Equal Rights for All Ethnic Groups

By Mahika Ming | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 21 2021
FT Equal Rights for All Ethnic Groups

By Mahika Ming

The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) issued a White Paper (WP) last week related to the protection of the equal rights of all ethnic groups in its Northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

A WP (or a white book) is a document or a set of instructions which informs a reader (the public) about a government’s vision on a topic or policy preferences generally before new laws are introduced. WPs are an important tool in ‘participatory governance’ and while presenting the Government’s policy it also invites new ideas for discussion. 

The Churchill WP presented to the British Parliament in the early 1920s was one of the first documents with the term WP, which actually refers to the colour of the cover page of the document. Then Minister of Education Ranil Wickremesinghe presented a WP on Education in the late 1970s. All those who protested it then later took the lead to implement what Ranil proposed in the decades that followed.

 PRC’s latest WP focuses on “Respecting and Protecting the Rights of All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang” and discusses in detail about the; Civil Rights, Political Rights, Economic Rights, Cultural Rights, Social Rights, Rights of Women and Children, and the freedom of religious belief. Xinjiang in Northern China has been home to various ethnic groups for thousands of years. 

Those who migrated east during the Persian Empire in 600 BC also settled in these parts of Great China. In 60 BC, the Western Han Dynasty established the Western Command formally incorporating Xinjiang territory into Great China. Before the PRC took control in 1949 the masses in Xinjiang suffered oppression from the imperialist forces, feudal exploiting class and the privileged religious hierarchy as in Tibet (Ref Chinese sources).

 Being at the base of the social pyramid, people in Xinjiang were deprived of basic human rights. In the 1950s, the PRC established the system of regional ethnic autonomy in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. It was in 1955 the PRC established the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to guarantee the democratic rights of the people in Xinjiang and making them masters of their affairs.

 A few key points of the WP are discussed below (Ref Chinese sources). By analysing the WP, Sri Lankans can learn more about promoting human rights and ethnic harmony whilst focusing on long-term economic development.

 Civil Rights

 All ethnic groups living in the PRC enjoy equality. Every individual irrespective of ethnicity, gender, occupation, level of education, and religious belief, share the civil rights as per the Constitution. At the time when Sri Lanka experienced Sinhala-Muslim issues in 2013-14, there were instances of terrorist elements within China and outside claiming to be fighting for ‘East Turkistan.’ According to PRC sources, these elements have been spreading religious extremism misusing people's ethnic and religious feelings, thus inciting hatred and discrimination. 

This resulted in the deaths of many unarmed people and Police Officers. To counter that, Xinjiang enforced two main regulations within China’s Constitution and the legal framework. They were to implement the CounterTerrorism Law and to enforce regulations on deradicalisation. The process has resulted in preventive counter-terrorism measures, including the establishment of vocational education and training centres. 

As a result, for more than four years (since December 2016) there have been no terrorist incidents in Xinjiang. Extremists as we know regard those who do not follow their practices as ‘infidels’ and thus, insinuate extremism into people's lives. As per PRC sources, such practices include; forcing women to wear burqas and men to wear long beards. 

They also try to persuade people not to; watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers, cry at funerals, laugh at weddings and forbid them to sing or dance. They also abuse the halal concept to interfere with people's right to choose. It was common to see many international Media criticising such practices in the Middle East, but they seem to be silent on criticising such practices happening in Xinjiang. 

To protect civil liberties, Xinjiang has taken firm steps to fight extremism within the Constitution, legal system and other regulations. For this, they have used education campaigns on the rule of law to safeguard the right to personal liberty. Xinjiang is making all possible attempts to use radio, television, newspapers, magazines, Internet infrastructure and online platforms for citizens to enjoy the right to freedom of expression in easy and diverse ways. Sri Lankans once tested strengthening ethnic harmony by burning the libraries used by minority children. 

This WP talks about giving free books and other publications across the region, renovating cultural centres and libraries and building public databases for cultural resources sharing. Sri Lankans can study how the Chinese do it, who tried it in Sri Lanka and the impact it made etc. As we know, impartiality is the lifeline of the rule of law and Xinjiang’s judicial organs as per WP always promote social fairness and justice. Providing the public with better access to litigation is another key feature. 

74 Circuit Courts and 103 Fengqiao style Courts have also been established (Fengqiao Town community in Zhejiang created the Fengqiao practice in 1960s, which is basically solving problems within the situation rather than sending the problem to Higher Courts/authorities). It is similar to the Samatha Mandala concept introduced during President Premadasa’s term. The practice has evolved over the years and is now a model for promoting community governance and social harmony. 

China being a country with 5G and 6G technology has also introduced tech tools such as; mobile eCourt, cloud Court trial, smart enforcement of Court rulings, filing cases online across geographical boundaries, holding remote Court sessions and mediate online, thus saving time and money when engaging in legal action. 

Right to vote and contest elections in China 

Many outside China still do not believe that the above is actually happening in China. As per the Constitution and law, Chinese people of any ethnic origin have the right to vote and contest elections. As in the rest of the democratic world, the basic principles in elections are universal suffrage and equality. Chinese law states that in elections for national and local people's congresses, the number of candidates for election must exceed the number of posts available. A main criticism against the PRC is the right to reproduce. 

According to the PRC Constitution and relevant laws, reproductive rights of all citizens are protected. Law also says that husband and wife have the duty to practice family planning. It is a basic national policy which focuses on reproductive health, prenatal, postnatal and earlylife care which has a direct impact on gender equality, women's empowerment, poverty reduction, and even sustainable development as per Chinese State sources. Unlike in other countries, family planning schemes in the PRC gradually extended from coastal, inland, border regions, urban and rural areas etc. 

Freedom of religious belief

 Chinese Buddhist monks travelled thousands of miles to India and Sri Lanka in search of Buddhism. Islam reached China through the ancient Silk Road. Hinduism also travelled to China through the borders. Christianity arrived in China through Western colonizers and various other ways. This WP very clearly indicates that freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by law in the PRC. 

Those who criticise the Chinese Communist Party do try to indicate that freedom of religion is banned in China, but lawful religious practices are actually well protected in China as per WP. There are many religions in Xinjiang, including Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity which came with the influence of the Russians who occupied parts of China. 

Unlike in many known countries, the system of Public Administration does not get involved in any religion which can be seen similar to the practice in India during the time when the Buddha was alive. Activities such as; attending religious services, worshipping Buddha, attending Mass, praying, reciting scriptures are managed by religious groups and believers. Such activities are protected by law, no organisation or individual has the power to interfere with them .

About the writer: The writer is an analyst with interests in the financial and sustainable development sectors, with postgraduate exposure in the Far East. Email: [email protected] gmail.com. 

By Mahika Ming | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 21 2021

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