CHINA'S TIBET POLICY
Misplaced faith in economic formula
By Sim Chi Yin, Correspondent
12 April 2008
WHEN anti-government riots first broke out in Tibet last month, China's media blacked out the news.
Then days later, the silence gave way to a torrent of articles giving Beijing's version of events, blasting the Dalai Lama and castigating the foreign media for 'distorting' the truth. Beijing trotted out its Tibetologists and its diplomats distributed CDs with horrific footage showing riot-hit Lhasa.
Missing from all the rhetoric, however, were answers to some burning questions: What went wrong with China's policies on Tibet? What needs to be changed to prevent a repeat or an escalation of the confrontation?
Governments the world over find ethnic-minority policies tough. But experts say the scale and unprecedented duration of the recent protests indicate the failure of Beijing's Tibet policy which, hitherto, aimed to douse 'separatism' with economic growth, govern Tibet through a largely Han Chinese elite and assimilate the province through mass migration.
Following the worst rioting in Lhasa in 20 years on March 14, about 50 - or up to 100, according to some estimates - other protests broke out in other parts of Tibet and in the Tibetan areas of three nearby provinces.
Some of these protests took place despite a heavy security presence and involved not just monks - as in previous protests - but also urban youth, nomads and students.
What went wrong?
AT THE heart of China's Tibet policy is the same tried-and-tested formula that has worked elsewhere in the country - generate economic growth and raise living standards. By simultaneously keeping a tight grip on Tibetan identity, this approach was to have delivered the remote land firmly into modernity.
But this faith in the power of material progress seems to have blindsided Beijing to the gathering storm in Tibet. The Chinese 'seemed to have come to believe their own propaganda - they said the Tibetans were happy and they believed it', said Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University.
China-watcher Professor Richard Baum of the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that Beijing has a 'trained incapacity' to look at Tibet objectively.
'The current regime has invested so much political and propaganda capital in trying to destroy the so-called Dalai clique's hated 'splittism' that they're blind to the many legitimate smouldering complaints of the Tibetans that periodically erupt into open hostility and protest,' he explained.
Another major problem in Beijing's Tibet policy is the government's failure to understand the depth of Tibetans' faith in the Dalai Lama, said Professor Zheng Yongnian, head of research at Nottingham University's China Policy Institute.
'People who don't have faith are unlikely to understand the depth of belief' of others, he said, alluding to the Chinese Communist Party's avowed atheism.
This incapacity also leads Beijing to another fundamental error: Conflating the Dalai Lama with the more radical exile groups as one amorphous 'Dalai clique'. That undifferentiated treatment and the ongoing bashing of the 'clique' grates on Tibetans' ears and makes it tough for Beijing to restart dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
There is also a whiff of Han chauvinism at the heart of Beijing's ethnic policy. For instance, each of China's five 'autonomous regions' has a Han Chinese as its top party official.
To many Tibetans, the official narrative of the CCP 'liberating' backward Tibetans from theocracy and serfdom when the People's Liberation Army marched in in 1950 smacks of chauvinism. Tibet party boss Zhang Qingli reinforced that sense of superiority recently by declaring that the central government is 'the parent to the Tibetan people' and the CCP is 'the real Buddha for Tibetans'.
Beijing not blind
MAINLAND Tibetologists argue that it is wrong to assume that there is no debate in Beijing about its policies in Tibet. It has made adjustments.
In an interview, Professor Tanzen Lhundup, a sociologist and vice-director at the Chinese Centre for Tibetan Studies' Institute of Sociology and Economics in Beijing, defended China's record in Tibet over the past 30 years.
He acknowledged that the benefits of Tibet's economic boom have not trickled down enough to regular Tibetans, and said that some policies may need a bit of tweaking.
But finger-pointing by foreigners is not going to help Beijing improve policies, he said. 'A family's problems should be discussed and resolved within the family.'
There are signs that Beijing is perhaps starting to shift to a more nuanced position, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly urging the Dalai Lama to use his influence to quell the unrest. But such moderate voices may not be getting through or getting translated into policies, said Prof Zheng, a political scientist.
He added: 'Fundamentally, the intransigence on Tibet policy comes down to the very nature of the Chinese political system. If it were a multi-party state, there would be rigorous policy debate and pressure to change. Right now, when China is in a crisis situation, it is very often the hardline advocates who win.'
Where to now?
ON PAPER, events in the past month should be enough to stir Beijing to action. With protests also erupting in the other restive region of Xinjiang last week, the central government cannot but be aware of the need to change its tactics towards minorities.
After all, it has shown itself capable of radical change since the economy was opened up in the 1980s. Even on sensitive territory-related issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong, Beijing has shown itself to be more accommodating in recent years.
But the only change Beijing has indicated it will make in Tibet so far is to step up 'patriotic education', first introduced in earnest after the 1989 unrest. This time the sessions will target young monks to make them 'patriotic, religion-loving and law-abiding', said the state-run Tibet Daily newspaper last week.
That will only deepen resentment among Tibetans, say many scholars, who urge the resumption of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. These were halted after six rounds from 2002 to 2006 yielded little progress.
And Beijing has room in its Constitution to be more flexible in dealing with the Tibetans' quest for self-rule, noted law professor Michael Davis of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has studied China's periphery. The law provides for 'special administrative regions' to be created 'in the light of the specific conditions', like in the case of Hong Kong.
With the Dalai Lama ageing and Beijing's Tibet policy in tatters, there is a new urgency to bring some resolution to the five- decade-long struggle.
As Prof Lhundup put it: 'It's been like a Hollywood movie, complete with high points and low points. But we need to forget history in order to move forward. It's in everyone's interest - China's, the Tibetans' and the Dalai Lama's.
'I hope for a happy ending.'