Cultures, Religions & Universal Values


Cultural and Religious Identities Are Allies of Democracy

Opening Remarks at the Sixth Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conference

By: YANG Jianli

(April 30,2011, Los Angeles, USA)

Distinguished Guests, My Dear Brothers and Sisters:

A good day to you. I warmly welcome you to the Sixth Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conference.

This Conference was begun in 2000 to facilitate communication between young leaders and members of different ethnicities, religions and regions. We strive to build friendships, to eliminate biases and to foster compromise.  Our goal is to better understand one another, so that together we can form an alliance to promote human rights for us all as individuals and to defend each other’s cultural, religious, ethnic and regional identities.

The young leaders present today bring with them distinct identities. We have leaders of different ethnic, cultural, religious, and political backgrounds, which are links to their regions and their peoples, and their past, present and future. Each represents a different way of searching for a more meaningful life.  The authoritarian Chinese government perceives these different identities as threats to its political power. It subjects them to systematic persecution, and seeks to eradicate them. Authoritarian governments prefer a homogeneous society, because it is easier to control. They fear individuality. They fear different cultures. All of you present here know what I speak of, because you represent groups trying to extricate themselves from the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule or threat. At the same time, you seek ways of living harmoniously with one another. But how can such a diverse group, with so many different ideas and customs, live together in peace? My answer is, without hesitation, democracy:  identities are allies of democracy and democracy is the ultimate safeguard of identities.

However, not everyone has confidence in this solution. Some do not believe that people of such distinctive identities can become allies for anything good. When we turn on the television, read a newspaper, or surf the Internet, we see stories full of discrimination, mutual suspicion, and deadly conflict, all due to different identities. This causes many to think that different identities are enemies to democracy and peace, that different identities coming in contact with each other will always bring conflict. This also leads some scholars to hasty conclusions like the now famous concept of  “the clash of civilizations.” However, if we carefully analyze ethnic and religious conflicts, we discover that these conflicts are in fact not conflicts between civilizations. Instead, they are conflicts between authoritarianism and democracy, or, by two autocratic despots either within the border of a country or on an international level.  There are never such clashes between democracies. If this is not so, why are there no conflicts between democratic countries based on differing Christian, Judaic, Buddhist and Islamic faiths?   While the authoritarian government of China violently annihilates the cultural identities of the Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongolian ethnic groups and religious groups such as the Christians and Falun Gong, numerous ethnic and religious groups live in harmony in democratic India.

We all know wealth needs protection, be it material or spiritual.

Almost every person wishes to own private property, and hopes that this property will be protected. The best protection for private property humankind has found is the market economy with the rule of law. Those who enjoy private property rights are the most avid supporters of such a system, and are those who pursue it where it does not exist. Similarly, almost everyone needs a sense of belonging. Everyone needs a cultural life or even a religious life. This is one’s personal spiritual wealth. Just like material property, spiritual wealth must be protected. Thus far, the best protection system for spiritual wealth that humankind has found is democracy. Those with strong identities—-more spiritual wealth, so to speak, are like those with large amounts of private property, and require the same legal protection a market economy affords property. For this reason, people with a lot of spiritual wealth are firm supporters of democracy. Under an authoritarian regime, these people are the unwavering protesters against tyranny, and staunch pursuers of democracy. The Tibetans, Uyghurs, Monoglians, Christians and Falun Gong practitioners’ stories aptly prove this point. The democratic revolution in the Muslim countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, as well as the rising democratic movement in Iran and Syria, illustrates that mankind’s pursuit of the universal values is indeed universal.

Not only does the spiritual wealth require democratic protection, it is also the impetus for the healthy development of democracy. A market economy with its rule of law makes the material free market a possibility. Democracy makes the non-material free market – of spiritual, cultural and thought–a possibility. Ethnicity, culture and religion are suppliers and shops of such a free market. Different identities greatly add to the richness of society’s thoughts and culture. They also enhance humankind’s creativity. Even for one immune and desensitized, an encounter with different cultures can sometimes cause awakening, thereby enriching and nourishing life. Distinct identities are essential to the continuation, transmission and reinvention of human civilization.

Of course, even under democracy, distinct identities can sometimes cause division and conflict. However, democracy is uniquely suited to allow the free exchange of opinions between different groups. Indeed, the risk of conflict is reduced once there is a deliberative democratic body in place.

Even when there is conflict, mankind can learn from it. America offers us an example of this. After the founding of the United States, American-Indians, African-Americans, women, homosexuals, and other groups were marginalized. However, a democratic society provided the solution to the issues facing these groups. New discussions were introduced. New laws were passed, and now new rights are in place to protect these groups.

People of different identities should be allies. They should form relationships to lift each other up. At this conference, we shall move forward with this in mind. It should give us the confidence to discuss ethnic issues. We will not avoid any issue. Whether the issue is pursuing democracy or urging the protection of different identities, we have a common end: to eliminate the need for mutual suspicion and military conflict. Instead, we will focus on increasing our own autonomy by increasing the rights of different groups. By lifting our fellow man up, we lift ourselves up as well. Just as in previous conferences, we will hear about and be able to learn from experiences beyond our own. Our discussion may not necessarily find us of the same mind – indeed, sometimes there may even be heated debate. But the collision of these differences in opinion will cause us to be more inclusive, more open-minded: in a word, wiser. We will find the impetus for thoughtful creativity from others attending this conference. We will learn through mutual respect, mutual compromise, and mutual support. In the name of democracy, let us unite for the protection of different identities, and work together towards democracy for the bright future of every group. This is my intention and I believe it is also yours.

Thank you, everyone.