Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tibet Conflict

I have been watching closely the events unfolding in Tibet and the outlying provinces of China over the past week. Everyday the news is more disturbing and painful. I have spent quite a bit of time in Tibet and feel a strong connection to the Tibetan people and more and more a great distaste for the Chinese regime.

Cell-phone photographs and videos from Lhasa, blurry and amateur, are circulating around. Some show clouds of tear gas; others burning buildings and shops; still others purple-robed monks, riot police, and confusion.

That covert cell phones have become the most important means of transmitting news from certain parts of East Asia is no accident. Lhasa, Rangoon, Xinjiang, and North Korea: All of these places are, directly or indirectly, dominated by the same media-shy, publicity-sensitive Chinese regime. When we landed in Lhasa the first time we were told before boarding our bus that in fact our hotel rooms would be bugged and the very bus we were about to board would be bugged. And if we even uttered the title 'Dalai Lama' or made the most subtle reference to being a pro-Tibetan Westerner, we would be sent home immediately.

Though we don't usually think of it this way, China is, in fact, a vast, anachronistic, territorial empire, within which one dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese, rules over a host of reluctant "captive nations." Over 80% of every business in Lhasa is owned and operated by a Han Chinese. To keep the peace, the Chinese use methods of political manipulation, secret police repression, and military force. I have seen it with my own eyes in the streets of Lhasa.

For more proof that this is so, look no further than the biography of Hu Jintao, the current Chinese president—and also the former Communist Party boss of Tibet. In 1988 and 1989, at the time of the last major riots, Hu was responsible both for the brutal repression of dissident Tibetan monks and dissidents and for what the Dalai Lama has subsequently called China's policy of "cultural genocide": the importation of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet's cities in order to dilute and eventually outbreed the ethnic Tibetan population.

Clearly, the repression of Tibet matters enormously to the members of China's ruling clique, or they would not have promoted Hu, its mastermind, so far. The pacification of Tibet must also be considered a major political and propaganda success, or it would not have been copied by the Chinese-backed Burmese regime last year and repeated by the Chinese themselves in Tibet last week.

Keep that in mind, over the next few days and months, as China tries once again to belittle Tibet, to explain away a nationalist uprising as a bit of vandalism. The last week's riots began as a religious protest: Tibet's monks were demonstrating against laws that, among other things, require them to renounce the dalai lama. The monks' marches then escalated into generalized, unplanned, anti-Chinese violence, culminating in attacks on Han Chinese shops and businesses, among them—as you can see on the cell-phone videos—the Lhasa branch of the Bank of China.
However the official version evolves, in other words, make no mistake about it: This was not merely vandalism, it could not have been solely organized by outsiders, it was not only about the Olympics, and it was not the work of a tiny minority. It was a significant political event, proof that the Tibetans still identify themselves as Tibetan, not Chinese. As such, it must have significant reverberations in Beijing.

And if they aren't worried, they should be. After all, the history of the last two centuries is filled with tales of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any different? Watching the tear gas roll over the streets of Lhasa yesterday on a blurry, cell-phone video, I couldn't help but wonder when—maybe not in this decade, this generation, or even this century—Tibet and its monks will have their revenge.