Tibet: questions of revolt

Robert Barnett
4 April 2008

The charred bodies and pulped faces of Chinese migrants murdered during the riots in Lhasa on 14 March 2008 are likely to become a new and terrible image of Tibet. Just as those Tibetans who have died in ethnic violence or at the hands of the security forces, those killed in the latest struggle over Tibet's future died what should have been unnecessary deaths.

The desperation of Tibetans living on the Tibetan plateau has been documented for several decades by scholars and journalists, as well as in repeated appeals by exiles and their leader, the Dalai Lama. Major grievances include:

Robert Barnett is director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York. Among his books are Lhasa: Streets with Memories (Columbia University Press, 2006) and (co-edited with Ronald Schwartz) Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field on Social and Cultural Change (Brill, 2008)

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal See also this interview with Robert Barnett: "Seven Questions: What Tibetans Want" (Foreign Policy, March 2008)

* elaborate restrictions on religion
* an undisguised encouragement of Chinese migration to Tibetan towns
* the ban on criticism of most Communist Party policies
* the imposition of ethnic Chinese leaders to run the region
* the forced settlement of 100,000 nomads without prospect of future livelihood
* the obligatory moving of 250,000 farmers in 2006 from their villages to new houses along major roads, often largely at their own expense.

Underpinning all of this is the deeper issue of Tibetans' continuing recollection of themselves as a separate nation that has been forcibly annexed.

China has shown some flexibility and good intentions. In 2002 Beijing began, with impressive initiative, a dialogue process with the Dalai Lama after twenty years of little contact. In 2003, Hu Jintao - reconfirmed as China's president for another five-year term on 15 March 2008, as the Tibet protests exploded - called for development policies based on ultra-rapid GDP growth to be replaced by a focus on developing human resources. He began to refer to the positive role of religion in a "harmonious society", especially in reference to Buddhism.

But these important policy signals were not applied in Tibetan areas. Little effort was made to justify these renewed restrictions, some of which did not apply to ethnic Chinese in Tibet or exist in inland China. The Dalai Lama's call in 2005 on exiles to stop protesting against Chinese leaders was not matched by confidence-building measures from Beijing. By 2006, the talks with exiles had slowed down to the point of virtual non-existence, waiting for any sign of commitment from the Chinese side.

A shadow world

In Lhasa, there was nothing subtle about the hardening of policy. In May 2006, Hu Jintao appointed Zhang Qingli as the new party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region. Zhang spearheaded an intensification of the anti-Dalai Lama campaign first imposed on Tibetans ten years earlier. He will be remembered for such choice remarks as "the Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans" (though he did at least deny that he was himself a Buddha); for stepping up the semi-secret ban on students and government employees engaging in any form of religious practice (a ban that is illegal under Chinese law); and for pushing through the construction of the first railway line in Tibet without introducing policies to address Tibetans' fears - since proved correct - that it would accelerate Chinese migration to the region.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet:

Ugen, "Tibet's postal protest" (4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, "Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities" (13 June 2005)

openDemocracy / Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown" (15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008) Today, Tibetans exist in a shadow world, where criticism of Chinese policies can rarely be spoken for fear of political and professional suicide, or worse. No one who has lived in Tibet and speaks Tibetan will have been unaware that Tibetans were hiding deep and unexpressed discontent and fear. Random people would approach me in Lhasa alleyways, sometimes weeping, whispering and begging me to tell the world that the Chinese were denying them freedom, or some such phrase. The only surprise is that after twenty years they dared to take to the streets in such numbers (see Lhasa: Streets with Memories [Columbia University Press, 2006]).

All sides have made mistakes. The west has depicted Tibetans as likeable victims, rather than as agents with coherent political agendas that needed urgent answers. The Dalai Lama has been accused by the Chinese of sending mixed signals about his promise to give up independence. The Chinese side has failed to listen to the warnings of their own advisers, let alone those opinions offered by Tibetans and outsiders.

It is Beijing that chose in 1950 to become the power-holder in Tibet, and it is Beijing that now has to face the most questions. When the riots broke out on the morning of 14 March, why did leaders fail for several hours to send in riot squads to hold the city centre, thus allowing the protestors to turn on Chinese migrants rather than their earlier target, the police? Why were no concessions made to keep the dialogue process alive? Why was migration not restricted before the railway was opened? Why were Tibet officials not stopped from illegal bans on religion?

As China's response to the protests has shown signs of resembling a witch-hunt rather than an investigation - with little distinction between the thousands of legitimate protestors and the few murderous rioters - the larger question remains: who was responsible in Beijing for refusing to listen to Tibetans' deeply held complaints? Were China's leaders really unaware of what every tourist knew to be the deep unhappiness and repression of the populace?

Serious answers to these questions will require a bitter swallowing of pride by China's leaders and the admission of terrible failures. There is some ground for hope. In 2007, for example, Phuntsog Wanggyal, a former Tibetan official now based in Beijing, called openly on President Hu to negotiate with the Dalai Lama; the same appeal is voiced by some Chinese writers today.

If China's leaders can rein in the impulse for excessive retribution and listen to the urgent needs expressed, however viciously, by protestors and rioters across Tibet, perhaps those tragic deaths will not have been totally in vain.

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