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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."

Stabilizing Tibet with Chinese Characteristics

February 22, 2010

By Tsering Tsomo
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
February 20, 2010

The importance given to Tibet’s stability at a
strategy meeting in Beijing last month was
suggestive of the authorities’ reaction to the
widespread demonstrations in 2008 that engulfed
the whole of Tibetan plateau including Tibetan
areas incorporated into Chinese provinces. This
spontaneous outpouring of decades of deep-seated
resentment and anger among Tibetans exacerbated
by increasing alienation and exclusion caught the
authorities unawares. Strikingly, the largest
number of protests was registered in Sichuan
province where a majority of Kham and Amdo
Tibetans live outside Tibet Autonomous Region
(TAR) - of the 1,542 Tibetans who are still
detained, 820 are from this province.

Decades of Chinese policy of pumping billions of
dollars in state subsidies and investments along
with repression of Tibetan people has failed to
buy the party-state legitimacy in Tibet. But
Beijing ignored this message at the recent Tibet
Work Forum, the fifth such forum in 60 years. The
meeting attended by over 300 top officials from
the party, government and military was chaired by
President Hu Jintao who promised "leapfrog
development" and "lasting stability" followed by
an oblique attack against the "Dalai clique" and
"foreign forces" for stoking the Tibet problem.
This after a daring investigative report exposed
the propaganda behind Beijing’s one-sided
definition of the Mar. 2008 Lhasa incident as
“beating, smashing, looting and burning by
Tibetan splittists”. The July 2009 report by
Gongmeng, a Beijing-based lawyers’ organization
and think-tank said the "riot" was caused by
official strategy to bring stability by
propaganda, flawed economic measures and repression of the Tibetan people.

Describing the impact of Beijing’s policies on
Tibetans, the Gongmeng report said, "When the
land you are accustomed to living in, and the
land of the culture you identify with, when the
lifestyle and religiosity is suddenly changed
into a "modern city" that you no longer
recognize; when you can no longer find work in
your own land, and feel the unfairness of lack of
opportunity, and when you realize that your core
value systems are under attack, then the Tibetan
people’s panic and sense of crisis is not difficult to understand."

The Fifth Forum pledged $46 billion to TAR alone
with another $60 billion to both TAR and non-TAR
Tibetan areas in the next 5 years. It is very
likely that these funds will be used to build
huge infrastructural projects that in the past
have failed to benefit the Tibetans - 80 percent
of Tibetans live in rural areas. The project to
build the world’s highest airport in Tibet
announced early this year is an example. The
rhetoric on developing rural areas is a tired
line by now with scant result. The neglect of
real needs of Tibetans beyond the railways and
airports was obvious in a Reuters quote
attributed to Luorong Zhandui, a specialist in
development economics at the China Tibetology
Research Center: “This time we are really
focusing on improving livelihood, whereas
previous policies were mostly concerned with industry and infrastructure."

The irony of economic development in Tibet is
that the top-down measures have contributed to
the ethnic exclusion and cultural corrosion of
the Tibetan people - the supposed intended
beneficiary. Understanding the context within
which these policies are decided is instructive
in understanding their failure: to Beijing
development of Tibet is a means to a political
end. It has never been about genuinely
considering the concerns of a people who do not
share the worldview of Beijing authorities. The
distinctive Tibetan characteristics be it their
faith, language, customs, way of life, culture,
etc., are seen by the authorities as an
impediment to official policies. For these
policies to succeed, the modernization project
with Chinese characteristics should swamp the
Tibetans to a level where a homogeneous unity
with the dominant Chinese culture can be ensured.

Thus the two-pronged strategy on Tibet -- of
developing the region and cracking down hard on
ideologically deviant and politically impure
Tibetans -- has been reinforced at least since
the Third Forum. The difference is not much in
the objectives as it is in the details and the
degree -- for instance, how wide and severe a
campaign to persecute the clergy should be or how
intensive the vilification campaign against His
Holiness the Dalai Lama should be.

The official campaign to discredit and isolate
His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Tibet and
internationally has its institutional roots in
the Third Tibet Work Forum which was held in
Beijing in July 1994. It called for the fight
against separatism a "fight against Dalai clique"
and to "reveal his (His Holiness) true color." In
his speech, the then premier Li Peng said, "the
development of Tibet is not only to balance the
development of different areas, is not only an
economic issue but also is a political issue."
Officials also complained about "too many"
monasteries and "too much” religious activity as
a threat to stability. Ronald Schwartz, professor
of sociology at Memorial University of
Newfoundland wrote that the “climate of fear and
coercion” in Tibet that followed this meeting was
"not seen since the days of the Cultural Revolution."

In 1994, pictures of His Holiness were banned in
public places. In 1996, patriotic re-education
campaigns were instituted in monasteries and
nunneries to force the monks and nuns to
demonstrate their allegiance to the state and
denunciate His Holiness. Evading this test of
loyalty led to arrest and expulsion. Re-education
of Tibetans in Tibetan politics, history, and
religion was intensified. In 1998, a widespread
campaign to promote atheism even in the remote
herding and farming communities was launched to
diminish the influence of religious leaders among
the masses. The ongoing official project to
resettle Tibetan nomads in urban areas can be
viewed as part of this strategy. It was during
this time that the then hardline TAR party
secretary Chen Kuiyuan unleashed a number of
measures that aimed to strike at the core of
Tibetan cultural identity. Much of what was
decided at Third Forum forms the heart of Chinese policy in Tibet today.

Hu’s special emphasis on "normalising" Tibetan
Buddhism announced at the Fifth Forum is clearly
a continuation of an existing policy. Beijing has
already drafted new regulations to undermine His
Holiness’ role in recognizing reincarnated lamas.

The official policy to criminalise all
expressions of Tibetan identity and loyalty to
His Holiness remained unchanged during the Fourth
Tibet Work Forum held in June 2001. This Forum
underlined the primacy of long-term stability and
inclusion of TAR into the national policy of
Great Western Development. With this policy,
Beijing hoped to integrate Tibet into the overall
homogeneity of Chinese culture by imposing
unfettered modernization. Massive resource
extraction drives carried out in Tibet today
received official support during this period. It
also accelerated the influx of Chinese migrants
into Tibet changing the demographic character of
the region. This meeting took place after the
flight of two highly influential Tibetan lamas
into exile - the 17th Karmapa and Arjia Rinpoche
- embarrassing the authorities who thought they
had been grooming a replacement for His Holiness
and thereby get the regime legitimacy.

What was unusual about the Fifth Forum was the
inclusion of non-TAR Tibetan areas in Tibet’s
development policy as it points to a tacit
acknowledgement of the inherent commonalities
between TAR and non-TAR Tibetans. Rather than
policy shift, it could mean a more efficient and
uniformed surveillance system on the Tibetan
plateau. If anything, the last Tibet Forum
reasserted Beijing’s hardline approach as is
apparent in its appointment of Pema Choling a
veteran People’s Liberation Army soldier of
Tibetan descent with an impressive track record
of steadfast loyalty to the party. Zhang Qingli
who famously called the Communist Party of China
the Buddha of Tibetan people was retained as the
TAR party secretary. The stress on stability will
likely see more administrative and military personnel coming into Tibet.

If Beijing wants stability in Tibet, it has to
consider the genuine needs, rights and interests
of the Tibetan people. Development with Tibetan
characteristics is possible when the Tibetans are
not reduced to a powerless minority.
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