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June 2, 2004

Medieval Theocracy vs. Market Socialism

by Sascha Matuszak

Beijing's main aim with the release of the white paper on Tibet entitled "Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet" was to make the parameters of any future talks extremely clear to all Tibetans, especially the Dalai Lama.

What the white paper also did was define the two separate views of what Tibet is and should be – according to a modernist perspective: a "medieval theocracy" on the one hand, and "market socialism" on the other. As with most issues in China, the government tends to point to the rising per capita income over the past 15 years in Tibet and Xinjiang to defend itself against human rights groups: holding poverty alleviation and economic growth as the standards by which the general well-being of a folk is measured.

In Xinjiang, vast mineral, wood, oil and gas resources make "poverty alleviation" a matter for huge companies like Sinopec and KunLun – local farmers, herders and townspeople must find ways to do business in the cities that grow around these companies' efforts. Trade with Central Asian states has huge potential – Urumqi has become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in China, with the all the nations bordering Xinjiang present, along with Taiwanese, Hong Kong businessmen, Singaporeans, mainlanders from all over and a smattering of Westerners.

But poverty alleviation is a tricky and complicated process, especially in China and even more so in one of the most remote corners of this huge country. Sichuan and Gansu are considered "The Wild West" by Shanghainese – so what is Xinjiang, separated from Gansu by miles of deserts?

Uigher, especially in the underdeveloped south, have it tough in this new modern style of deal-making. The vast majority of southern Uigher consider Kashgar their heart and soul – they are Muslim, speak, read and write Uigher (Uigher is written in an Arabic script) and learn English faster than they learn Chinese. Vast numbers of settlers from out East come in to "make the world China" and manage to get bank loans and assistance from the government – in the case of persons displaced by the Three Gorges Project, many Han show up in Kashgar with a bag full of loot and the need to start a new life.

Aside from the social difficulties of a (now) minority trying to make ends meet, the growing majority of Han settlers and foreign traders are bringing with them ideals and values that clash with traditional Uigher life, especially Islam. The locals have always adapted, although Islam condemns those who charge more than they should or demand interest; after dealing with shifty Chinese and Pakistani businessmen for a thousand plus years, the Uigher have their own techniques for wringing out a few extra pieces of silver.

The difference before, when Kashgar was the seat of kings and caravans loaded with goods and sly merchants creaked on through the deserts, was the security of the local culture and identity.

In this new, modern world identity can be the first casualty of an ethnic minority with "medieval, theocratic" traditions. Past cultures did not have to face globalization at its peak – now mass media can reach anyone, anywhere. Desert Uigher have TV sets …

Tibet, unlike Xinjiang, does not offer easy access to its equally vast stores of water, mineral and wood resources.

What Tibet does have is an already strong and growing tourism industry. People have always been fascinated by the Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas and they most likely will continue to be for the near future. Tourists, as benevolent as they might be, have a serious effect on the locals whom they record for posterity in photo albums and diaries.

This article in the China Daily shows that Beijing too has considered tourism to be a double-edged sword for regions such as Tibet. The concern of the center for the cultural identity of some herders in the middle of Tibet may be sincere, but on the ground, concern means nothing.

The Qinghai-Tibet expressway and the Sichuan-Tibet expressway are lined on both sides with noodle shops, inns, massage parlors, bars and various fix-it sheds – almost all of them run by non-Tibetans (most of these from Sichuan – anywhere in China there is a Sichuanese diaspora).

These people make a living off of tourism as much as any Tibetan sheepherder and their main goal in life is to get in on the huge white-tiled five-star glowing monster hotel under construction in their district. In Songpan, in northwestern Sichuan, the population is a healthy mix of Hui Muslims, Qiang, Tibetan and Han. All of them sell Buddhist robes, rings and charms, ivory bracelets, horse treks and whatever else tourists want.

In Jiuzhaigou, a major tourist destination and, like Songpan, once a part of Greater Tibet, the stalls have been handed over to Tibetans. The locals make their living off of bracelets and hats, while the Han run the hotels. In the small towns that lead from the Sichuan basin through the mountains into Tibet, it's a free-for-all and Tibetans, Hui and anybody else who happens to be in the area will drop their shepherd's crook, strip off their monk's robes and jump into market socialism if they have the chance.

China, and most definitely Han China, has joined hands with the U.S.A. and proclaimed the next century to be the playground of the merchant. In the past, the merchants were no less powerful vis-à-vis their neighbors, no less hated and envied by those they cheated or exploited – the difference today is the speed with which a merchant will strip you of your wealth and leave, headed along the Information Superhighway to another opportunity.

According to this writer, the growth of science fiction in China and the enormous popularity of online role-playing games and Neuromancer proves that China has urbanized and industrialized enough to begin creating science Gods. Maybe the shattering of the laws of Chinese poetry is next …

Places like Tibet and Xinjiang in China have a struggle ahead of them. As with all previous and all future countries aspiring for power beyond their own borders, China will brook no domestic dissent and will put the reins in the hands of trusted and loyal servants of the crown – this excludes most Tibetans and Uigher. And the more the world begins resembling modernity as China and the U.S.A. see it, the more power and influence the merchants gain, the less ridiculous the definition "medieval theocracy" will sound to the young people in China.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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