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A Passage to Tibet

April 8, 2008

UBUD, Indonesia

The New York Times
April 7, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Remember how we had to learn about the Shia, the Sunnis, the Kurds and
all the smaller agents of Iraqi fragmentation? Over the next four
months, until the Beijing Olympics open, the world is going to get a
crash course in China’s various ethnic and religious minority groups and
their resentments.

Violent stirrings in Tibet are just the beginning. With the world as
stage, the Uighur Muslims of the northwestern Xinjiang region, the
outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement, Mongols and Kazakhs and whoever
else wants his moment in the sun will have a dream opportunity to rail.

I hope violence is contained, and the Chinese authorities show
flexibility, but I’m not optimistic after a big demonstration in London
on Sunday.

If a Tibetan monk grabs the Olympic torch in San Francisco this week and
immolates himself, nobody should be astonished. If the 19th anniversary
on June 4 of the Tiananmen Square crackdown passes quietly, everyone
should be surprised.

Playing in the major leagues is no breeze. That’s where China is after
the remarkable transformation that led to the hosting of the Olympics.
No talk of “peaceful rise,” “harmony,” “multilateralism” - self-effacing
Chinese buzzwords all - can hide that a global power must make tough
calls, decide what it represents, and be judged.

China can no longer pretend to be the unobtrusive power par excellence,
in contrast to American intrusiveness. In Burma and beyond, that just
won’t wash.

President George W. Bush has called President Hu Jintao twice since the
troubles began to urge him to reach out to the Dalai Lama, stop
vilifying him, establish a dialogue, and open Tibet to foreign journalists.

But Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia,
who advised the president on these calls, told me Bush’s laudable pleas
had fallen on deaf ears. “I don’t really expect anything good over the
next few months,” he said.

Hu, who crushed protests in Tibet as party chief there in 1989, typifies
the national consensus that China has delivered Tibetans from feudalism,
ushering them toward modernity with infrastructure and investment.
Tibet, in this view, should be grateful, and the region’s obstinate
“splittists” crushed.

At the Williamsburg Conference here, an annual high-level get-together
on Asian themes, I did not hear one word from Chinese delegates that
deviated from the view that outside agitators have stirred up the Tibet
protests, that foreign media are mendacious or malevolent, that lectures
on human rights are unacceptable, and that no government can tolerate a
separatist movement.

In short, I heard the typical conspiracy theories of any one-party state
unable to reach beyond the logic dictated by its own need for control.

“There was an order for disruption,” said Wu Jianmin, the president of
the China Foreign Affairs University. “But it would be a terrible
mistake to politicize the Olympics. Everyone will be hurt. The people of
Tibet were serfs and have made huge progress.”

I don’t dispute the feudal aspects of Tibetan society. I’d be surprised
if there were not seditious plans hatched outside Tibet. But the Chinese
authorities need to face some greater truths.

These include the facts that a half-century of repression has not
worked; that the Dalai Lama is the most moderate Tibetan interlocutor
they will find; that he has called for autonomy but not independence;
and that he is a revered global figure.

Rather than decry foreign plots, China should also recognize that the
mass arrival of Han Chinese has fed legitimate Tibetan fears of cultural
extinction, and that a stop-go approach to allowing foreign journalists
into Tibet is ham-fisted.

For a long time the core question about China has been whether a
dictatorship with an open market economy can resist its internal
contradictions. The core question now is how you federalize a diverse
society under one-party control.

Or, as Raja Mahan, an Indian political scientist, put it to me: “In a
country that does not separate party and state, how do you create the
space for different peoples to express themselves?”

Democratic India is V. S. Naipaul’s land of “a million mutinies.” Each
mutiny is a safety valve. “But China cannot afford even one mutiny,”
Mahan noted.

China’s Communist party leadership has proved remarkably adept at
adjusting to the country’s explosive growth. But in crisis it is not
nimble. The next few months will present a number of crises that I see,
at root, as challenges to the fashionable authoritarian-capitalist model.

Bush is right to attend the Olympic opening ceremony. Boycotting it
would only accentuate old Chinese feelings of victimization. That’s good
for nobody. But China needs to get over the repressive reflexes of the
one-party state, talk to the Dalai Lama, and understand that harmony in
rigidity is impossible.

A multi-ethnic dictatorship is of its essence brittle; it will be more
so if it does not bend at its Tibetan edge.
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