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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

OPINION: Reconciling China and Tibet

March 19, 2011

March 16, 2011 Wall Street Journal

Beijing is missing its chance to reinstate Hu Yaobang's successful policies and win over Tibetans.


There is a Chinese saying, yi rou ke gang—soft power is stronger than hard power. It's time for China to apply this in Tibet. If Beijing continues to treat Tibetans as enemies, they will be enemies.

A year after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet. Tension increased between China's atheist Communist leadership and Tibet's devoutly Buddhist society until conflict erupted on March 10, 1959. More than 87,000 Tibetans died, according to official Chinese statistics, and the Dalai Lama fled to India.

The decades that followed saw mass arrests and state requisition of all private land, leading to widespread hunger and famine. The 1950s Great Leap Forward and 1966-76 Cultural Revolution brought collective suffering in Tibet along with the rest of China.

After Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China's paramount leader and entrusted his Long March comrade-in-arms Hu Yaobang to reform China's Tibet policy. Hu went to Tibet in 1980 and pronounced China's hardline policy an abject failure. His first reforms were to promote local Tibetans to leadership positions, require the remaining Han Chinese officials to learn the Tibetan language and culture, and relax Beijing's controls over religious worship. These reforms were warmly welcomed by the local populace, and were deepened and expanded throughout the early 1980s.

But like many other progressive reforms of that period, this policy was abruptly terminated after Hu Yaobang's death and the subsequent democracy protests. A military crackdown followed in Tibet's capital Lhasa.

Fast forward to 2008, and in the politically charged lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, antigovernment tension again erupted in Lhasa and quickly spread across the Tibetan plateau. Twenty-two were killed, 623 injured—including 241 police—according to the Chinese government. The number of Tibetan casualties was likely much greater.

In a similar incident in July 2009, the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang in northwestern China witnessed an outbreak of ethnic violence that resulted in 197 killed and 1,721 injured. Beijing responded by shutting off all Internet and mobile telephone access to the vast region for more than six months after the disturbance.

Beijing initially responded to both uprisings with similar heavy-handed crackdowns, but the divergent policies that followed are noteworthy. In a surprising gesture of moderation, Beijing sacked hardline Xinjiang Communist Party chief and military veteran Wang Lequan. He was replaced by Han Chinese technocrat Zhang Chunxian, a tech-savvy microblogger who has set out to win the hearts and minds of the local populace as new party leader in Xinjiang. Beijing deeply fears Islamic fundamentalism making inroads in its Central Asian frontier and an extreme Han Chinese nationalistic backlash, hence the political softening.

Contrast this relaxation with the ongoing hardline policy toward Tibet, populated by largely nonviolent Buddhists instead of potentially radicalized Muslims. In the wake of the violence, Tibet Governor Qiangba Puncog was replaced by Padma Choling, a conservative veteran of the People's Liberation Army. And reactionary Party Secretary Zhang Qingli remains firmly in charge, continuing to carry out his uncompromising crackdown on any hint of nationalist separatism and dismissing all progressive-minded local Tibetan officials.

Before this year's anniversary marked by exiles as March 10 Tibetan Uprising Day, Communist Party Secretary Zhang barred all foreigners from entering Tibet. He cited "freezing weather" and "overcrowding" as reasons for the ban. A more likely reason is the forthcoming 60-year anniversary of the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet on May 23 and the third anniversary of the violent events in Lhasa. Beijing's security apparatus in Tibet always goes on high alert at this politically sensitive time of year.

The wild card in all this is the Dalai Lama and Beijing's attitude toward him. He has the potential to resolve the Tibet issue peacefully and in the best interest of all concerned. It is a mistake for Beijing to hope that its nationality problem will disappear with the death of the 76-year-old leader. He is not only a staunch symbol of nonviolence inside and outside the country, but also the anchor of a Middle Way approach that has not been given adequate consideration by Beijing since the death of Hu Yaobang.

In a push for democracy in the Tibetan movement, the Dalai Lama announced last week that he would relinquish his leadership role in the Tibetan government based in India. His formal abdication from politics heightens the credibility of the upcoming popular election to choose Tibet's third prime minister by popular vote.

This will not resolve the reincarnation dispute between the Dalai Lama and Chinese authorities who have declared they will choose their own Dalai Lama when the incumbent dies, as happened in the case of Tibet's second most-revered religious figure the Panchen Lama in 1995. But the Dalai Lama's retirement as political leader will diminish Beijing's opportunity to use politics as an excuse to claim legitimacy in the religious succession issue.

The failure by Beijing to utilize the Dalai Lama's moderation to resolve this conflict is not only a sign of lack of political foresight but also lack of confidence and imagination. An international movement of young Tibetans and their foreign supporters advocating independence, including organizations like Students for a Free Tibet and the Tibetan Youth Congress, is gaining global momentum and is viewed with alarm and as a threat by the Chinese government. The movement is multiplying in conviction that violence must be contemplated as a result of impatience with China's unwillingness to seek a serious settlement of the conflict, and its conciliatory gestures in Xinjiang as a result of the threatened and actual violence there.

Throughout this more than half-century-old conflict, the communication gap between the two populations has perpetuated misunderstanding. But digital technology has created an environment conducive to youth from both sides to interact and engage. Young people can create a congenial atmosphere to yield a solution based on mutual interest and respect, rather than clinging to blind nationalism.

Soft power is stronger than hard power in resolving a difficult problem like China's presence in Tibet. The failure of China's Tibet policy is illustrated by frequent civil unrest against the government's policies such as its ongoing patriotic re-education campaigns. If China is to achieve real security and stability in Tibet, it's time to return to the soft power policies that Hu Yaobang implemented more than three decades ago. The more China relaxes its grip, the more stable and secure Tibet will be.

Mr. Wang is a Chinese student and Mr. Gyal is a Tibetan student at Duke University.

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