Identity politics hamper progress

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Identity politics hamper progress


Curtis S. Chin

SINGAPORE - With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the midst of a trip to Myanmar, Australia and the Solomon Islands, how fitting it would be if his return visit to Asia, on behalf of America’s first African-American president, also underscored the need for the region, including China, to move beyond stereotypes. This is critical if the region is to move forward toward greater peace and prosperity.

From China, with its large Uighur and Tibetan populations, to Myanmar, also known as Burma, with more than 130 distinct ethnic groups - Asia is facing growing protests and unrest among minority communities who feel poorly served by national government policies and attitudes. Use of ethnicity, race or religion to divide or define citizens should have no place in the Asia of today, whether in giant India under newly elected Prime Minister Nahendra Modi or the smallest Pacific island nation.

Each of Kerry’s destinations has had its share of race-based controversy, religious antipathy or identity-based politics. In Australia, the debate continues over the government’s contentious policy of stopping would-be asylum seekers at sea and then housing - some might say detaining - them at “processing facilities” on the remote island of Nauru or on Papua New Guinea. The Solomon Islands remain plagued by tensions stemming partly from polarized “Malaitan” and “Guadalcanal” identities.

And, of course, there is Myanmar, where the persecution of a Muslim minority, who call themselves the Rohingya - a term and identity unrecognized by the government - continues. Tensions also remain high between the nominally civilian and predominantly ethnic Bamar government and the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, among others, who long for greater freedom and autonomy.

Strikingly, Kerry is also the first in a long while to fulfil the traditional stereotype of America’s top diplomat - that of a distinguished, white male statesman. Throughout most of the two previous decades, America’s secretaries of state have included a white woman (Clinton), two African-Americans (Rice and Powell) and a Jewish-American woman (Albright), dating back to January 1997. One can only imagine an ethnic Tibetan serving as China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs or a Muslim from the Rakhine state becoming Myanmar’s next top diplomat.

Whether speaking of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma or of religious minorities being attacked by ISIS in Iraq, Kerry should make clear that America’s values stand strong. A rebalanced pivot to Asia should include support for efforts not just to drive business growth but also to call out and end government actions that are defined by the dividing politics of race, religion and ethnicity in Asia and the Pacific. I am reminded of the derogatory words coming from China this February as U.S. ambassador Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American to serve as the top U.S. envoy to China, prepared to depart the country. At that time, a major Chinese government news service issued an opinion piece, “Farewell, Gary Locke,” calling the third-generation descendant of Chinese immigrants a “banana.” That term is used by some Chinese to describe Asians who identify too closely with supposedly “Western values” (such as freedom of speech and religion, and a Western concept of “human rights”) despite their skin color.

In essence, this means “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” (I should know - having served as the fourth U.S. ambassador of Chinese heritage, and pressed for reforms at the Asian Development Bank, I have been called one, too.)

“But when a banana sits out for long, its yellow peel will always rot, not only revealing its white core but also turning into the stomach-churning color of black,” read the China News Service commentary apparently modeled after Mao Zedong’s 1949 piece, “Farewell, Leighton Stewart,” written at the departure of the last U.S. Ambassador to the rival Nationalist Chinese government in Nanjing.

Respect for culture and heritage, it seems, was not enough for the state-run China News Service. With such an attitude, however, it is understandable that some Tibetans, Uighurs or any of its other “recognized minorities” or members of “unrecognized religions” would feel uncomfortable and never regard themselves as full Chinese citizens, if they are constantly viewed by authorities and fellow citizens as targets of suspicion simply because of their ethnicity or religion.

The sentiments voiced in the anti-Locke editorial also do little to help the tens of millions of ethnic Chinese around the world who are proud citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Brazil or elsewhere. To the contrary, it may well reinforce suspicions and a lack of trust in ethnic Chinese amidst China’s rise.

It is time for Asia to move beyond a nationalism that is narrowly defined by ethnicity, religion or any of the many other ways to divide a people and a continent. Should such narrow nationalism continue, Asia may well face a future that harkens back to the wars and divisions of the last century - and to the hit U.S. television series and Game of Thrones novels of contending kingdoms - than to one of extended peace and prosperity. That’s sad for all of us.

One lesson from America’s own struggles with race and racism is that sustained business and economic growth should leverage every individual’s abilities - whether to succeed or to fail - regardless of background, ethnicity, race or religion. That’s clearly a battle still being fought in America, and it certainly remains the case in many parts of Asia, given recent headlines from Burma and elsewhere.

Sectarianism has now joined what I call the “little bric” of bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption that too often hold up economic progress and development.

The U.S. Secretary of State can do his part to bring attention to this present constraint to growth in Asia and the Pacific, but so can every citizen.

* The author, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, is the managing director of the advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin

BY Curtis S. Chin

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