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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A Tibetan's View of June Fourth: Human Rights in China Interviews Rigzin

June 9, 2009

Research and Publications / China Rights Forum / 2009: Rule of Law / CRF
2009, no. 2 - Facing June Fourth /

 

 

 

How are the “Lhasa Riots” and “June Fourth Incident” related? How did
Tibetans view the 1989 Democracy Movement and the June Fourth crackdown, and
how were they affected? How would a democratized China affect Han-Tibetan
relations? Human Rights in China posed these questions in an interview with
Rigzin, former editor of a Tibet studies journal, who was in Lhasa in the
spring of 1989.

 

 

 

Human Rights in China [HRIC]: Before the June Fourth incident in 1989, what
was the situation in Tibet?

 

 

 

Rigzin: Before June Fourth, some so-called “riots” occurred in Tibet. One
was in ’87, one was in ’88, and one just happened to be in ’89. Because
these three “riots” were on a fairly large scale, each larger than the last,
the result was that in March 1989, the Chinese government declared all-out
martial law in Lhasa.

 

 

 

HRIC: So, in actuality, the Chinese government imposed martial law in Lhasa
earlier than in Beijing. Then what was the relationship between the riot
that occurred in Lhasa and Beijing’s democracy movement?

 

 

 

Rigzin: Many people believe that the events in Beijing and Lhasa resembled
one another. First, in Beijing it was students who first came out to protest
with the slogan: “Oppose corruption, demand democracy.”Then, following the
students’ lead, Beijing residents and students in other cities were
mobilized. It was similar in Lhasa. In March 1989, also in 1987 and 1988, it
was monks and nuns from several major monasteries near Lhasa who came out
first to demonstrate against the government’s policy in Tibet. Spurred on by
them, residents in the city also participated.

 

 

 

HRIC: Can you talk about the ’89 protest activities?

 

 

 

Rigzin: A considerable number of people participated then. At the time,
several government agencies had already received notifications from higher
levels saying that cadres were not permitted to participate or watch from
the side. So all of us stayed in our homes. Even though my house was far
away from central Lhasa, I could still clearly hear the sounds of the
demonstrators shouting slogans from the center of town. Several people who
participated said tens of thousands of people took part. Some scholars
believe that protests in Lhasa preceded the democracy movement in Beijing.
In some sense, they believe that Tibet’s movement gave impetus to Beijing’s
patriotic democracy movement.

 

 

 

HRIC: In your view, what was the link between the events in these two
places?

 

 

 

Rigzin: I think the nature of each of these two movements was different. The
student movement in Beijing was directed at their own government’s
corruption and systemic problems, which they hoped could be solved. However,
what Tibet’s monks and people wanted was Tibetan independence and an end to
the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) rule of Tibet.

 

 

 

HRIC: What were the demands of the March 1989 protests?

 

 

 

Rigzin: At the time, many monks said they wanted Tibetan independence. But
the protest was not organized, it was a spontaneous movement of the masses
and the monks. In actuality, Lhasa’s mass movement was even less orderly and
even less organized than the Beijing student movement. This kind of
spontaneous mass movement had its own slogans, and everyone had their own
demands.

 

 

 

HRIC: What kind of slogans did they have?

 

 

 

Rigzin: The monks said that the government had jailed a monk leader. It was
said that he published some articles that were perhaps quite sharply
critical of the government. This monk’s attainments in Buddhism were very
high, and he was very influential among the monks. That was why many monks
demanded his release and demanded that the government stop interfering in
Tibet’s religious affairs. Many people also demanded Tibetan independence.

 

 

 

HRIC: In 1989 during the Tibet protests, did you pay any attention to the
student movement in Beijing?

 

 

 

Rigzin: I paid close attention. In 1989, from about March 9, Lhasa was put
under martial law for one whole year.When the patriotic student movement
happened in Beijing, the situation in Lhasa was also extremely tense.You
could see troops stationed everywhere. Street corners and intersections were
all guarded by soldiers. Our work units organized us to study material
related to anti-separatist struggle. This made everyone very nervous. But
everyone would gather in front of the television after work.At that time
CCTV was more objective. Everyone hoped in their hearts that there would be
democracy in China soon. In Lhasa, many people, including cadres and young
people, liked to go to the teahouses. They did not go there for the tea. The
main reason was to meet and talk. They talked about many topics, domestic
ones and overseas ones. We spoke about China, about everything.

 

 

 

HRIC:What topics concerned you most?

 

 

 

Rigzin: At the time we wanted news from Beijing. Everyone discussed what in
fact was happening in Beijing. You could see that everyone’s eyes were
brimming with fervent hope. Everyone supported the Beijing student movement
and hoped that there would be a change in China, and that democracy would be
realized quickly. This mentality was very strong, including in me.

 

 

 

HRIC: So what sort of change did you think the democracy movement could
bring to the lives of Tibetans?

 

 

 

Rigzin: Back then everyone believed that only when China became a democracy
would we Tibetans have a place of our own. At the time everyone thought this
way. But there was a contradiction here. From the point of view of
righteousness and justice, Tibetans hoped that the Beijing student movement
would succeed, and that China would quickly become democratic. This was a
thought that came from the heart. But on the other hand, when many Han
cadres from Lhasa’s major offices and bureaus came to the Tibetans for
donations of money and materials, the vast majority of Tibetans in the Lhasa
area did not donate anything. In other words, in their actions they did not
support the Beijing student movement.

 

 

 

Why was that? I believe there are two reasons.One is that in Tibetan history
there have been many mass peaceful demonstrations. They were met with brutal
government crackdown every time, and the vast majority of Han people,
particularly Chinese intellectuals, stood on the side of the government.
They have always held double standards toward mass peaceful demonstrations.
When government crackdowns occur within China, they believe that the CCP is
wrong, but when the same thing happens in Tibet they believe that Tibetans
are wrong. Since this has happened so many times, the Tibetan people have
completely lost trust in their hearts for the Han. Many Han intellectuals
holding positions in Tibetan work units actually masterminded schemes on
behalf of the CCP’s ruling cliques, and played an active role in suppressing
Tibetans. Time and again, they have hurt the Tibetan people. Therefore, when
a large-scale student movement occurred in Beijing, Tibetans on the one hand
hoped that China would change and quickly become democratic, and on the
other hand, were unwilling to give concrete support. Of course, there was a
very small minority of Han scholars such as Liu Xiaobo and Wang Lixiong who
stood up, but the vast majority of Hans completely endorsed the government’s
way of handling the Tibetans.

 

 

 

Another problem was Tibetans’ sense of national identity. Tibetans have
always believed that China occupied Tibet, and not, as they say, “liberated”
it. When Tibetans peacefully demonstrated, Han people did not give them
moral support. Instead, they stood on the side of the government. This
strengthened Tibetans’ sense of national identity. Therefore, when Han
people mobilized Tibetans to donate money and materials in 1989, Tibetans
said: We are not from the same country. This is China’s internal affair.
Doesn’t the Chinese government like to say that internal affairs must not be
interfered with? So we did not interfere.

 

 

 

HRIC: Is this the thinking of the vast majority of Tibetans? Do you also
believe this?

 

 

 

Rigzin: Including myself, the vast majority of Tibetans all think this.

 

 

 

HRIC: After the June Fourth crackdown, what was the situation like in Tibet?

 

 

 

Rigzin: In Tibet people were also captured. Many Han cadres and students in
Tibet were extremely passionate and had organized fundraising activities in
Tibet. Afterwards, one by one these activists were jailed, put in isolation,
and investigated.

 

 

 

HRIC: When did investigations in Tibet begin?

 

 

 

Rigzin: Probably not long after the June Fourth crackdown, probably within
one week after it started. Many people around us were investigated,
isolated, and arrested. I had a friend that was a reporter for the Tibet
Daily agency.

 

 

 

HRIC: Was he Han or Tibetan?

 

 

 

Rigzin: He was Han. He graduated from the journalism department of one of
Sichuan’s universities. He was eventually investigated at his work unit. He
was fairly young at the time and had just been sent from Sichuan. He was
extremely active. He frequently expressed himself in our midst, saying that
we Tibetans should support the Beijing democracy movement, that it was tied
to the fate of Tibetans.

 

 

 

HRIC: Can you discuss how the June Fourth incident influenced you as an
individual? What were your own impressions?

 

 

 

Rigzin: I believe that, under a totalitarian system in which the government
controls the military and the nation’s lifelines, when the masses peacefully
and rationally hold demonstrations, the government will definitely suppress
them. The government has the absolute advantage. So these demonstrations
always fall far short of the effect anticipated at the start. And I believe
that in China, these types of large-scale democracy movements will
eventually fail. This is because the military is in the hands of the CCP. As
soon as they send in the army, there is no way out. Therefore, if China’s
system of government doesn’t change, protests that stem from the hopes
people have placed in the government will always fail to achieve results.
These are my thoughts.

 

Tibetans have always believed that China occupied Tibet, and not, as they
say, “liberated” it. When Tibetans peacefully demonstrated, Han people did
not give them moral support. Instead, they stood on the side of the
government. This strengthened Tibetans’ sense of national identity.
Therefore, when Han people mobilized Tibetans to donate money and materials
in 1989, Tibetans said: We are not from the same country. This is China’s
internal affair. Doesn’t the Chinese government like to say that internal
affairs must not be interfered with?

 

 

 

HRIC: Are you still able to recall the influence that Party Secretary Hu
Yaobang had on Tibet policy while he was in office?

 

 

 

Rigzin: When Hu Yaobang was in office, he came once to Tibet. A conference
for county level cadres and higher was held in Lhasa. At the time some
cadres from our work unit attended. After the conference, they said that Hu
Yaobang’s words astounded them. They said once Hu Yaobang said, “You
Tibetans should fight for yourselves. If you don’t fight for yourselves,
other people will shit on your heads, so you Tibetans should strengthen
yourselves and develop your own ethnic culture.” Many cadres were moved
because previous Han leading cadres had not said such things; they had not
dared to say such things.

 

 

 

When Hu Yaobang was in office, the situation in Tibet was relatively calm.
Back then the Party Secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region was Wu
Jinghua.He was not a Han, he was an Yi. After he came to Tibet he
implemented many central policies and put into effect many policies to
rehabilitate cadres.1 He did united front work, religious work. He truly
implemented many policies that were praised by the people. For example, on
the religious front, some Tibetan government officials who had previously
been criticized were released, given compensation, and returned to their
positions. At that time in Tibet, great importance was placed on religion.
There was a major conference on Buddhism for many Tibetan religious branches
from January 1 to 15 of the Tibetan calendar. The Autonomous Region’s
leaders made personal appearances to donate to the monks. This was
unprecedented.

 

 

 

HRIC: If new policies had been implemented until 1989, why did authorities
then capture the monk leaders?

 

 

 

Rigzin: The circumstances in Tibet had twists and turns. In the past, in Mao
Zedong’s time during the Cultural Revolution, there had been ruthless
struggles, but very few people protested. I think that demonstrations by the
masses generally happen when the political atmosphere is slightly more
relaxed.Only then do their accumulated grievances get let out. Before, they
wanted to let it out but had no opportunity. During Hu Yaobang’s time,
policy was more relaxed, the masses were given a certain amount of the right
to speak, so these monks came out and started demonstrating. They used this
opportunity to settle scores, so in this way many monks came out, and
Lhasa’s masses also came out to support the monks’ actions, and eventually
the large-scale protests of 1987, 1988, and 1989 occurred.

 

 

 

HRIC: What effect do you think China’s democratization will have on
relations between Hans and Tibetans?

 

 

 

Rigzin: I believe it will have a very large effect. Let’s not talk now about
Tibetan independence, because the problem of independence does not look very
realistic. If China becomes democratic, the Tibetan people will have an
opportunity to express their hopes and demands. After China becomes
democratic, relations between Tibetans and Hans will not be like now, in
which one is the ruler and one is the ruled. Now many Han scholars believe
that they are advanced and Tibetans are backwards; they are the rulers,
Tibetans are the ruled. If China becomes democratic, then there will be
people who can fight for the rights and interests of Tibetans. Therefore,
many Tibetans hope that China will quickly democratize.

 

 

 

HRIC: Do you think that the demands raised by the Dalai Lama for high-level
autonomy in Tibet can be realized?

 

 

 

Rigzin: I believe that there isn’t much hope if we solely rely on Tibetans
to strive on their own. Since 2002, the two sides have had contact eight
times, but there hasn’t been any result. Moreover, the Dalai Lama said he
has lost faith in the Chinese government, but he still has faith in the
Chinese people. During these eight contacts over a total of six years, each
time Tibetans were hurt. So, I believe that if it is the Tibetans
participating in a one-sided talk with the Chinese government, then the
prospect is very uncertain. I believe that only if China democratizes, and
after the Tibetan people gain their rights under a democratic system, can
there be room for negotiation. However, some people say that even if China
eventually becomes democratic, if China’s nationalist sentiments aren’t
reduced, the situation for Tibetans will perhaps become even more
difficult.On this point I agree.

 

 

 

HRIC: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

 

 

 

April 24, 2009

 

 

 

Translated by Human Rights in China

 

 

 

Notes

 

 

 

1. During the Cultural Revolution, cadres, along with intellectuals, were
sent to the “cadre schools” in the countryside to perform manual labor and
undergo ideological reeducation.
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