Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Complexity of the Tibet Situation

First a couple of news stories -- 0ne on the desire of the Chinese to "crush" the Tibetan uprising, and another on the possible spread of unrest into Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims also want more freedom from Chinese oppression.

Then the real point -- an article from the Guardian UK that looks at the real reasons behind the Tibetan and Xinjiang uprisings -- capitalism and growth, i.e., modernity.

From the Voice of America:

China's Communist Party newspaper is calling on the government to "resolutely crush" Tibet's independence movement.

Dalai Lama gestures as he speaks to the media in Dharmsala, India, 18 Mar 2008
Dalai Lama gestures as he speaks to the media in Dharmsala, India, 18 Mar 2008
A commentary in the "People's Daily" Saturday accuses the Dalai Lama of plotting recent anti-government protests in Tibet in hopes of undermining the upcoming Beijing Olympics and splitting Tibet from China.

The Dalai Lama has denied calling for protests.

Reports from China say Beijing has sent elite units of the People's Liberation Army into Tibet to crack down on the protests.

Witnesses in the Tibetan capital said armored troop carriers and other military vehicles in use there had their identifying numbers and insignia concealed.

In Lhasa Saturday, Chinese authorities raised the official toll from the past week's riots to 19 dead, including 18 civilians and a policeman. Tibetan exile groups say at least 80 people were killed in Lhasa, and that clashes in other Chinese provinces claimed nearly 20 lives.

The official Xinhua news agency has said police firing in self-defense during a riot wounded four people in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province earlier this week. However, human-rights groups have released photographs showing what appear to be corpses with bullet wounds. They allege that police killed 15 people during the clash in Sichuan.

China has expelled all foreign journalists from Tibet and tried to prevent others from reaching neighboring provinces. Before they were forced to leave, journalists were able to report on a buildup of thousands of troops, along with blockades and checkpoints across a wide swath of western China.

Meanwhile, it's possible that other ethnic groups may also seize this opportunity to gain international attention for their plight.

China said 19 people died in riots in the Tibetan capital last week and official media warned against the unrest spreading to the northwest region of Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims bridle under Chinese control.

The official media of the northwest region of Xinjiang warned against outbreaks of unrest there inspired by Tibetan protests.

"No matter whether it's Tibetan independence, Xinjiang independence or Taiwanese independence, their goal is all the same -- to create chaos and split the motherland," said a commentary on the official Xinjiang news Web site (

"China and Beijing's holding of the Olympic Games in 2008 has led separatists at home and abroad to believe they have a golden opportunity. To put it bluntly, if they don't wreck things, they won't feel comfortable, because they won't have achieved their goal of spoiling China's image."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pressed Beijing to be more open and let the rest of the world see for itself what is happening in Tibet.

In the late 1980s, unrest in various Soviet block nations led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (with the support of the American government). We have a unique opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese to grant autonomy to the various ethnic groups in China that struggle under the oppressive Communist government. Yet the issue may not be freedom as much as tradition.

Pankaj Mishra, writing for the Guardian UK, sees the issue not as a revolt against the Chinese Communist system, but against the utopian vision of modernity that the Chinese economic growth has fostered, with rampant development and the slow but steady Westernization of Chinese society.

This is a long quote from the article, but the points are subtle and crucial -- the author may be more correct in this assessment than any of the pro-religious freedom advocates in the US.

As for religious freedom, the Tibetans have had more of it in recent years than at any time since the cultural revolution. Eager to draw tourists to Tibet, Chinese authorities have helped to rebuild many of the monasteries destroyed by Red Guards in the 1960s and 70s, turning them into Disneylands of Buddhism. Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have even inspired a counterculture among Chinese jaded by their new affluence.

Indeed, Tibet's economy has surpassed China's average growth rate, helped by generous subsidies from Beijing and more than a million tourists a year. The vast rural hinterland shows few signs of this growth, but Lhasa, with its shopping malls, glass-and-steel office buildings, massage parlours and hair saloons, resembles a Chinese provincial city on the make. Beijing hopes that the new rail link to Lhasa, which makes possible the cheap extraction of Tibet's uranium and copper, will bring about kuayueshi fazhan ("leapfrog development") - economic, social and cultural.

Tibet has been enlisted into what is the biggest and swiftest modernisation in history: China's development on the model of consumer capitalism, which has been cheer-led by the Wall Street Journal and other western financial media that found in China the corporate holy grail of low-priced goods and high profits. Tibetans - whose biggest problem, according to Rupert Murdoch, is believing that the Dalai Lama "is the son of God" - have the chance to be on the right side of history; they could discard their superstitions and embrace, like Murdoch, China's brave new world. So why do they want independence? How is it that, as the Economist put it, "years of rapid economic growth, which China had hoped would dampen separatist demands, have achieved the opposite"?

For one, the Chinese failed to consult Tibetans about the kind of economic growth they wanted. In this sense, at least, Tibetans are not much more politically impotent than the hundreds of millions of hapless Chinese uprooted by China's Faustian pact with consumer capitalism. The Tibetans share their frustration with farmers and tribal peoples in the Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, who, though apparently inhabiting the world's largest democracy, confront a murderous axis of politicians, businessmen, and militias determined to corral their ancestral lands into a global network of profit.

However, Tibet's ordeal has been in the making for some time. Before the railway line speeded up Han Chinese immigration, China's floating population of migrant workers, criminals, carpetbaggers and prostitutes conspicuously dominated Tibetan cities such as Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse. Half of Lhasa's population is Han Chinese, who own most of the city's shops and businesses.

Chinese-style development, which heavily favours urban areas over rural ones, could only exacerbate economic inequality and threaten traditions, such as nomadic lifestyles. Not surprisingly, Deng Xiaoping's post-Tiananmen gamble - that people intoxicated with prosperity will not demand political change - failed in Tibet. Like predominantly rural ethnic minorities elsewhere, Tibetans lack the temperament or training needed for a fervent belief in the utopia of modernity - a consumer lifestyle in urban centres - promised by China.

Far from losing his aura during his long exile, the Dalai Lama has come to symbolise more urgently than ever to Tibetans their cherished and threatened identity. It has also become clear to Tibetans that they pay a high price for other people's enhanced lifestyles. Global warming has caused the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau, which regulate the water supply to the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze and Yellow rivers, to melt at an alarming rate, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of millions in Asia.

Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist, told me that not even the cultural revolution undermined Tibet as much as the feckless modernisation of recent years. The rail link to Lhasa has further deepened the Tibetan sense of siege. No Tibetan I met last year in Lhasa had any doubt that the railway was devised by and for the Han Chinese, thousands of whom had already begun to pour into the city every day, monopolising jobs and causing severe inflation.

In the past two decades, new railways have economically integrated China's remote provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang, making them available for large-scale resettlement by the surplus population. China, its leaders insist, will rise "peacefully"; and they may be right in so far as China refrains from the invasions and occupations that Japan resorted to in its attempt to modernise and catch up with western imperial powers. But it is not hard to see that China has employed in Xinjiang and now Tibet some of the same means of internal colonialism that the US used during its own westward expansion.

Would Westerners support the Tibetan independence movement if it were seen as a desire to maintain traditional, tribal structures in their culture? I don't know. But I do know that if the issue is framed as "religious freedom" then the support is lined up and vocal.

We are hypocrites. We want to modernize Iraq and the Middle East, but the same people support the Tibetan desire to maintain their nomadic, tribal lifestyle, complete with their magical-mythic version of Buddhism (at least, among the general population).

While the educated Tibetan monks have exported a more rational version of Buddhism to the West, the general population, being largely uneducated, tends to still hold the older Bon-infused version of Buddhism as their real religion, which is largely pre-rational.

Maybe because the fundamentalist Islamic tribal culture is more violent, we find it easier to demand that they modernize. But now that the Tibetans are becoming more violent in their desire to maintain the "old ways," will we demand that they modernize as well?

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