The New Stateman
Wednesday 19 March 2008
The last thing China wanted, in the year it is to host the Olympic Games, was the world watching its army brutally suppressing protesters.
Things are not going as planned. The emblematic images of China in 2008 were supposed to be the magnificent "Bird's Nest" sports stadium, and millions of proud Chinese applauding their country's success in hosting the Olympic Games. Instead, the world is seeing gangs of angry Tibetan rioters attacking their Han Chinese neighbours, and Buddhist monks demonstrating against Chinese rule.
Since the 1989 unrest, which centred on Tiananmen Square but spread to Tibet, any protest has been suppressed quickly and effectively. But this time, initially, the Chinese hesitated. The government knew that nothing could be worse for China's reputation in this Olympic year than Tiananmen-type images of the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army firing on Tibetan demonstrators. So it flooded the streets with armour, in the hope that intimidation would do the trick. By Monday, Beijing had moved troops and paramilitary riot police into all sensitive areas, hoping to quash protest with a show of strength.
On Tuesday, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, accused the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the unrest, saying that the protesters wanted "to incite the sabotage of the Olympic Games in order to achieve their unspeakable goal". That goal is independence for Tibet, but it is the social rather than the political motivation that has disturbed the Chinese authorities.
They have been surprised by the ferocity with which ethnic Tibetans attacked Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. These two groups have settled in Tibet in recent decades, starting up businesses and benefiting more than local people from the upturn in the Tibetan economy. Yet never before has resentment turned to such widespread violence: one eyewitness in Lhasa described the riots as "an orgy of racist violence".
The Huis, who control the meat trade and other essential commercial sectors, have long been the target of Tibetan anger. Last month, fighting broke out in Qinghai, which borders Tibet, during New Year celebrations. The point of contention was, apparently, the price of a balloon that a Hui trader had sold to a Tibetan. After the police arrested several Tibetans, overseas activists said demonstrations were calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. But the spark for the protests was the tension between the two communities.
One of the central myths the Chinese government propagates is the unity of the state and the happiness of the 55 ethnic minorities within it. During the week, at the National People's Congress, the annual gathering of China's rubber-stamp parliament, women in aluminium headdresses and other exotic gear were paraded as the acceptable face of diversity.
"This is a planned, plotted activity that aims at splitting the country, sabotaging the union and damaging the harmony and social stability of Tibet," said Champa Phuntsok, governor of Tibet, an ethnic Tibetan whom many people regard as a collaborator. In an example of the overblown rhetoric that characterises Chinese statements on Tibet, the government proclaimed "a people's war against splittism" - the term used to describe the movement for Tibetan autonomy - and said it would "expose the hideous face of the Dalai Lama's clique."
To the shock of the Chinese authorities, the unrest rapidly spread to the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, which have significant Tibetan minorities. The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala claims all these provinces as part of "historical Tibet" - one reason for the failure of talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.
In Xiahe, in Gansu, the main street was lined with shuttered shops whose upstairs windows had been shattered by protesters. Here, Tibetans had targeted the Han Chinese who own most of the businesses. Knots of youths hung about at dusk, while riot police lurked at street corners, banging their riot shields menacingly. Most Tibetans still follow the Dalai Lama, but his entreaties that protest should be peaceful seem to have little resonance among the younger Tibetans. Speaking from Dharamsala, he said he had no power to call off the protests.
Monks from Labrang Monastery marched through the streets of Xiahe waving the banned Tibetan flag. "People in Lhasa and us are the same people. We have the same ideas," said a monk. "Today's young people think more of human rights. We want the Dalai Lama back."
Many westerners, who see justice in the Tibetan cause and nobility in the Dalai Lama's position, regard the Tibetans as a peaceful and oppressed people. That view, however, is not shared by all of the Han Chinese who live there. Many of them believe that China brought the chance of prosperity and modern isation to a backward area.
"Our party and government spend so much every year to support the development of Tibet.
"We don't wish for any reward, but those people controlled by Dalai still continue with separatism. They should go to hell," read one blog on the popular site China.com.
As communism has faded away, the ideological void has been filled by nationalism. The intention behind this year's Olympic extravaganza is to celebrate how great China is as a historical nation and as a modern state. Even those who dislike the government in Beijing may regard Tibetan nationalists as unpatriotic and ungrateful. A chat-room comment on Tianya.com reprimanded them: "We do not have to love the government and the party, but we must love China." Another said: "Those separatist trash should all be killed. It is not a good idea to just talk about it. Even if some day there is democracy, I will support a nationalist party to power."
Racism is usual. One blogger addressed Tibetans, writing: "If you behave well, we'll protect your culture and benefits. But if you behave badly, we'll still take care of your culture ... by putting it in a museum. I believe in the Han people!"
None acknowledged that harsh policies in Tibet have provoked the unrest. It's easier to keep blaming the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese government had hoped to have a display of traditional Tibetan dancing at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. If it now moves to suppress the protests with force, it faces the possibility of an Olympic boycott. But if it lets the protests continue, the world will see how widespread is the unhappiness and resentment of China's Tibetan people.
Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.
Free Countries Must Defy Chinese Blackmail and Greet the Dalai Lama
By Timothy Garton Ash
Comment Is Free
Tuesday 25 March 2008
It would be great to watch the Olympics in Beijing this summer, but not over the dead bodies of Buddhist monks.
Last week, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to meet the Dalai Lama when he comes to Britain in May. So should all other leaders of free countries, whenever the opportunity arises. Anything less would shame us all. And it wouldn't help China either.
We face at least three difficulties in reacting to the unfolding tragedy of the Tibetans. We don't know enough about what's really going on, because the Chinese authorities are determined to prevent us finding out by expelling journalists, ratcheting up their customary censorship of the Internet, and telling lies. We feel impotent to prevent the horror unfolding. And we have to balance our deep sympathy with the Tibetans against our interest in a benign evolution of China. Appeasement of Beijing for short-term political and commercial gains is contemptible; trying to ensure that anything we do to help the Tibetans won't hinder the evolution of China is not. It's statecraft - and moral, too.
Here's the good reason for not reacting to the repression of Buddhist monks in Tibet as we did to the repression of Buddhist monks in Burma. No, we shouldn't impose economic sanctions on the whole of China, as we do on Burma. Nor should we boycott the Beijing Olympics. There is too much at stake. The French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has suggested that if the repression in China worsens - not only in Tibet, but also with the persecution of Chinese dissidents such as Hu Jia - European leaders might not participate in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. A threat worth making, perhaps, though it won't get far with his fellow EU foreign ministers when they meet next week.
It may be worth calling for United Nations observers to be sent in to Tibet, though China will doubtless veto that. As important is to insist that the Chinese authorities keep the promise they have made - and are now breaking - to allow foreign journalists free movement around the whole of China in the runup to the Olympics. (If they don't let reporters go to Tibet, this can only mean that Tibet is not part of China.)
Yet we know, in our hearts, that none of this will prevent them clamping down, with armed force - the knock on the door at 4am, and all the familiar apparatus of a police state. As it is, Tibetans are arrested simply for possessing an image of the Dalai Lama. And there's the rub: the exiled 72-year-old spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans remains the only visible key to a peaceful solution. On all the anecdotal evidence from travelers in these parts, he still holds the love and loyalty of the majority of his people. At the same time, he offers to China's leaders a negotiated path to Hong Kong-style autonomy for Tibet, short of full independence. If they made a rational calculation of their own long-term interest, down this path they would tread.
But they don't. With the doublethink characteristic of repressive regimes, China's communist leaders say he is an irrelevance, a feudal relic; and yet they talk about him obsessively. They routinely denounce him as a "splittist", that is, one who wishes to split Tibet from the motherland by pursuing independence. This week we had the otherwise sober Chinese premier Wen Jiabao ranting about the "incident" in Tibet being "organised, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique". This, he said, proved that "the claims made by the Dalai clique that they pursue not independence but peaceful dialogue are nothing but lies."
A throwback to the worst Stalinist demagogy, this statement is not merely at odds with, but the diametric opposite of, the truth, making black out of white. The Dalai Lama keeps repeating that he does not seek full independence. There is no human being in the world today who is more publicly, consistently and unequivocally committed to the path of non-violence. In accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1989, he mentioned "the man who founded the modern tradition of nonviolent action for change, Mahatma Gandhi" even before his own long-suffering Tibetan people. This week, he threatened to resign as political leader of the Tibetan government in exile if his followers resorted to violence. There is not a shred of evidence that he instigated the rising in Tibet. On the contrary, the fact that popular anger has boiled over into street protest - including, it seems, some violence against innocent Han Chinese and local Muslims - suggests that at least some Tibetans are becoming fed up with the course of non-violence on which he has kept them for so long.
So China's leaders misread, or at least misrepresent, the Dalai Lama's intentions. (How much is genuine incomprehension and how much deliberate lying is an interesting question.) Probably they also underestimate his power. As Stalin asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?", so they may ask, "How many divisions has the Dalai Lama?" If so, they are being just as shortsighted as Stalin was. Like Pope John Paul II, the 14th Dalai Lama possesses, in the affection not just of his own people but of millions across the world, one of the purest forms of soft power.
We, for our part, tend to underestimate the political importance of symbolic acts, such as meeting an exiled or dissident leader. Self-styled realists deride this as tokenism, thereby demonstrating their own lack of realism. For anyone who has experienced a repressive regime - be it South Africa under apartheid, Czechoslovakia under Soviet-type communism, or Burma under the generals today - knows just how important to the oppressed people are those acts of symbolic recognition, whether of a Nelson Mandela, a Vaclav Havel or an Aung San Suu Kyi. It's no accident that the website of the Tibetan government in exile lovingly lists all the "World Leaders His Holiness the Dalai Lama has met", including in recent years the prime ministers of Canada, Australia, Hungary and Belgium, the president of the United States, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The Chinese authorities know these meetings matter too; otherwise they wouldn't expend so much effort trying to prevent them. Yesterday they declared themselves "seriously concerned" by Brown's decision. They are the real "splittists" here, trying to divide and rule between free countries competing for their economic favours. I have no doubt that this - not any broader moral or strategic concern - was the reason the British prime minister hesitated before committing, under pressure, to meet the Tibetan leader. So one thing EU foreign ministers definitely should agree in their informal meeting next week is that all European heads of government will receive the Dalai Lama, as a matter of course, whenever he comes calling. And the same should go for every other free country.
In establishing this principle, we would send three messages to Beijing: that democracies are not so easily divided; that the Dalai Lama truly represents - dare I say, incarnates - the path of non-violence and negotiation; and that we do wish to engage fully with a modernizing China and celebrate a wonderful Olympics this summer, but not over the dead bodies of Buddhist monks.