China’s West Bank

Even as it tightens control over the fraught Tibetan region, China is losing its grip.


Last week, as Chinese police fanned out across the Tibetan plateau, the chairman of Tibet’s government made a hushed departure from the official line on the unrest that erupted into violence there last year.

There were all kinds of people, some of whom weren’t satisfied with our policies, or had opinions about them, or because our government work hadn’t been fully completed, Qiangba Puncog told reporters at the National People’s Congress annual meeting in Beijing, veering from the government’s oft cited condemnation of the Dalai Lama and his splittist clique. Not everyone was a splittist.

If it was the conference’s most obvious and extreme understatement, it was also a rare public sign that Beijing grasps some of the complexity of its Tibetan quagmire.

But this brief burst of enlightenment may not amount to much. Against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule — and as a raft of other ominous anniversaries loom in a year of economic hardship — government officials are marching on a tightrope that could snap at any moment.

On one side is a smile campaign celebrating Tibet’s democratic and economic reforms and its freedom from a repressive theocracy — a move, a recent government white paper declared, no less significant than the abolishment of slavery in the United States and Europe. So determined are Communist Party celebrants this year that when it became clear that Tibetans across the province were refusing to commemorate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, in late February, police began handing out money to encourage festivities.

It’s not hard to see why people didn’t want to party. Weighing down the other side of Beijing’s balancing act is a campaign of severe police intimidation meant to clamp down on dissent and prevent the violence that struck Tibet last year, when authorities say 20 people were killed. Exile groups meanwhile contend that as many as 200 people died, most of them Tibetans.

But even without violence, Beijing’s tough approach to Tibet is planting deep seeds of resentment and casting greater doubt than ever over China’s legitimacy in the remote Himalayan region. The specter of instability arrives at a sensitive time for Beijing, as unemployment sinks in across the country and police warily tighten control in Xinjiang, the province to the north of Tibet and home to the Muslim Uighur minority. (The situation will be more severe, the task more arduous, and the struggle more fierce in the region this year, the chairman of Xinjiang’s government warned last week.)

Tibet, however, remains Beijing’s most fraught territory, a proving ground for its struggle to maintain stability by force while promoting economic growth. As some improvements — such as the much-touted Qinghai-Tibet railway — have partially backfired with the migration of droves of job-seeking Han Chinese, other benefits from economic development have been annulled, some say, by the onslaught of police forces. As it tightens its grip over Tibet, Beijing is fast losing its hearts and minds. From some perspectives, China’s west is looking increasingly like its West Bank.

The Communist Party didn’t survive for 50 years because it killed people, but because it killed some people and listened to others, said Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. The big question is, why the hell is it not doing that in Tibet?

Although Beijing boasts of its restraint in the area and is desperate to maintain peace, its show of force is predictably stronger than ever. Rather than taking heed of Tibetan dissatisfaction with Chinese rule, authorities have instead ramped up police campaigns. Monks and laypeople have been widely detained without charge; monasteries are under increased surveillance; the presence of soldiers has multiplied; and though officials have boasted of no executions since March, prison sentences have grown excessive. Last month, a number of people were detained on accusations they had downloaded reactionary songs to their cellphones, and one man was sentenced to more than a decade in prison for copying CDs that promoted the Dalai Lama.

China’s increasing vilification of the 73-year-old Tibetan political and spiritual leader has only added insult to injury. For more than a decade, simply possessing an image of the Dalai Lama could land a person in prison. But the Chinese government’s condemnations of the Dalai Lama since March have united formerly distinct Tibetan regions behind cries for greater autonomy. In recent weeks, officials have dispatched legions of police to Tibetan areas outside Tibet that once enjoyed greater freedoms but are now hotbeds for anger, such as Sichuan and Qinghai, where improvised explosives damaged two vehicles March 9.

What has happened is that now all the Tibetan or Buddhist people on the Tibetan plateau are speaking as one group, said Tenzin N. Tethong, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and former chairman of the cabinet of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala. It’s almost as if nationalism has been reignited by these Chinese policies.

At the same time, Tibetans inside and outside China have begun to appear increasingly at odds with the Dalai Lama’s call for a middle way in dealing with Beijing. At a six-day crisis meeting held in Dharamsala last November, exiles and monks vigorously debated a continued push for autonomy as the chance of successful dialogue with China narrowed. Rangzen, or independence, once again became a popular buzzword.

Equally dangerous to stability in Tibet is the prospect of rising distrust between Tibetans and Han Chinese. During last March’s protests, China Central Television took the unusual step of airing footage of the unrest in Lhasa, a move that helped foment nationalist sentiment among China’s Internet-powered generation, inspiring deep distrust of the Dalai Lama — and those who follow his teachings.

This moment is a sea change, not just because of the government’s reaction, but especially because of the Chinese intellectual and cyberspace reaction, Barnett said. It’s the one thing China was good at — not really looking at Tibet as an ethnic problem. It’s baffling why the leadership is letting this rampage across Chinese thinking, the thought sphere, instead of saying sincerely, ‘These are our brothers; we have to have a family of nationalities.’

In spite of a government-mandated harmonious society, growing nationalism among both Chinese and Tibetans is only engendering a mutual suspicion along ethnic lines. Ethnic hatred, said Tethong, is starting to mirror already deep tensions between Chinese and Muslim Uighurs in neighboring Xinjiang. The Chinese in Tibet are beginning to think the Tibetans hate us, and the Tibetans think so too, he said. The ethnic hatred has been very muted for a long time, but now it’s gotten worse.

Even when I visited in October, during a painfully brief season for the province’s tourism industry, armored personnel carriers and Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers encircled the old city of Lhasa, patrolling near monasteries and keeping watch from rooftops. Tibetans, many confined to the old city, and Chinese, who live in shinier buildings outside it, both kept glancing over their shoulders and kept their distance.

Everyone is on edge — Tibetans, Chinese, the police, said a Tibetan hotel manager in Lhasa’s old city who did not want to be named. Although a curfew imposed after the riots had been lifted, few people ventured out after dark. These streets used to be busy with life at night. Now people stay at home.

Some observers are now asking whether the Dalai Lama’s proposed nonviolent middle way is still even viable.

If the Dalai Lama can reach a solution, the majority of the Tibetan people would support it, said Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet, in Washington. But some voices are pointing to the Palestinian case, saying ‘Without violence, the world won’t pay attention.’

No government supports the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, and the Tibetan issue has lately disappeared from the lips of U.S. and other Western leaders. Although the most recent U.S. State Department report on human rights said China’s level of repression of Tibetan Buddhists increased significantly during the year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took pains not to publicly mention Tibet during her trip to Beijing last month. Pressing China on Tibet and human rights, she said, can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises.

Even if rhetoric dies down, the crisis in Tibet will likely earn more interest as it highlights the threat of instability for the greater region, including India, Central Asia, and Burma. One area of southern Tibet, India’s Arunachal Pradesh, has already been a long-standing point of dispute between Beijing and New Delhi. We do tend to think now that China and India are going to be major players in the world, Barnett said, and so the place that lies between them starts to become much more significant.

For now, there are signs that Tibetans are relying on quieter and nonviolent demonstrations to make their point, like the recent mass refusal to celebrate the New Year. The pick-up by the Western media of the New Year boycott may have sent a message to Tibetans that you don’t need to go out on the streets [or] do things that get people killed and get officials upset. And the Dalai Lama has made an appeal for that, Barnett noted.

Having said that, there’s a lot of very upset people. And they’re getting more upset.

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