This is a communication that I think will interest others beyond me.
My Family Story, Tibet's Future
Behind today's headlines about China, Tibet, and Olympic flames is a complex mix of history and identities. This is why so many Chinese people find recent Western reactions over Tibet puzzling because they are such an over-simplification. The story of my own family helps partly convey what media sound bites and protest slogans cannot capture.
My hometown of Sichuan province is close to Tibet and Xinjiang, the two restive ethnic provinces in China. More than geography, they are close to me because of family connections - through three aunts, all sisters of my mother.
In 1968, when one of them was graduating from college, she and her fiancé faced two job prospects: be assigned to good but potentially separate locations, or volunteer service together in a hardship minority region. They went together to Aba, a Tibetan autonomous region and one of the sites of recent unrest. They taught English to Tibetan students for the next 25 years. A decade before them, another aunt faced the same choices. She and her fiancé chose Hetian, a town in Muslim Xinjiang and another restive site in recent years. They taught agricultural sciences to Uygur and other Muslim students for the next 35 years. Over the years, they also brought my third aunt and other relatives from the Sichuan countryside to Xinjiang, for economic and personal opportunities.
They had no strong motives to stay permanently, being unaccustomed to the harsh local climate and living conditions. As soon as job mobility became possible in the early 1980s, my college-educated aunts and their families moved out. By then, long-term personal sacrifices were too apparent. Their kids had poor schooling and had difficulty adapting to more competitive Chinese environments. They did not qualify for admissions quotas for minorities. I have found these cousins' simple ways refreshing but worrying and funny at times. The contrast with my cousins in urban Sichuan and the coastal East is sharp. The latter group boasts successful entrepreneurs, professionals and CEOs. They owe cars and nice homes, and some even villas and mansions.
One Xinjiang cousin moved back, joining new groups of Chinese who move freely on their own to the less developed Xinjiang and Tibet for expanding opportunities there. Other non-college educated relatives have remained. Beijing's western development programs have entailed dilemmas. Without them, Beijing would be blamed for regional inequality. With them, Beijing is seen as encroaching upon minority resources. For my relatives who knew those regions, progress improves life for everyone.
Perception gaps thus strike me as a key source of disputes over China's development policies in Tibet. Here in the West, I hear accusations of Beijing sponsored Han expansion into Uygur and Tibetan regions. From my aunts' perspective, their service helped terribly underdeveloped regions. They taught students who were the first generation to have any schooling, let alone college education. From my cousins I see differences in world views, study and work attitudes, and job skills. Although ethnically Han Chinese, their growing up in less developed regions has made them just as likely less competitive as the minorities of those regions.
Ethnic sensitivities constitute another source of tension I have experienced. On my Beijing campus, Tibetan students lived in dorm rooms next to mine. Family experience drew me to them. I even took on one as a little brother. Still I did not eat the sun-dried but uncooked yak meat they offered me. Their explanation of celestial burials made me twinge. There were other things like this that I knew hurt them cumulatively. I can only wonder how the current wave of Chinese migrants, less educated than myself, would handle different customary practices. Moreover, unlike earlier professionals, new migrants came to eke out a life from the bottom. Offenses that would be normally taken on a personal level take on ethnic tones in such a context.
These Chinese are generally doing better economically, and this is a major source of ethnic tensions in both regions. But economic progress does not just divide the Han and locals but also the locals themselves. In Tibet, the monastery is no longer the sole ladder to social and economic status. Modernization has expanded opportunities for ordinary Tibetans, such as the children of my aunt's former students. The decline of their historically high status has created disaffection among today's Tibetan monks, becoming a key source of social agitation in recent times. Economic change is also leaving behind Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India, where the second generation of refugees forms a ferment source of recent restiveness and protesters.
Nationalistic education, which is often blamed on China's government in the West, has come foremost for me from family experiences. British opium ruined many male members of the extended family and drained generations of family wealth. Japanese bombings destroyed family businesses. One uncle died fighting the Japanese invasion. Such family histories, reinforced by emotional history classes on Western imperialism in modern China, do ingrain in my relatives a sense of righteousness when defending typical Chinese positions that China would not have briefly lost Tibet in the early 20th century if not for British meddling. Any talk of an Olympics boycott is seen by them as another instance of Western meddlesomeness and self-righteousness.
They are not all simple nationalists. They are incensed by the alleged use of doctored and mistaken footages in Western media reports of Tibetan unrest, through Youtube clips made in the West. But many also realize the real lesson of the contentious reporting: media restrictions hamper truth finding while media freedom can be good for China. If the Youtube remained banned, they could not have had access to the alleged media distortions in the first place.
The melting pot that is my extended family represents hope for a healthy multiethnic China. I was disparaging Mongolian conquests, which by the way brought China and Tibet together in the 13th century, at one family gathering when I learned that some cousins traced their lineage to Mongolian tribes that first conquered China in the 12th century. It was hard to associate those wealthy and well suited cousins with nomads on the prairies. But it gives me confidence that Tibetans and Uygurs will be here too, sooner.
Yan Sun is Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, Queens College and the Graduate Center. She received her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University in 1993 and has lived in the U.S. since 1985. She has 19 first-cousins in China.