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Spotlight on China, Darkness in Tibet

June 12, 2008

Tibet is shouting. But China isn't listening.
By Dan Southerland
The Christian Science Monitor
June 11, 2008

Washington - China's media covered the country's earthquake tragedy
more openly than any past disaster. But the Chinese government still
maintains a blackout over news from Tibet, which experienced its
biggest uprising in decades this spring.

The blackout explains why you probably haven't heard about continuing
sporadic protests by Buddhist monks and nuns in eastern Tibet, along
with further arrests by the Chinese police. As China consolidates
control of territory it considers its own, many Tibetans are placing
their hopes on a Chinese offer of talks, now postponed, with
representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader-in-exile.

Previous talks have failed -- and not just because of calcified
mistrust. Rather, China appears to see its "Tibet problem" as a
question of economic development, and seems unable to grasp the
centrality of Buddhism to the Tibetan people's national and cultural identity.

One high-ranking Communist Party official this spring called the
Dalai Lama "a wolf in a monk's robes, a devil with a human face but
the heart of a beast." Such language deeply offends many Tibetans.

Still, optimists are watching for signs that Beijing is serious this
time about discussing the Dalai Lama's proposal for "meaningful
autonomy" for Tibet. At the heart of this hope is a belief that a
newly confident China, bolstered by its relatively open and rapid
response to the earthquake and then by the Beijing Olympics, will
agree to loosen its hold over the region.

Pessimists note that China may have agreed to the talks simply to
deflect international pressure prior to the Olympics while pursuing a
harsh policy of arrests and "patriotic education" campaigns inside Tibet.

I saw all this two decades before as a reporter covering three
Tibetan uprisings in Lhasa in 1987, 1988, and 1989.

Then, as now, it began with Buddhist monks protesting and shouting
slogans. The police then detained and beat up some of the monks.
Other Tibetans reacted violently. Blaming the Dalai Lama for causing
all the trouble, Beijing finally reacted with massive force.

Western governments urged talks with representatives of the Dalai
Lama, and Beijing ultimately agreed. But in the end those talks led nowhere.

The two sides reopened "informal" talks on May 4, and what the
Tibetans describe as a more formal meeting was set to begin June 11,
but China has now postponed that meeting.

What will it take to break the cycle of protests, violence,
crackdowns, and failed talks that has prevailed ever since the
People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1950?

Many young Tibetans are beginning to question whether the Dalai
Lama's "Middle Way Approach," which calls for genuine autonomy for
Tibet, has any chance of succeeding. In an interview with the
Financial Times on May 25, the Dalai Lama conceded that he is losing
influence over Tibetans who favor a more militant approach aimed at
full independence.

Western experts say that the Chinese government's mistrust of the
Dalai Lama is now so great that only small steps forward can be
expected from the talks. The hope, though, is that even small steps
will create movement toward a broader understanding. The Dalai Lama
told the Financial Times that he would be willing to attend the
Olympics if the Chinese halt the arrests and torture of Tibetans,
provide proper medical aid to those who were wounded in the
crackdown, and allow the international media access to Tibet.

Early signs are not auspicious. The Chinese government appears
unwilling to acknowledge what may be the real causes of the recent
Tibetan unrest. One of those causes is certainly China's failure to
implement its own autonomy law that now, in theory, protects the
Tibetans' language, culture, and religion. Another is a Chinese
government decision last year decreeing that China will now oversee
the recognition of all reincarnate Tibetan lamas, or "living
Buddhas," presumably including the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama himself.

Yet another cause of unrest has been a state-run program to resettle
Tibetan nomads, causing great disruptions in their traditional way of
life. Nomads participated in large numbers in the recent protests.

But China appears to have concluded that it can out-wait the Dalai
Lama, now 72, in hope that his death will result in the collapse of
Tibetan resistance altogether. In the meantime, China plans for a
major expansion of its new railroad network inside Tibet, bringing in
more Han Chinese immigrants and some day possibly swamping the
Tibetan population.

Experts who have tracked the recent uprising say this influx could
well lead to even greater frustration and more unrest, with
resentment lasting for generations. It's already lasted more than 50 years.

-- Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, is a former
Monitor correspondent and Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.
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