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Book Review: To resolve its 'core issue' Beijing needs to take heed of Dalai Lama

February 8, 2010

The Japan Times
February 7, 2010

"From the perspective of Chinese Communist Party
ideology, China was a victim of Western
imperialism from the mid-19th century to the
mid-20th century, and, as a result, the Chinese
tend to remember the humiliations they suffered
while rarely considering their own nation to be an imperial power."

In this way, in "The Struggle for Tibet" (Verso,
2009), author and scholar Wang Lixiong sets out
his theses about the past, present and possible
future of China and Tibet. Coauthored with
historian Tsering Shakya, this superb collection
of essays written between 2002 and 2009 presents
arguments that elucidate not only the current
state of Tibetan-Chinese relations, but also
issues that may challenge the very fundaments of
the power base of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Chinese communist policies toward Tibet, and
political actions there, have been, to a large
extent, a mirror image of those pursued by Josef
Stalin in the Soviet Union from the early 1930s
until his death in 1953. The Soviet Union that
Stalin ruled over as a dictator was a multiethnic
and multicultural conglomeration of nationalities
directed from Moscow under the universal banner of state communism.

Stalin, not an ethnic Russian but a Georgian
himself, purged non-Russian leaders in the
various republics of the Soviet Union, but
allowed for local color to flourish in them in
the form of costumed dances, quaint ethnic
customs and non-political magazines in the
various native languages. All of these tokens
were thrown to the peoples of the ethnic
republics and prominently exhibited before
enthusiastic and well-meaning foreign visitors.
Wasn't this proof that the Soviet Union was freely tolerant of all minorities?

The CCP government has gone to great pains in
schools to inculcate into its people the notion
that Tibet has always been a part of China
proper. However, in his excellent introduction to
"The Struggle for Tibet," historian Robert Barnett puts this into perspective.

"Since at least the 1970s," he writes, "Beijing
has dated this incorporation to the 13th century,
when Tibet became a part of the Mongol empire. .
. . From a Tibetan perspective, Tibet's relations
had been with the Mongol or the Manchu emperors,
not with China as a state or with their successor
regimes, and it had therefore become fully
independent in 1913 (after the last Manchu
Emperor renounced the throne in 1912)."

The CCP government has by no means been
inflexible in its approaches to Tibet. In the
early 1980s, Beijing resumed contacts with the
exiles who, together with the Dalai Lama, had
fled Tibet after a rebellion in 1959.

As Wang points out, that new open- door policy
can be traced directly to Deng Xiaoping (China's
de facto leader from 1978-97), who stated in
December 1978, less than a week after coming to
power, that he was willing to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama himself.

In March 1980, Hu Yaobang, who was to be made CCP
chairman the next year, announced six proposals
that were highly beneficial to Tibet. These led
to a rapprochement between the central government
and the people of Tibet that did not come to an
end until March 1989, when martial law was
imposed and a crackdown began in earnest.

Among Hu's proposals were those permitting
autonomous rule, the replacement of
ideology-based laws with practical ones and the
substitution of Han Chinese cadres with Tibetan
ones. In short, the Stalinist model of central
control of an ethnic "republic" propped up on
coercive sticks and fed with token carrots was to be dismantled.

Since the 1980s the Chinese government has poured
huge amounts of money into Tibet to demonstrate
to Tibetans and a world keenly conscious of
events in the region that the Chinese people had
Tibet's best interests at heart. Han Chinese
flocked to the "new" Tibet. But just as Russians
who migrated to the peripheral Soviet republics,
living there in privilege and relative splendor,
saw themselves as superior to the locals, many
Chinese who moved to Tibet ostensibly to help the
native populace develop, considered themselves more civilized than Tibetans.

The Chinese soon learned that development does
not necessarily lead to stability. By viewing
Tibetans with disdain, Chinese people engendered
wrath. By treating Tibetan Buddhism, the essence
of Tibetan culture, with hostility, the Chinese
authorities succeeded only in creating the very
circumstances of rebellion that they were trying to avoid.

"The level of police surveillance and control is
far higher (in Tibet) than in other areas of
China," writes Tsering Shakya. The protests and
riots that broke out in March 2008 in Tibet and
neighboring provinces historically home to large
numbers of Tibetans engaged not only the monks —
the group that had spearheaded the demonstrations
of 1959 — but people from all layers of Tibetan society.

The reaction of the Chinese government to the
widespread unrest in 2008 was decisive and
signaled a pattern devised for use in any ethnic
disturbance. That of course involved bringing out
the police in force. However, the local people
were allowed to riot and perpetrate violence,
particularly toward Han Chinese people, so
fueling as much publicity as possible for events
Beijing labeled "anti- Chinese" in nature.

This permitted Beijing, in the case of the 2008
unrest in Tibet, to blame the Dalai Lama and "his
clique." It also encouraged people throughout
China to rush to their computers and spew forth a
tsunami of nationalistic fervor to drown out any
suggestion that what was happening in Tibet and
surrounding provinces was anything other than a
foreign plot to destabilize the nation.

Shakya concludes that it is the anti- separatists
in the Chinese bureaucracy who have created the
situation of ethnic confrontation we see today.

He writes, "In the name of anti- separatism and
counter-terrorism, China's minority regions will
inevitably be governed under authoritarian police
states." And he adds, "The events that occurred
in Tibet in spring 2008 are likely to interrupt
the process of liberalization in the Chinese state."

Tibet is of massive strategic importance to
China, located, as it is, in the nuclear-weapons
triangle formed by China, India and Pakistan.
Indeed, Barnett calls Tibet "a core issue. . . .
The Chinese state cannot resolve its key
contradictions and become sustainable until it resolves its problems in Tibet."

The Soviet national anthem began with the words,
"The indestructible union of free republics."
Sung in a mere four words in Russian, this phrase
screamed out a paradox: How could the union be
indestructible if the republics were free to
leave it? Less than 40 years after the death of
Stalin, the Soviet Union broke into pieces like a
jigsaw puzzle shaken to the ground.

No one should wish violence or instability on
China; and what degree of autonomous freedom or
independence Tibet is to have is between the Tibetan and the Chinese people.

But after reading "The Struggle for Tibet," I was
convinced that the only way to come to terms with
history is for the political leaders of China to
sit down at the table with the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama.

As Shakya wrote in March 2009, "Until the
underlying issues of perception and language are
resolved, until China listens to local voices,
and local memories are understood, it is unlikely
that any progress will occur."
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