No Comment — March 18, 2008, 11:01 am

Tremors at the Roof of the Earth

I’ve been an Inner Asia student for many years, and about 25 years ago, when I was guest teaching at the University of Peking, I remember an almost comic incident. I asked for permission to go to Lhasa for a long weekend. “Regretably, the planes will not fly to Lhasa this weekend,” my minder told me. It was, of course, untrue. But it was rude simply to state what had actually happened: I had been denied permission to travel there. In fact, Chinese authorities then and now have good reason to keep prying Western eyes away from Tibet. China today is preparing to make a showcase of itself for the Olympics. But what has been done in historical Tibet—now known to the Chinese as Tibet and Qinghai, is nothing to showcase.

I have been watching the developments out of Tibet for several days looking for some reporting that’s worth being flagged. Generally I am finding that the reporting in German publications like Die Zeit and Der Spiegel tops the fairly anemic and consistently Beijing-based coverage that U.S. papers have offered. Der Spiegel provocatively called Tibet “China’s Gaza Strip.” But today, the Times is struggling to recover on its primary beat: foreign affairs coverage.

Jim Yardley gives us a review of the sources of the current tension.

the weeklong uprising against Chinese rule in Lhasa reflects years of simmering resentment over Beijing’s interference in Buddhist religious rites, its tightened political control and the destruction of the environment across the Himalayan territory the Tibetans consider sacred. If there is a surprise, it may be that Beijing has managed to keep things stable for so long.

Since the last big anti-Chinese riots in Tibet two decades ago, Beijing has sought to smother Tibetan separatism by sparking economic development and by inserting itself into the metaphysics of Tibetan Buddhism. But an influx of Han Chinese to Tibet, and a growing sense among Tibetans that China is irreparably altering their way of life, produced a backlash when Communist Party leaders most needed stability there, analysts say.

“Why did the unrest take off?” asked Liu Junning, a liberal political scientist in Beijing. “I think it has something to do with the long-term policy failure of the central authorities. They failed to earn the respect of the people there.”

Since the Tienanmen Square massacre, the Chinese Communist leadership has struggled for its raison d’être. Obviously, it only embraces the most nominal sort of Marxism-Leninism – market economics have been the mantra of Chinese economic growth for some time. Increasingly, the leadership elites have turned to a peculiar form of nationalism as their defining credo. More particularly, it is a negative sort of nationalism which is focused on the vilification of non-Han Chinese. They’re called the “splittists.” And the splittists are anyone who refuses to accept a strong central leadership out of Beijing: Taiwanese, Mongols, Tibetans, and the Uighurs of Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) for instance.

Did it have to be this way? Clearly not. China took a potentially fatal wrong turn. As Democracy Spring came to Beijing, Zhao Ziyang and a progressive leadership group were emerging, offering the prospect of a more enlightened, less constrictive China. Andrew Nathan and Perry Link gave us an amazing glimpse of this potential world, and the opposition it faced, in the Tiananmen Papers in 2000. Zhao’s moderate vision was more than they could swallow.

The new man in the crosshairs for the old men in Beijing is the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, who for good measure is also the spiritual leader of the Mongols: the Dalai Lama.

The Times also gives us some detail on the Dalai Lama, his government in exile, and his efforts to cope with the crisis in his homeland. This morning the Dalai Lama threatens his resignation if the violence escalates.

The Dalai Lama on Tuesday invited international observers, including Chinese officials, to scour his offices here and investigate whether he had any role in inciting the latest anti-Chinese violence in Tibet. He also threatened to resign as leader of Tibet’s government-in-exile in the event of spiraling bloodshed in his homeland. He said he remained committed to only nonviolent agitation and greater autonomy for Tibetans, not independence. He condemned the burning of Chinese flags and attacks on Chinese property and called violence “suicidal” for the Tibetan cause.

In a clear effort to quickly seize the higher moral ground and at the same time poke at China’s important aspirations, he complimented Beijing for having met three out of four conditions to be a “superpower” — he acknowledged it has the world’s largest population, military prowess, and a fast-developing economy.

“Fourth, moral authority, that’s lacking,” he said, and for the second time in two days he accused Chinese officials of a “rule of terror” in Tibet, the formerly Himalayan kingdom he fled for exile in India 49 years ago.
The Dalai Lama’s remarks to reporters on Tuesday, here in the seat of the Tibetan exile movement, also revealed that he has been unnerved by the violence across the border in Tibet and by the increasingly radical calls from Tibetan exiles in this country. The 72-year-old spiritual leader of Lama Buddhism said he would step down from his political post.

There can be no doubt that the Dalai Lama understands both the strengths of the old men in Beijing and their weaknesses. His power rests in his moral authority. And their attempts to attack him and pin the blame for the tragedies in Tibet, Qinghai and elsewhere upon him have fallen flat.

China can brutally suppress the outcry against its heavy hand in Tibet, and no doubt that is the approach it will take. But in the end, it can prevail only by proceeding to implement its policies of cultural genocide – or by adopting a policy of listening to and coming to a better understanding with its Tibetan subjects. And in the end that is the test of whether there is room for anyone other than Han Chinese in the China that is being built for the future.

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