Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China's wilder west

September 9, 2010

John Garnaut
The Age
September 9, 2010

THIRTY years have passed since the reformist
Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang -
probably the most important mentor of current
party boss Hu Jintao - climbed to the roof of the
Dalai Lama's Potala Palace, looked out at the
lavish government buildings in the
poverty-stricken capital of Lhasa and resolved to
turn his government's hardline policies upside down.

He lambasted local cadres for perpetuating ethnic
Han chauvinism and the "ultra-leftist'' policies
of the Cultural Revolution, such as demonising
the Dalai Lama. He also sacked the local party
boss, ordered that tens of thousands of Han
Chinese cadres be replaced by Tibetans and issued
what Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett describes as
''perhaps the closest thing in Chinese Communist
Party history to a real apology."

"We feel that our party has let the Tibetan
people down. We feel very bad!" Hu Yaobang told
Tibetan cadres on behalf of the party's central leadership.

"The sole purpose of our communist party is to
work for the happiness of people, to do good
things for them. We have worked nearly 30 years,
but the life of the Tibetan people has not been
notably improved. Are we not to blame?"

One of the mysteries of modern Chinese politics
is what goes through the mind of President Hu
Jintao when he honours Hu Yaobang's family shrine
each Chinese New Year. In the three decades since
Hu Yaobang's extraordinary mea culpa, and 21
years since his death, Tibetan economic living
standards have improved significantly but the
political situation remains at crisis point.

Three weeks ago, the head of the party's United
Front Department told Tibet cadres to appoint
only ''politically reliable" monks and demanded
that clerics play a leading role in
"anti-separatist struggles." About the same time,
Tibetan sources revealed that authorities had
secretly sentenced Tibet's wealthiest businessman
to life imprisonment - which may have something
to do with a large donation to the Dalai Lama.

This week the official Xinhua news agency
belatedly admitted that security forces had
killed a Tibetan protester with a "stray bullet"
on the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan
province, while Tibetan sources put the death toll at three or four.

Today, visitors to the Potala Palace look out
over a Han Chinese-dominated business district,
and a lavish joint headquarters for the Communist
Party and "autonomous" government. Immediately
beyond is a one-kilometre-long People's
Liberation Army headquarters, various police and
military barracks, and the occasional convoy of
trucks packed with heavily armed troops.

The narrow cobblestone streets of the old Tibetan
quarters are crawling with armed police and
police informants. Tibetans are mostly too scared
to talk openly with foreigners, but in dark
corners after dusk many speak of their furious
anger towards "the Chinese," as well as a
near-obsessive faith in the Dalai Lama, a
religious leader now so politically potent that
even possessing his photograph is regarded by the
authorities as evidence of subversion.

Armed police patrols are as much a source of
comfort and reassurance to many Han Chinese as
they are a cause of anxiety and anger for
Tibetans. In March 2008, rioting Tibetans filled
these streets with so much fire and blood that
many Han witnesses still have great difficulty speaking about it.

"Terrible -- just terrible," says Zhang Yan, a
migrant entrepreneur whose son and husband remain
behind in Hunan province. Immediately after the
riots, Zhang shifted her small cosmetics business
from Lhasa to the more peaceful town of Shigatse.
"We give them so many conditions, and yet ...,"
she says, her eyes filling with tears as she struggles to finish her sentence.

More than two years after at least 19 people were
killed in the riots, parts of Lhasa still feel
like a war zone. But the situation to the north
in the sprawling Xinjiang Uighur autonomous
region is even more serious. According to the
official figures, about 200 people were butchered
in riots in July last year, mainly Han Chinese
but also Uighurs, the local Muslim ethnic group,
gunned down by security forces.

Days after those riots a Han construction worker
told us of watching Uighurs slaughtering Han -
"slicing their throats like lambs" - in Shanxi
Lane in the heart of the Uighur district in
Urumqi City, before armed police opened fire, killing the Uighurs.

"The Chinese have taken everything away and left
us with nothing," explains a young Uighur who
took part in the outbreak of violence. "So we
throw rocks and whatever we have in our hands, and they have guns."

And yet these two waves of race riots -- China's
worst violence since the 1989 Tiananmen Square
massacres - were not accepted as evidence that
China's hardline policies in Tibet and Xinjiang
had reached their use-by date, but that they should be tightened.

Even now the stock response of Chinese leaders
and official scholars is to claim that things are
going just fine. ''The local, ordinary people
love the country, they love the Communist Party
of China," says Tibet's otherwise urbane and
sophisticated deputy party chief, Hao Peng.

Analysts inside the system are more realistic.
"The situation in Tibet has not improved but
everyone forgets about it because Xinjiang is
worse," says a Chinese security official, whose
specialises in counter-terrorism in Xinjiang.

The security official agrees western China is
stuck in an escalating cycle of repression and dissent.

"When a policeman sees several Uighurs together,
both sides get nervous, and when people get
nervous incidents can happen," he says, adding
that this fear explains why the government is
beginning a campaign against organised religion among Muslim Uighurs.

Publicly, the bloody race riots are blamed on the
exiled Tibetan and Uighur leaders, the Dalai Lama
and exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, and
biased Western media, or simply the ungrateful
character of Tibetans and Uighurs.

"When people in heartland China have less income
they accept that it's because they have less
ability,'' says Zhao Mingwen, a former senior
diplomat, now head of Borderland Studies at a
Foreign Ministry think tank in Beijing. "But in
Xinjiang or Tibet, they say, 'It's because the
Chinese government stopped us from getting it'."

Hu Yaobang is still remembered fondly and even as
a hero by Tibetans - "I admire Hu Yaobang's
courage,'' said the Dalai Lama in 2005 - but few
Tibetans or Uighurs pause to thank President Hu Jintao for anything.

A report by the International Campaign For Tibet,
Tibet at a Turning Point, blamed Hu Jintao for
brutal massacres and political repression when he
was party boss of Tibet in 1989. It also blamed
him for the "hardline policies against Tibetan
culture and religion" that were formalised by party central in 1994.

But Hu Jintao is the most opaque of Chinese
political leaders and the truth may be more complicated.

Tibet and Xinjiang are run so much more tightly
than the rest of China that local scholars have
to balance research with propaganda
responsibilities, while only a few well-behaved
foreign scholars are granted access.

In a hushed voice, a Tibetan scholar told me that
Hu Jintao had faced "sabotage" while in Tibet and
that he was on the ''soft'' side of internal debate.

Robbie Barnett, of Columbia University, for whom
access is not a priority, says "the unravelling
of Hu Yaobang's ideas'' over the past two decades
is "fascinating because it seems so unnecessary,
so inimical to China's interests, and because
it's what almost certainly triggered the recent protests."

"Why has China persisted with this lose-lose
policy?" he asks. "Perhaps it's because the only
people who do not lose from it are the hardline bureaucrats who run it."

Three key hardliners who have been running policy
in western China in recent years all started out
together around the oilfields of the Yellow River delta in Shandong.

They are Wang Lequan, who ran Xinjiang for 16
years, his former deputy Zhang Qingli, who is now
party boss of Tibet, and Zhou Yongkang, China's
formidable security boss, who sits on the elite
nine-member Politburo Standing Committee and
controls China's police, intelligence and justice systems.

They all cut their teeth around Petrochina's
Shandong oilfields and it seems no coincidence
that Petrochina and Shandong businessman now dominate enterprise there.

In 2002, the trio was reunited when Zhang was
appointed Wang Lequan's deputy in Xinjiang. In
2005, Zhang was promoted to be the party boss of
Tibet. In 2008, he became known for describing
the Dalai Lama as "a wolf in monk's clothes, a devil with a human face."

Crony business practices, and mineral wealth
being siphoned off to eastern China, are a cause
of acute discontent, not only for Uighurs and
Tibetans but for other Chinese who are outside the privileged network.

Optimists can point to the fact that Wang was
moved from Xinjiang back to Beijing in April -
and that he was replaced by one of the Communist
Party's more sophisticated leaders, Zhang
Chunxian. One of Zhang's first acts was to turn
the internet and SMS phone message system back
on, after the region had been electronically cut
off from the rest of China and the world because of last year's riots.

ILHAM Tohti, China's most prominent Uighur
scholar, who teaches at the Minorities University
in Beijing, told me at the time that he had "high
expectations" of the new Xinjiang leader but was
sceptical that this would lead to broad ranging change.

"No matter how an official dances, he will dance
with the red flag on his feet," he said in May.

The Chinese security source says Xinjiang has a
habit of changing leaders who arrive with benevolent intentions.

"Wang Lequan was also relaxed and easy going when
he first arrived and became progressively hardline," says the source.

"My guess is that the same is already happening
to Zhang Chunxiang, since the Aksu attack," he
says, referring to a Uighur terrorist attack that
killed seven people in Xinjiang last month.

The Chinese government is moving to address some
of the economic inequalities experienced by
Tibetans and Uighurs. Hao Peng, Tibet's deputy
party boss, revealed a range of new affirmative
hiring, education and funding policies designed
to close the gap between ethnic Tibetans and the
wealthier migrants from China's eastern provinces.

But there is no sign of any softening of the
hardline stance on ethnic "separatism," a
position that enjoys strong support among Han Chinese.

There are, however, dissenting voices that express concern about this approach.

Two years ago I interviewed Wang Lixiong, a
Beijing author who is married to a Tibetan and
who has travelled extensively through Tibet and Xinjiang.

He was dismayed at China's lack of awareness of
its new "imperialism" and how the party's
propaganda system was promoting a new racial
nationalism by blocking all public discussion of
the underlying causes of Tibetan discontent.

Now, following the Xinjiang riots and seemingly
ever-tightening political repression in Tibet and
Xinjiang, Wang's fears have only hardened. He
believes ethnic Han Chinese chauvinism and
repressive political policies in western China
are inextricably tied to the Communist Party's
refusal to countenance political reform in China generally.

Wang says tapping into racial nationalism adds
popular support to a party that lacks democratic
legitimacy, while exaggerating the risks of
"separatism" provides a rationale for stonewalling democratic reform.

This week, 30 years after his mentor Hu Yaobang
tried to reform governance in Tibet, President Hu
Jintao gave a speech in Shenzhen to mark three
decades of economic reform but passed up the
opportunity to talk of political reform.

"My views have only strengthened," says Wang.
"There is a risk that this will eventually develop into fascism."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank