Dec 19, 2006

Canada: China's Muse on Ethnic Issue

At a conference "social inclusion" in Beijing recently, Chinese academics and government officials have been collaborating with Canadian scholars to study a range of Canadian social policies that could have lessons for China.

BEIJING -- Faced with mounting inequality and rising street protests, China is turning to Canada as a source of ideas on how to defuse ethnic conflicts and build a social safety net.

At a conference in Beijing recently, Chinese academics and government officials have been collaborating with Canadian scholars to study a range of Canadian social policies that could have lessons for China.

The conference on "social inclusion" is the latest sign of China's anxieties about the country's skyrocketing social discord.

Street protests and other "mass incidents" -- including riots, strikes and violent rural standoffs with angry peasants -- have exploded in China in recent years, reaching a reported total of 87,000 last year, compared with fewer than 9,000 in the early 1990s.

At the Beijing conference, Chinese participants struggling with those problems are looking for help in Canada's immigration and aboriginal policies, social and environmental programs, education and health systems, fiscal federalism and even its religious diversity and bilingualism.

"Canada and China are both multiethnic countries and Canadian policy has a strong influence on the world," Chinese official Gao Quanli told the conference on its opening day.

Hao Shiyuan, a senior member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China needs to recognize that its ethnic and cultural diversity is "a great resource" for its future. "Cultural diversity is not a reason for conflict, it's the basis of our peace," he told the conference.

Under its latest official strategy, China is vowing to build a "harmonious society," a more inclusive and tolerant regime.

Instead of brutally suppressing every protest, the government wants to recognize the legitimacy of some of them.

"China faces challenges in which discordant and conflicting voices can be heard, and this calls for careful study," Mr. Gao said.

Wang Bing, vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies in China, said there is plenty for China to learn from Canada.

"We share lots of similarities in ethnic issues, and we can learn a lot from Canada's multiculturalism policy," he said in an interview.

"We have similar problems, including ethnic nationalism and conflicts. We need to maintain social stability, and that means dealing with ethnic people and treating them fairly.

"In those areas, I think Canada is doing much better. It could give us a lesson in how to avoid the problems."

Yan Hao, a senior researcher at a Chinese central planning agency, believes that Canada's bilingualism policies could be a model for China's minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

"Officially we have a bilingual requirement in those regions, but in practice the people don't care enough about it," he said in an interview.

He recalled being on an airplane in Xinjiang where the announcements were in Chinese and English -- ignoring the language of the Uyghurs, the traditional people of Xinjiang.

"A lot of the passengers were Uighur people, and there weren't any foreigners on board, and yet the announcements were in English instead of Uighur. If I had been a Uighur, I would have been disappointed. Most of the policy makers are [the majority] Han Chinese and they are not sensitive enough on these points."

The Canadian scholars, meanwhile, were hoping to deliver a diplomatic message about the need for dialogue and tolerance, rather than repression, in society.

Others, however, held out little hope that China's top decision makers would get the message.

"Most of this audience has traveled abroad and many of them have lived in Canada and they probably know exactly what's going on outside," said Bernard Frolic, a York University expert on Canada-China relations.

"But they have limited power to affect policy in China."