July 11, 2008


The illusion of calm in Tibet: After a botched response to bloody riots in Tibet in March, the Chinese authorities have ruthlessly restored order. But anti-Chinese resentment is deep-seated (The Economist, 7/10/08)

The slow and cackhanded reaction is puzzling nonetheless. China, after all, faces tens of thousands of protests and riots every year, most swiftly contained. This month in Guizhou province, some 30,000 people protested in Weng’an county at the authorities’ handling of the death of a girl they believed raped and murdered. It turned into an ugly riot. But those involved were soon detained. There was also a purge of the local political leadership, blamed for losing public confidence.

The security forces and political apparatus had long been nervous in Tibet especially. Indeed they had been gearing themselves for just such an outbreak of violence. The government’s public claims that Tibet was stable were disingenuous, as was their dismissal of past unrest as ancient history. A series of anti-Chinese protests from 1987 to 1989 culminated in the imposition of martial law in Lhasa for more than a year.

Since then, officials, not least the hardliner Mr Zhang, who was appointed in 2005, have never let down their guard. In 2006 the security forces, fearing attacks by Tibetan terrorists (not that any are known to be active), staged what the government described as the biggest protection operation in the region’s history. The occasion was the grand opening of Tibet’s first rail link with the rest of China. Official records say this involved a series of exercises for dealing with terrorist and other “sudden incidents” (ie, riots), heightened surveillance of monasteries and the deployment of thousands of paramilitary troops along the railway line. In October last year police and paramilitary officers in Lhasa rehearsed rapid-response measures to cope with possible disturbances during the national-day holiday and the Communist Party’s congress in Beijing.

In 2006 officials responsible for religious and ethnic affairs in Tibet circulated a secret document predicting that the train link could create instability in urban areas. Sure enough, ethnic-Han Chinese, many of them recent migrants hoping to profit from a train-related tourism boom, were the main targets of the violence in Lhasa.

Even if officials had ignored such warnings, the protests at Lhasa’s monasteries on March 10th and 11th were the biggest in the city since 1989 and provided ample warning of bigger trouble ahead. And Tibetan radicals outside China—not including the Dalai Lama, who supports the Beijing games—had made no secret of their plans to use the Olympics to publicise their grievances. On March 13th, the eve of the riots, security in central Lhasa was visibly tighter than normal in the city, which is ringed by military encampments. That day one of the Dalai Lama’s representatives sent a letter to a senior official in Beijing, warning him that unless managed carefully the situation in Tibet might become “difficult for all of us to handle”.

Yet by 1.30pm on March 14th, as the riots began to spread beyond the area near the Ramoche Temple, the security presence had all but disappeared from that part of the city. Once the riots began to spread, officials may have worried that any effort to control them would lead to bloodshed that would damage China’s image in the build-up to the games. But it is also possible that some officials actually wanted the violence to escalate, as a pretext to impose blanket security on the city long before the Olympics. They might have calculated that tensions in Lhasa were likely to present a growing security headache in the run-up to the games, and that foreign scrutiny would become more intense. By refraining from an immediate bloody crackdown they might even gain international kudos for avoiding a Tiananmen-style response. Chinese officials may have been genuinely surprised that, in the event, Western reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

This response was fuelled by a widespread perception outside China, encouraged by reports from Tibetans in exile, that large-scale bloodshed had indeed occurred. But it is still not known whether the security forces shot anyone at all during the unrest of March 14th and 15th in Lhasa. Figures used by Tibetans abroad have fudged the issue. The Dalai Lama himself says more than 200 people have been killed by Chinese security forces since March. But he and his aides have provided scant detail. There is little doubt that several were shot in other parts of the plateau, most notably in Sichuan, where several dozen may have been killed.

In the case of Lhasa the Tibetan government-in-exile has published a list of only 23 Tibetans killed on March 14th and 15th. But it is unable to provide a consistent account of these incidents. In an interview with The Economist in May, the Dalai Lama admitted he was uncertain about how the unrest developed in Lhasa and the details of any shooting by the security forces there: “There is a lot of confusion and contradictory information.”

No photographs have come to light from Lhasa of violence by police or troops on March 14th or 15th, nor of any resulting casualties. Photographs of dead bodies displayed in the streets of Dharamsala, the seat in exile in northern India of the Dalai Lama, are said to be those of Tibetans shot in Sichuan. Yet camera-equipped mobile phones are widely used in Lhasa and internet services remained uninterrupted during the rioting. Georg Blume of Die Zeit, a German newspaper, who arrived in Lhasa on March 15th just after the riots, says he expected to hear residents describe a massacre. But in nearly a week of interviews he was unable to confirm any reports of killings by the security forces.

The relay of the Olympic torch through Lhasa was much curtailed for security reasons—though officials claimed the truncation was somehow related to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in May. Officials must have been deeply relieved. Their original plans for three days of ceremonies across Tibet would have been a security nightmare—and would have been even worse had there been no crackdown in March. Foreign journalists and tourists as well as a sprinkling of Tibetan exiles would have poured in. Disgruntled Tibetans would have sensed an opportunity.

Whether deliberate or incompetent, the authorities’ failure to stop the rioting at the outset has been a bigger setback for Tibet’s long-term stability and China’s foreign relations than any official is likely to have calculated on March 14th. Chinese officials appeared to condone the xenophobic outcry triggered by Western criticism of the clampdown. The party, after all, prides itself on its nationalist credentials. But the outburst has also shaken party officials. They are ever fearful that they might become the target of their own citizens’ anger. The earthquake helped restrain the nationalist anger. But as Sharon Stone, an American actress, found in May when she suggested that the earthquake could have been karmic retribution for the clampdown in Tibet, it is easily reawakened.

The Dalai Lama expresses little optimism. He says that because of the unrest the Chinese government might now rally round the view held by some of its officials that “they can’t trust any Tibetans”. It might, he said, step up “demographic aggression” by sending more ethnic-Han Chinese into the region. The Dalai Lama talks of reports that the Chinese have fenced off land and speculates that this might be given to settlers. He even says he had heard a report that 1m of them might come in to Tibet once the Olympic games are over.

Attending the Olympics will make placating China the only mistake of his father's that W repeated in 8 years.

Zemanta Pixie
Posted by Orrin Judd at July 11, 2008 6:25 AM

Let's wait and see what the president does and says before accusing him of placating.

Posted by: erp at July 11, 2008 8:40 AM
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