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Chinese Policies in Tibet: A Critical Look

March 21, 2008

March 2008
Opinion: Tibet

China's control of Tibet has been a hot-button issue among westerners
for nearly half a century. Columbia University's Robert Barnett, a Tibet
specialist, discusses how China's influence over Tibet has unfolded, the
economics of the troubled relationship, and attacks on Tibetan national
identity -- including Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party founded the People's Republic
of China, it took over some of the adjacent areas which in its view had
belonged to previous Chinese dynasties: Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia,
Manchuria, and parts of Yunnan. Since then, conflicts have raged over
whether these domains should be part of modern China and whether
Beijing's policies have constituted abuse or neighborly assistance.

The traditional populations of these areas were not ethnically Chinese
(or, to use official terminology, not members of "the Han") and, from
among some 400 such groups, 55 were officially recognized by the new
state as shaoshu minzu or "minority nationalities". Each was promised
some form of autonomy in its local area as members of the new Chinese
"multi-ethnic family."

Tibet was the most problematic of these areas, for few Chinese had ever
been there, aside from a few merchants, two Commissioners, and perhaps
one hundred soldiers at any given time. Furthermore, the Tibetan
government had declared itself independent in 1913, and the Chinese
Communist Party itself had declared in 1931 that Tibetans, Uighurs and
Mongolians had the right to independence. But once the People's
Liberation Army secured the borders of the new China, even to talk about
secession became a capital offence. In March 1959 Tibetans staged a
major uprising in the capital, Lhasa. It failed, forcing Tibet's
traditional ruler, the Dalai Lama, to flee with some 80,000 Tibetans to
India, where they still remain. Land reform, class persecution, mass
arrests, executions, and the closure of monasteries and temples
commenced in Tibet, as they had already in the rest of China.

For some twenty years the nationality areas were treated much as if they
were Chinese: cultural and social differences were suppressed in an
attempt to produce a commune-based utopia. When the Cultural Revolution
came in 1966, struggle sessions (public persecution of individuals to
extract false confessions) and purges increased, and hundreds of
thousands of people -- particularly among Mongolians -- were killed or
driven to suicide.

Apologies and the 1990s -- Modernization without Delay

In late 1978 Chinese leaders, led by Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping,
declared that the Cultural Revolution had been a mistake. (The Great
Leap Forward, which caused millions of deaths from famine in 1959-62,
was hardly discussed.) In May 1980 the then General Secretary of the
CCP, Hu Yaobang, publicly apologized in Lhasa for thirty years of wasted
policy and ordered most Chinese cadres stationed there to be replaced by
Tibetans. The attacks on cultural difference were halted. Instead of
socialism, Beijing explained that it was now bringing modernity and
progress to the non-Chinese.

Nationality cultures were acclaimed as part of the treasure house of
Chinese culture, state funds were poured into museums, dance troupes and
TV shows celebrating minority distinctiveness. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping's
"Spring Tide" campaign led to a wave of modernization throughout
nationality areas -- improvements in birth rates, increases in local
trade and wealth, and a major expansion of infrastructure,
communications, travel and local language publications.

The Questions: Benefits and Cost

These benefits were not delivered without a cost. In 1989, the 10th
Panchen Lama, the most important Tibetan leader to have remained in
Tibet, had famously said that the damage done by Chinese policy errors
had outweighed the benefits. He died a week later. Would his judgment
have been the same if he had lived to see the skyscrapers, hypermarkets,
TV towers and railways that now characterize the ultra-rapid growth of
towns throughout China's nationality areas (which China now calls
"ethnic areas" to avoid the association with independence)?

Much of the current debate is economic: development has radically
increased the gap between urban and rural residents. By 2000 government
employees in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) earned twice as much as
their counterparts in China, but rural Tibetans -- some 80% of the
population -- made less on average than peasants in any other Chinese
province. Ten years earlier they had been earning the same as an average
Chinese farmer. China's leaders have since adjusted policy so as to
"develop the West" and to invest in the "new socialist countryside," but
so far the rural benefits have been hard to see.

Health has become a major expense for most people, since insurance
schemes have not fully replaced the state welfare programs that were
wound down in the 1990s. Urbanization policies, the key to China's
development strategies in its Western areas, have led many Chinese to
move to border areas to make money through petty trading, street hawking
and vegetable growing. Property developers, mining corporations and
herbal medicine manufacturers also flourish in these areas, leading to
local concerns about environmental damage and sinicization, or Chinese
domination of economy and culture. From Beijing, Chinese residents in
nationality areas are visiting "elder brothers" helping their backward
siblings to develop trade and business skills. Others see this as
demographic swamping and a threat to cultural identity.

Development for Whom?

Behind these incendiary issues is a controversy that Beijing scholars
discuss frequently, but which few nationality members dared raise: is
development that is fixated on GDP-growth worthwhile? Wouldn't it be
better to develop human resources and to build up skills and information
-- as Hu Yaobang and the Panchen Lama had in effect proposed in the
early 1980s -- instead of spending lavish funds on shopping malls,
railways and Party office blocks?

By 2004 China's leaders had come to agree with this critique, and in
October 2006 they confirmed social and cultural growth as development
objectives in line with the new slogan of "constructing a harmonious
society." But the news hadn't trickled down to Tibet, whose current
leader, Zhang Qingli, announced two weeks later that the objective there
remained GDP growth of 12 percent or more until 2012. Chinese scholars
say this is just the slow uptake of backward Tibetan officials in Lhasa
who are keen to line their own pockets and who are unaware that the oil
tanker of policy in Beijing has shifted course. But Zhang Qingli is a
close ally of President Hu Jintao and has only been in Tibet a year:
hardly a rural bumpkin. And it may already be too late to build a
Tibetan-oriented development environment. The express train of
ultra-rapid modernization left the station long before the latest
advocates of cultural sensitivity got around to buying tickets.

Dissent versus Stability in the Modern, Harmonious Superstate

For modern nation-states, just as it was for socialists, economics is
the leading concern, and China is no exception. But economic development
in the PRC comes at the cost of individual liberties, and in nationality
areas this trend is increasing.

China's restrictions on dissent, the media, religion, legal process and
other rights are necessary, it is said, to maintain "stability" (the
favorite tenet of China's previous ruler, Jiang Zemin), because China is
still developing and could not survive significant social unrest. Human
rights supporters contend that allowing dissent engages multiple
interest groups in creative problem-solving and so encourages social

Meanwhile, Chinese commentators note the frequent amnesia of their
critics regarding the abuses increasingly carried out by democratic
governments, these days often far more egregious than in China.

Which view is right?

The fiercest form of repression, especially in Xinjiang, a predominantly
Muslim area, stems from the ban on all discussion of independence. But
this is typical of the obsession of nation-states with their territorial
integrity. And responses to secessionism by Sudan, Serbia, Russia,
India, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and even the United Kingdom have led to far
more brutality and death than Chinese policies after 1980.

The People's Republic arranged for each of its official nationalities to
have a local congress and government run by a member of its own
ethnicity. Final decisions, however, are made by Communist Party
officials, usually ethnic Chinese cadres dispatched by Beijing. In
September 2006, for the first time in a quarter century, a Chinese cadre
was appointed to run Lhasa, and fewer Tibetans were appointed to the
city's ruling committee than at any time since the Cultural Revolution.
But the Chinese cadres sent to run nationality areas are seen in China
as having more advanced skills and attitudes than the locals, and so are
believed to produce better government.

Despite some claims, China does not try to wipe out nationality
cultures. But their celebration in the state media is often trite,
focusing on displays of singing, dancing and exotic landscape. History
and writing are intensely scrutinized: nationality scholars engaged in
serious study risk severe punishment if they don't toe the party line.
Each nationality university has a department teaching the local
languages, but these are increasingly marginalized outside the campus
and official religious institutions. In the TAR since 1995 no secondary
school has been allowed to use Tibetan as the teaching medium -- Chinese
is increasingly dominant. But this is only partly a result of aggressive
nation-building: Globalization and a highly competitive labor market are
also promoting the erosion of cultural difference in these areas.

As for religious freedom, the government announced in 1995 that in the
TAR there was enough to "satisfy society's needs." No increase in the
numbers of monks and nuns has been allowed there since then. That year
Tibetans were ordered to stop worshipping the Dalai Lama -- a
restriction that had not been thought of during the 1980s. Now no one
who works for the government in the TAR, perhaps half the urban working
population, is allowed any form of Buddhist practice. The same ban is
imposed on Tibetan students. Even tighter restrictions are enforced in

Officials deny the existence of such prohibitions (many are disseminated
orally in meetings) but say such measures are necessary to prevent
religion being used for veiled attempts to overthrow the Chinese state.
The same officials could add that all nations regulate religious
activities, and that religious restrictions are increasing in democratic
states as the current anti-Islamic phobia sweeps the West.

In today's China, rushed economic development since the 1980s has
exacerbated social divisions. These in turn have led China's leaders to
increase restrictions on the more important shaoshu minzu or "minority
nationalities." But, at the same time, Western countries have cut down
on their tolerance of cultural difference and respect for human rights,
and assessing the costs of China's nationality policies has become
increasingly complex and unclear.
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