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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Tibet crackdown breeds more dissent

May 26, 2010

By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Though Chinese leaders have restored Internet services and installed a new party chief with a lighter touch in the troubled far western region of Xinjiang, another restive region, neighboring Tibet, continues to roil under Beijing's heavy hand.

The two-year crackdown on Tibet has reached the point where paranoid authorities in the regional capital of Lhasa are now raiding printing and photocopying shops in an attempt to stamp out the dissemination of any information that might be considered subversive. Soon all such shops in the city will reportedly be required to re-register with the government to enable public security officials to collect the names, addresses and identity numbers of potential troublemakers.

The move follows a boom in the publication of unofficial histories, articles and pamphlets about Tibet, some of them written by former government officials who, following the Chinese leadership's violent suppression of Tibetan protests in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, hosted by Beijing, repudiated the central government's policies toward the region.

The congenial, media-savvy Zhang Chunxian settled into his new job this month as Xinjiang Communist Party secretary after his hardline predecessor, Wang Lequan, noted for his harsh crackdowns on disaffected Uyghurs in his region, was removed. And President Hu Jintao gave the new party boss a big boost last week when he unveiled a plan to increase investment and eliminate poverty in Xinjiang by 2020.

Meanwhile, in Tibet, where any expression of pride in Tibetan culture is regarded as "splittist", the nasty beat goes on. But the more Beijing tries to hammer down Tibetan pride, the more Tibetan anger and defiance it stirs up. Indeed, it seems Tibetan dissidents and intellectuals, relatively quiet during the 1980s and 1990s, have been re-energized by the leadership's violent response to the 2008 protests and subsequent blanket of suppression.

Those protests, which Beijing claims were instigated by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, started on March 10 in Lhasa as a commemoration of the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule, but they soon turned into riots that spread through the region and into neighboring provinces with Tibetan populations.

Beijing's outrage and embarrassment were palpable just months ahead of China's international coming-out party at the Olympics. Officially, 19 people died and 623 were injured in the unrest, but the real casualty figures are no doubt much higher.

The number of intellectual casualties since the riots has also been large. According to a report released last week by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), more than 50 Tibetan dissidents - writers, editors, artists and even pop singers - have been jailed. The report, entitled "A 'Raging Storm': The Crackdown on Tibetan Writers and Artists after Tibet's Spring 2008 Protests", chronicles many of their stories, concluding, "Despite, and perhaps because of, the severity of Beijing's response [to the protests], dissent continues to be openly expressed, particularly through the written word."

The report describes a "resurgence of Tibetan cultural identity" embraced by a growing number of artists and young intellectuals who increasingly challenge official accounts of Tibetan history with their own narratives.

This is what one would expect an ICT report to say, but the stories it contains make for compelling reading and should give the Chinese leadership pause for a rethink of the heavy-handed approach in the region. Clearly, that approach is not winning many Tibetan hearts and minds; in fact, it is turning them away.

The most damning story in the report concerns the prominent writer and editor Shogdung ("Morning Conch"), who was detained on April 23 in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, which borders Tibet. He has not been seen or heard from since. Shogdung, whose real name is Tagyal, was working as an editor at the Qinghai Nationalities Publishing House when police entered his office and spirited him away.

The author of several well-known books, the 47-year-old intellectual was once regarded as a friend of the Communist Party for his criticisms of Tibet's traditional Buddhist culture, which he characterized as blocking the region's modernization, development and integration with the rest of China.

But in his latest book, The Line Between Sky and Earth, Shogdung apologizes for his earlier views on Tibetan Buddhism and describes Tibet as "a place of terror".

That the Communist Party's once official Tibetan intellectual has turned on his political masters and subsequently "disappeared" is a story that will only further inflame tensions in the region.

In other cases documented in the ICT report, editor Tashi Rabten was detained on April 6 and pop singer Tashi Dondrup on December 3. Rabten was targeted for editing a collection of essays, entitled Eastern Snow Mountain, critical of Beijing's handling of the 2008 protests. Dondrup, seized while dining with his wife and friends at a restaurant in Xining, has been sentenced to 15 months in a labor camp for "incitement to split the nation".

Dondrup's days had been numbered since the release last October of his CD Torture Without a Trace, whose 13 songs condemn the central government's 2008 crackdown and call for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Dondrup was also detained in 2008 after the release of another CD about the crackdown.

The ICT report is a reminder that the Chinese leadership is no closer to a solution to its problems in Tibet. In fact, things are arguably getting worse as Beijing's strategy of demonizing the Dalai Lama and suffocating all dissent is simply not working. Dissent is on the rise, and no observer with any sense of perspective believes the central government's relentless caricature of the Dalai Lama as an evil-minded splittist bent on inciting murder and mayhem in his homeland.

That caricature took another hit over the weekend when the Dalai Lama went online to chat with Chinese users of the popular microblogging service, Twitter. Although Twitter has been blocked in China since last June, tens of thousands of Internet users have managed to skirt the censors to start their own Chinese Twitter community.

The Dalai Lama's hour-long session took place on Friday night via the Twitter account of dissident novelist and convert to Tibetan Buddhism, Wang Lixiong. It attracted more than 8,000 followers. While that is a drop in the bucket of China's population of 1.3 billion, it nevertheless marked the first time that the Dalai Lama, who went into exile during the 1959 uprising, has interacted with such a large number of mainland Chinese.

Nearly 300 questions were collected for the session, many of them concerning the 74-year-old spiritual leader's plans for his successor and the future status of Tibet. At no point in the conversation did the Dalai Lama call for the independence of Tibet. After his death, he wrote, a democratically elected chief executive would run Tibet's government in exile in Dharamsala, India. And, when asked about the continued presence of the People's Liberation Army in Tibet, he tweeted, "I have reiterated it very clearly: diplomatic and defensive issues in Tibet should still be taken care of by the central government."

Finally, he expressed hope for Tibet's future, "I believe not far in the future there will definitely be change and the problems will be resolved."

But Chinese leaders have made it clear they are in no mood to compromise. They will wait for the Dalai Lama to die, find their own puppet reincarnation to replace him (just as they have done with the Panchen Lama - traditionally regarded as the second-highest religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism) and go from there.

Time, they feel, is on their side.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk .

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