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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."

LEADER ARTICLE: China's Tall Claim

May 4, 2008

Brahma Chellaney
The Times of India
2 May 2008

As a triumphal symbol of its rule over Tibet, China is taking the
Olympic torch through the "Roof of the World" to Mt Everest, which
straddles the Tibetan-Nepalese border.

That publicity stunt will only infuse more politics into the Games
already tainted by the manner China's pressure helped turn the
just-concluded international torch relay into a stage-managed, security
exercise everywhere to pander to its sense of self-esteem at the cost of
the Olympic spirit of openness.

Taking the torch to the tallest mountain is Beijing's way of reinforcing
its tall claim on Tibet. The blunt fact is that the only occasions in
history when Tibet was clearly part of China was under non-Han dynasties
— that is, when China itself had been conquered by outsiders: the Mongol
Yuan dynasty, from 1279 to 1368, and the Manchu Qing dynasty, from 1644
to 1912.

What Beijing today asserts are regions "integral" to its territorial
integrity are really imperial spoils of earlier foreign dynastic rule in
China.

Yet, revisionist history under communist rule has helped indoctrinate
Chinese to think of the Yang and Qing empires as Han.

When a dynasty was indeed ethnically Han, such as Ming (founded between
the Yang and Qing empires), Tibet had scant connection to Chinese rulers.

Today, to prevent any demonstrators sneaking in from the Nepalese side
and spoiling its triumphalism atop the 8,848-metre Everest, China has
pressured a politically adrift Nepal to police entry routes to the peak
and deploy troops up to the 6,500-metre Camp II.

Having eliminated the outer buffer with India by annexing Tibet, China
is now set to expand its leverage over the inner buffer, Nepal, where
the Maoists will lead the next government following elections marred by
large-scale intimidation.

Beijing's plan to take the torch to Tibet is nothing but provocative.
After all, the Chinese crackdown in Tibet continues, Tibetan monasteries
remain sealed off, hundreds of monks and nuns are in jail, and the vast
plateau is still closed to foreigners.

In fact, China specially constructed a 108-kilometre blacktop road to
Everest to take the torch to the summit, unmindful of the environmental
impact of such activities in pristine areas.

China's large hydro projects in Tibet — the source of all of Asia's
major rivers except the Ganges — and its reckless exploitation of the
plateau's vast mineral resources already threaten the region's fragile
ecosystem, with Chinese officials admitting average temperatures are
rising faster in Tibet than in rest of China.

Yet, such is the Olympics' politicisation that Beijing has extended the
torch relay in Tibet into June. After ascending Everest in the coming
days, the torch is to travel to Lhasa on June 19.

The torch's three-month route within China, as compared to just a
five-week run through the rest of the world, shows that for the Chinese
Communist Party, the Olympics are an occasion not only to showcase
national achievements under its rule, but also to help win popular
legitimacy for its political monopoly.

To some extent, the Olympics have always been political, with politics
more about national power and pride. But until this year, politics had
not cast such a big shadow since the Soviet-bloc nations boycotted the
1984 Los Angeles Olympics in reprisal to the US-led boycott of the 1980
Moscow Games.

As if the relay becoming the most divisive in history is not enough,
China is stoking more controversy through the torch's Everest climb and
Tibet run.

Yet, while continuing brutal repression in Tibet, it has made the
Olympics' success such a prestige issue that it has offered to meet the
Dalai Lama's "private representative". Blending hardline actions with
ostensible concessions has been Chinese strategy for long.

Even as it was readying to invade India in 1962, China was suggesting
conciliation. Today, while stepping up cross-border incursions and
encouraging India-bashing by its official organs, with a recent China
Institute of International Strategic Studies commentary saying an
"arrogant India" wants to be taught another 1962-style lesson, Beijing
offers more meaningless talks with New Delhi.

Clearly, China has appropriated the Olympic torch for its own political
agenda. It never tires from lecturing to the world not to interfere in
its internal affairs. Still, during the international relay, it kept
interfering in the affairs of other states, wanting to be kept in the
loop on the local security arrangements and insisting that pro-Tibet
demonstrations not be allowed.

It even helped script some counter-demonstrations by young Chinese along
the international route. Now a pressured Nepal has been forced to
restrict expeditions to Everest in the busiest mountaineering season and
station soldiers with authority to open fire as "a last resort". All
this is to ensure that not a single protester or Tibetan flag greets the
torch on Everest.

All autocrats tend to do things that ultimately boomerang. Who would
have thought two months ago that Tibet would come to the centre of world
attention? A relay carrying the theme, "Journey of Harmony", has helped
bring host China under international scrutiny.

The autocracy's troubles indeed may only be beginning. This year could
prove a watershed. Just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics set the stage for
Nazi Germany's collapse, the Beijing Games could end up as a spur to
radical change in China.

Those who see Tibet as a lost cause forget that history has a way of
wreaking vengeance on artificially created empires.

(The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.)
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