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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Could Tibet be another Tiananmen?

March 17, 2008

By George Walden
Telegraph
16/03/2008

During the 1989 Tiananmen revolt, Deng Xiaoping's order to "clear the
Square before sunset" came after a prolonged stand-off with the
students. High-level leaks showed that the Party elders hesitated before
resorting to violence under the eyes of the world, in a way they would
never have done under Mao Zedong.


# Tibet protest crackdown claims up to 100 lives

In 2008, the year of the country's coming out under the aegis of the
Olympics, the Chinese have reason to hesitate even longer before
submitting to the urge its leaders doubtless feel to impose order at any
cost. Even if access to Tibet is restricted for reporters, news of
brutalities will inevitably get out, with incalculable consequences for
the image of the New China.
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What drove Deng to massacre hundreds of students was fear that the
authority of the Communist Party itself was at stake. What would cause
the Chinese to take drastic action in Lhasa today would be the
territorial imperative - a feeling that foreigners were scheming against
them, and their control of the province was in doubt.

For years the outside world has prevaricated, as they see it. When the
Dalai Lama fled to India in the turmoil of 1959 the United Nations
condemned the violation of Tibet's human rights, but said nothing about
its status.

In China this has never been an issue. Even after the overthrow of the
Manchu dynasty in the 1911 revolution, when China became a republic, it
maintained its historic claims to the whole of the territory. So
although eruptions against Chinese rule have been historically sporadic,
the roots of conflict are long-standing.

Although it was Mao who brutally invaded the province in 1950, a year
after the communists came to power, under his more benign successors
there has been no lessening of China's determination to maintain its
rule. It was China's current president, Hu Jintao, who furthered his
career by energetically repressing an uprising early in 1989 in which
200 demonstrators were killed, months before Tiananmen.

Beijing's leaders are relatively sophisticated folk who have travelled
the world, but any suggestion that the West is questioning China's
ownership of Tibet or has a say in how it should be governed is liable
to evoke atavistic reactions. Hence the sensitivities - or pusillanimity
if you prefer - of many Western governments in their attitude to the
Dalai Lama.

In 1989, Deng Xiaoping said at one of the endless Politburo meetings
during Tiananmen that it was not human rights that were behind Western
support for the students, but an attempt to undermine China's
sovereignty. Beijing will nurse much the same suspicions today,
especially Party old-timers, who will see the outcry over Tibet in the
Western media as part of a strategy to derail China's drive towards
superpower status.

Historically, so far as Britain is concerned, the conservatives have
some excuse for their paranoia: it was after all British forces under
Colonel Younghusband who first intruded into Lhasa in 1903-04, killing
many in the process. Tibet had become embroiled in the "great game"
played out between the Russian and British empires, of which
Younghusband's expedition was a dramatic episode - a tale well told in
Peter Fleming's 1961 bestseller, Bayonets to Lhasa.

Last week a Chinese minister was already warning the West against any
attempt to politicise the Olympics, and we can expect a lot more
warnings over our reaction to Tibet. And while there are Chinese
democrats who would be happy to see a politicisation of the Games,
domestically the regime will be on firmer ground over Tibet.

It would be a mistake to assume that ordinary Chinese, or even
dissidents, will have much sympathy with the Tibetan cause. For them
Tibetans are a backward people who should be grateful for China's
efforts to rescue them from centuries of misery and superstition.

Economically the evidence of investment is there: Tibet grew at 13.2 per
cent last year - an even faster rate than China itself - and a new
high-altitude railway will give the province a further boost. The
trouble is that it will also ensure an even faster rate of settlement by
Han Chinese, not to speak of swifter military reinforcement in times of
crisis. Hence the Tibetans' lack of gratitude.

To understand China's itch to repress, you have to remember that Tibet
is not the only weak spot, as it sees it, on its frontiers. From
Beijing's perspective China's security or sovereignty are in question in
the south (Taiwan), the north (Xinjiang) and the west - Tibet.

The worry in Xinjiang today is not so much Russian ambitions as Islamist
terrorism among the millions of Turkic-speaking Uighurs. Recently, the
Chinese alleged, they were involved in an attempt to blow up a plane en
route to Beijing.

As in Tibet, flooding the province with Han Chinese has been part of the
response - a strategy that could increase tensions further. The ugly
scenes in Tibet have put Western governments, as well as China, on the
spot. Sympathy for Tibetans run higher than for Chinese dissidents: they
have been brutally treated and the Dalai Lama has done a good job of
propagandising his country's mystical appeal.

It is easy to see how Tibet could become a sports celebrity cause. If
Hollywood stars get indignant about China's complicity in the killings
in Darfur, we know what to expect when it starts killing Tibetans. And
this time, calls for a boycott of the Olympics will be more difficult
for Western governments to brush aside - and harder for Beijing to
dismiss as Cold War behaviour.

For the Chinese the risks are enormous: a semi-boycotted Games would be
a national humiliation and a blow against the modernisers.

So how will China react? In China itself tolerance of a degree of
dissent is growing, if only because the totalitarian control practised
by Mao is impossible in a more devolved market system. In Tibet, Chinese
rule is tougher. Once again China finds itself up against the central
contradiction confronting the regime: that between an increase of
personal and economic freedoms and the maintenance of political control
- in this case against secessionist pressures.

The sensible course would be a policy of demonstrative reasonableness,
refraining from force as far as possible and displaying readiness to
talk. China has shown flexibility in the past, notably in the early
1980s, when greater autonomy was allowed and religion revived, and there
were contacts with the Dalai Lama.

According Tibet something on the lines of Hong Kong's status would seem
a way out of an impossible situation in the longer term, though
perennial Chinese suspicions of India might weigh against this.

And although the Chinese have come a long way diplomatically since the
Maoist era, proposals for international involvement, however
well-intentioned, risk being seen as neo-imperialist intrusion.

Tibetans have chosen an obvious moment to draw the world's attention to
their grievances. They are a hardy people, and from their viewpoint
there seems every reason why they should persist.

Meanwhile the international stakes are rising by the day - especially
economically. If Tibet turns seriously nasty and the Chinese in their
rage smell foreign interference, as a major international creditor their
revenge could take forms that could further destabilise an already
tottering Western economic system.

China needs saving from its own atavistic instincts. For Beijing there
is no way out but to find graceful means to give ground to the Tibetans,
but grace has never been a factor in the relationship.

The ancient name for Tibet is Us Tsang - meaning central and pure - but
China was and remains the Middle Kingdom, where there can only be one
centre.
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