Uyghurs versus Tibetans, same story different sympathies
Sanne van Oosten
People in the West can be extremely emotional when it comes to Tibet. Their civilization is being diluted to extinction and there is nothing that can be done about it. But the Tibetans aren’t the only ones facing the same fate in the hands of the Chinese. The Uyghur minority based mostly in the Western frontier of Xinjiang province are experiencing the same thing. Still, you’ll never see any Westerners take to the streets to stand up for their woeful fate. Same story, different people? Not really. Try this one. Same story, different sympathies.
Both Uyghurs and Tibetans being repressed by the dominant Han Chinese. The active policy of the government is to dilute the culture of both the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. Han Chinese are encouraged to migrate to Tibet and Xinjiang province, making the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities in their respective provinces as well as minorities in their respective countries. Both minorities are subjected to high amounts of security and police: checkpoints are daily occurrences for the Tibetans and Uyghurs. Officially they are checkpoints for all inhabitants of these provinces, but only the Uyghurs and Tibetans are really thoroughly checked and arbitrarily held back whenever the guards feel like it. The cities of both Xinjiang and Tibet province are mostly inhabited by Han Chinese, whereas the countryside is the territory of the minorities, making access to high paid jobs more difficult to obtain for the minorities, whilst the dominant majority grows and grows whilst consisting of Han Chinese.
Some people argue that the Western sympathy towards the Tibetans has everything to do with China’s rise as a global power. Because China is becoming more and more of a threat towards the global hegemony of the West, the West is scrambling to make up reasons why this superpower isn’t all that great anyway. China might exceed the West in economic power, but it the West remains the best of the world when it comes to morality. That is why so many Western diplomats need to walk the tightrope when it comes to Tibet. They know the people of the countries they represent are mostly in favor of Tibet, but they also don’t want to insult economic superpower China.
When it comes to the comparison between the Uyghurs and the Tibetan people, is it really same story, different people? Hardly. Same story, different sympathies is more like it. But why are the sympathies so different? Why do Westerners actively take to the streets and hang up Tibetan prayer flags whilst they don’t do the same for the Uyghurs? Of course it has everything to do with a few distinct differences. The Tibetans have good ole’ jolly Dalai Lama. The friendliest political figure who travels all over the world to make a case for his people while leaving the people he meets behind inspired to do the right thing in the world. Without the Dalai Lama, hardly as many people would care about the Tibetans.
But there is more to it, without Buddhism the Dalai Lama wouldn’t be as inspirational as he is now. Buddhism is highly respected throughout the West as a peaceful answer to today’s societal difficulties, be it in international relations or daily life. Buddhism resonates with the contemporary Western ideas of compassion and finding inner peace. This only adds to the appeal of the Tibetan people.
But what about the Uyghurs? They aren’t Buddhist but… wait for it… hold on tight…. MUSLIM. Wait a second? Weren’t those the people who flew those planes in the twin towers? Muslims command much less respect in the West. Even though there are quite a few people who don’t foster truly negative feelings towards Muslims the world over, most people do not foster the same warm feelings Buddhism receives. Seeing the positive side of Muslims is much more difficult for Westerners as they are taught to associate it with vivid concepts such as Bin Laden, female oppression, violence and of course, last but not least, planes crashing into twin towers on that date I needn’t mention.
Next time I hear people passionately speaking about the fate of the Tibetan people and how the Chinese are crushing their culture, I will think of this: What about the Uyghurs? Is their situation any less woeful due to the difference in religion and lack of jolly advocate traveling the world?