in the administration of their own country.

    Another honest question: What percentage of the population of Tibet is buddhist monks? What percentage of the ethnic Tibetan population? What, if anything, do you make of the fact that (at least it seems) protests, etc., in Tibet nearly always start with monks rather than commoners?

  2. ready

    I read somewhere that between 5-10 of these 55 minorities are actually Tibetans or peoples that are very close to Tibetan language/culture sphere.

  3. Billy Jack Douthwright

    I first have to note that C. Custer’s statement that Tibet “certainly wasn’t a self-determined form of government”, would be incorrect since even if Tibet’s governing institution(s) were un-elected and could be viewed historically as an autocratic form of governance, it was still a self-determining government, and what matters historically is that Tibet is not considered to have been a part of China, it engaged with China on a nation to nation basis, has its own flag, etc., which makes the PRC invasion and occupation illegal.
    To cut right to the chase in consideration of the questions of what defines a ‘nation’ and what rights to self-determination ethnic groups are entitled too, is that all ethnic groups are entitled to sovereign nation status within the world community and their historical land base is the method to establish their sovereignties, and I am glad you bring attention to the likely-hood of their being far more than 56 distinct ethnicities within the region we are referring to as circumscribed by the PRC political entity=not nation!

  4. Terry Chen

    Why not ask the native americans the same question? Or the people native to Hawaii and eskimos in alaska?

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