The events shaking the wider Tibetan area – which also covers most of Western Sichuan and parts of Gansu as well as the Tibetan autonomous region proper – should lead both the Chinese government and its international partners to a deep reconsideration of past policies.
The risks involved are deadly. Just as they did in 1989, the Chinese authorities have fumbled from the start of the crisis ten days ago. They did not allow legal demonstrations or talk to Tibetan representatives, and missed the opportunity to quell the first unarmed demonstrations with a relatively restrained use of force. They are now faced with an unarmed uprising in Lhasa and several strongholds of opposition in other widely known areas, such as the Labrang monastery in Xiahe – a top international tourist attraction.
A mixture of sophisticated and crude media and communications control has exploded in the face of the censors; while foreign TV channels are blacked out in hotel rooms across the country, imperfectly coordinated and inefficient censorship has simply drawn people’s attention ever more to what the Chinese authorities are trying to hide. By suppressing mobile communications in specific areas it is possible to avoid Burma-like pictures – but in this day and age such methods can’t work for very long.
And so, on March 15, China’s official media suddenly came out of the cold with shrill, civil-war like denunciations of a Dalai-Lama inspired plot, provocative images of rioters lynching ethnic Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa, and ominous threats which suddenly echo the June 1989 Tiananmen repression.
But the risks are not just for the Chinese authorities, who fear most of all a loss of face with the coming summer Olympics. For the Tibetans, this is not an uprising of hope, it is a manifestation of despair – as shown by a level of violence which is deeply antithetic to Tibetan culture and to the Dalai-Lama’s own consistently expressed principles.
The violence is led by very young people uprooted from their own culture, whose identity is under threat. The official Chinese media, who revelled in the spectacle of Parisian suburbs set aflame by young ethnic French protesters in 2005, should rather learn after the experience of the French riot police, who avoided all but two casualties during weeks of nightly arson.
It is highly likely that nearly 20 years after Tiananmen, China’s Communist Party and security forces will still fall back on the People’s Liberation Army to “retake” areas now under a state of siege, and also to “retake” control of the political situation. A worsening cycle of repression and violence would be a tragedy for the Tibetans, who have absolutely no hope of winning this fight in a country of 1.35 billion people where prejudices run deep, and where repression, as in Burma, will soon be kept out of sight.
China’s policies towards the Tibetans have been short-sighted. Its constant demeaning of the Dalai-Lama – including threats to any official foreign interlocutor – have simply deprived China of an interlocutor who must be one of the world’s most moderate leader of a communitarian movement – for more than a decade, the Dalai-Lama has renounced advocating Tibetan independence.
Instead of dialogue, China has over-reached itself by counting on the onslaught of modernity and money-seeking Han immigrants to Tibet to marginalize the Tibetans, by hoping for the Dalai-Lama’s health to fail, and by preventing an autonomous process of succession for the Panchen-Lama.
Even as the drama unfolds, China’s official media deny that any religious or cultural issue is involved, pointing instead at a plot for independence. This contradicts China’s slow march towards the acceptance of other churches, clergies and representatives which it does not completely control, such as its increasing dialogue with the Vatican for example.
Is the worst sure to happen?
There is a welcome wavering in China’s attitude. For instance, on March 16 it did not censor local access to the Dalai-Lama’s live interview in international media, where he denounced the “voluntary or involuntary cultural genocide” of the Tibetans, but also declared himself against a boycott of the summer Olympics, out of “respect for China’s pride”.
A leadership anointed anew by its Party constituency also faces the consequences of the international financial storm as it seeks a response to the demonstrations that will allow for a peaceful summer. China’s leaders could stop the spiral of violence and embark on a wholly new course if it did just one thing: recognize the Dalai-Lama as a spiritual leader by meeting with him.
This is not such a huge gesture for a government that has held unofficial talks with the Dalai-Lama’s entourage for years. But it remains a huge policy change for a regime which not only treats the unity of Chinese territory as a sacred issue, but also will not recognize religious leaders it has not nominated.
China’s international partners – including the European Union – will need to ponder several policy consequences: China’s transition to a responsible and “normal” power is very fragile, and the authoritarian structure remains a major handicap. Issues of civil society, human rights and popular representation will not let themselves be forgotten.
But how can we persuade China, after failing to achieve much in Burma? China’s huge international exposure offers more leverage for shaming actions. But China’s capacity to resist pressure is infinitely larger. It is vital to maintain a frank dialogue with China, exposing its failures but respecting its national interests.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.