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After the Tibet Imbroglio

May 23, 2008

The Tibet issue requires a new method of resolution, as the western
media campaign seemingly directed against anything and everything
Chinese could turn a modernizing youth into a nationalist force,
Bernt Berger writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Bernt Berger in Beijing
International Relations and Security Network (ISN) Security Watch
Zurich, Switzerland
May 21, 2008)

The mobilization of Tibetan unrest on 15 March, while international
attention was directed at the impending Olympic games in Beijing,
gave way to a situation that Europeans will have to deal with for
some time to come.

Inconsistent international reactions, public displays of solidarity
and protests along Olympic torch relays have tarnished the image of
the games as well as of China as a country.

Developments inside the Tibetan camp remained unnoticed. At present,
the main challenge is that the Chinese populace feels misunderstood
and perceives itself under attack of hostile campaigns.

In late 2007, China for the first time had to face international
headwind in its Olympic planning when concerned voices brought the
games into the context of the Darfur crisis and China's engagement in
Sudan. Beijing remained relatively undaunted. The international
interest in Sudan was limited. Besides, China already actively
supported a peace settlement in Sudan.

The events in Tibet and the interruptions at Olympic torch relays
gained wide international attention and provoked strong reactions. In
fact, none of the parties involved has covered itself with glory. In
the heat of the moment the European press nearly unanimously engaged
in uninformed, if not biased reports, zeroed in on China, and
sometimes even misreported on events. Political elites thought aloud
about consequences.

Beijing has reacted as it always has. It expelled foreign press from
Tibetan areas, tried to control information therewith, paving the way
for information-shortages and further speculation.

The tide of events has not led to serious bilateral confrontations
with China. However, asserting pressure on China by discrediting
domestic reform and the Olympic Games has led to negative
consequences. Internal reform achievements remain unnoticed.
Confrontation with China is a setback for the progress that has
already been made in international dialogue.
A broader view of Tibetan unrest

The Tibetan community is divided about what means it should use
toward its end goal of dealing with China. It is confronted with a
generation gap, and the power of the Dalai Lama is seemingly
declining. Officially, he has sought a non-confrontational approach.

Beijing has traditionally mistrusted the Dalai Lama and his
intentions. Unnamed senior-experts in Beijing's think tank circles
have even called him a "cheater" or a two-faced liar. The official
line is that the Dalai Lama has always been a double-crosser: While
demonstrating a reconciliatory approach with China, he initiated
anti-Chinese protests during the run up to the Olympic Games.

More cautious voices in China allege that if the Dalai Lama had been
politically sensitive, he would have chosen different timing, when
the door was open for exchange. Experience shows that Beijing only
enters dialogue if both sides previously agree on the terms of
engagement. In the present case, demands for a autonomous Tibet
proper (including areas in provinces such as Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan,
Yunnan) was not an acceptable basis for dialogue.

The Dalai Lama's middle-of-the-road approach is no longer shared by
all Tibetan fractions. The relatively new and radicalized movement of
disaffected young Tibetans, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress based
in Daressalam, is suspected of being behind the confrontations.

Some security experts ISN Security Watch talked to believe that
Beijing fears that after international attention to the Olympic games
fades, more radical and violent movements might evolve in order to
gain international attention.

However, Beijing's uncompromising stance has contributed to a
radicalization of Tibetans. It has insisted on its prerogative to
rule the territory and maintain social peace through stability.
Beijing's lack of concern for the religious and cultural integrity of
the Tibetan people has fuelled a sense of injustice, especially among
the young generation.
Bringing in the West

Empathic support by the western media of the more or less subdued
Tibetans has overridden China's strategic interests and the internal
status quo, and press coverage has been largely Sinophobic. In
addition, recent outbreaks of violence and the impact of the Dalai
Lama's popularity in European and US popular culture on the present
political situation is beyond comprehension for many Chinese.

The traditional strategic argument holds that Tibet is a
geo-strategic buffer towards India, which is the second biggest power
in the region and has an ambiguous China policy.

More importantly, any concessions towards potentially secessionist
movements will inevitably have an impact on public perception at
home. In order to retain its legitimacy the party will avoid any
signs of weakness, because the Chinese public regards Tibet as an
inseparable part of China.

Beijing's fear is that any concessions to greater autonomy and
special status of individual national minorities would lead to a
domino-effect among some of the 56 recognized ethnic groups. The main
concern is the mobilization of a unified separatist movement among
the Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang.

If pressured, China usually does not deliver the desired reaction,
and in this case, Beijing reacted with its usual knee-jerks rebukes,
for two reasons: Firstly, Beijing was unprepared for the outbreak of
unrest and protests of this scale. Secondly, the Tibet issue has been
handled as an internal affair and any other way of reacting to
foreign media would have been perceived as a sign of weakness or
infringement of national interest. Thirdly, Beijing also lacks
expertise in dealing with international non-state actors and global
civil society. So far, attempts to deal with western media and civil
societies have been clumsy at best.

Sensitivities are now at a high point. Whereas the government does
not want to be portrayed in an unfavorable light or to display
weakness, the people feel misrepresented and offended.

Because of the boycott debate, news reports and torch-relay
disturbances, China's image has taken on lasting damage.

Ironically, Beijing was hoping to use the Olympic Games to portray
China as a transforming, modern country seeking its place in the world.

The danger is that a confrontational approach toward China on issues
such as Tibet might eventually damage already achieved mutual
rapprochements; and as a consequence, European interests. So far,
dialogue-relations with China have been based on mutual benefits, and
part of the current modus operandi is that advice is given only when
it is directly sought.

This approach has arguably made mutual trust-building possible and
led to agreement on a great number of issues. Any changes to this
approach, such as a shift towards greater bilateral confrontation,
should not go without scrutiny.
Reaping what has been sown

The pro-Tibetan protests led to unwanted reactions from the Chinese
public, where the international debate about a possible boycott was
met with incomprehension. Latent grass-roots nationalism has also
been fuelled by international and local media reports.

The protests at torch-relays (particularly the attack on
wheelchair-bound Olympic fencer Jin Jing) especially angered students
at home and abroad. The common perception is that press coverage and
protests have been fundamentally anti-Chinese and therefore against
the people, not just the government.

The prevailing reflex to external discourse ranges from soft
patriotism to die-hard nationalism.

The ai zhongguo (Love China) internet campaign or the pop song zuoren
bie tai CNN ("well-mannered people do not CNN"), can be regarded as
moderate means of expressing currently widespread sentiment. CNN has
been become synonymous with lies. The privately run
webpage lists a great number of misreports in western media. Calls
for boycotts of French products and particularly the multi-national
supermarket-chain Carrefour is a weak but determined way of
expressing sentiments.

A commonly held position is that too much external pressure on China
has a negative impact on China's internal power equilibrium. Indeed,
unnamed liberal sources privately warn that international pressure
harms their efforts to gradually bring forward reforms. Although
hardliners and reformers exist in the various governmental bodies,
the government has so far followed a pragmatic line while fending of
radical stances.

Experience shows that pragmatism ends when the position of the party
is in question. The prevailing problem is that the party can, despite
attempts at inner-party democracy, only be reformed with difficulty.
To date, there has been no indication that recent events have had an
impact on political directions or on the currently fragile (4:4)
balance of powers in the Standing Committee of the CCP. However, at
the event of the Tibet controversy, moderate voices are quieter than
usual and less moderate voices that would have gone unheard under
different circumstances, are being raised.
A fundamental problem of confidence and expertise

China and Europe seem to be increasingly at odds. In the present
case, China's handling of the media and its image as an authoritarian
one-party-system with a still undesirable yet improving human rights
record have done little to boost confidence in Beijing.

The Olympic Games would have been a chance to put China into
perspective, but western activists and the press took hold of the
event as a propaganda tool. In Chinese public perception the whole
country has been punished because of international moral indignation
for the party.

After the games, the Tibetan issue should be raised on an
inter-governmental level. The issue has become an international one,
with Tibetan organizations operating internationally, and viable
solutions must be found.

Furthermore, China is inevitably becoming a global and interdependent
power, and its integration would be less controversial to publics if
Beijing would be more cooperative on a range of issues.

At the same time, Europeans need to engage in a bit of soul
searching. In the mid- to long-term, it will be the burden of
Europeans to deal with the Chinese youth, who could either turn
against the party or embrace nationalist sentiments in the face of
misplaced international condemnation.

Bernt Berger is a Research Fellow and Expert for China's Foreign and
Security Policy at the Institute for Peace Research and Security
Politics at the University of Hamburg (IFSH).

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only,
not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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