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

Plateau bargaining

March 16, 2009

Mar 11th 2009

Fifty years after the 1959 uprising, Tibet remains restive

THE year 2008 was ‘extremely unusual’, said Wen Jiabao, China’s prime
minister, at the opening of parliament’s annual session on March 5th.
For two hours, his speech surveyed the year’s peaks and valleys: the
massive earthquake in May that ‘shocked the world’, the Olympic Games in
August and the ‘unprecedented difficulties’ presented by the global
economic crisis. But of the biggest outbreak of unrest in Tibet in 50
years he mentioned not a word.

Mr Wen had reason to be cautious. On March 10th, 1959, thousands of
Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in the Tibetan
capital, Lhasa, to forestall a rumoured plot by the Chinese authorities
to kidnap him. A week later the Dalai Lama, disguised, escaped to India.
A bloody crackdown on his supporters by Chinese troops ensued. It was
the anniversary of the March 10th uprising that triggered last year’s
unrest across the Tibetan plateau (which accounts for one-fourth of
China’s landmass). Authorities feared larger protests for the 50th
anniversary this year.

In March 1990, nine months after the crushing of the pro-democracy
protests in Tiananmen Square, Li Peng, who was then prime minister,
opened the annual session of the National People’s Congress, as the
parliament is known, with a declaration that the Communist Party had
achieved ‘victory’ over the ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’. Ten years
later his successor Zhu Rongji used the same opportunity to declare
‘major victory’ for the party in its campaign against Falun Gong, a
quasi-Buddhist sect that had staged widespread protests a year earlier.
When it comes to Tibetan separatism, Chinese leaders are less confident.

Still, the government’s anticipatory crackdown made significant protests
unlikely. Tibet has been all but sealed off from the outside world.
Foreign journalists are normally barred and now are being kept away from
Tibetan-inhabited areas far beyond the Tibet Autonomous Region itself.
Army and paramilitary troops have been deployed across the plateau. In
some places, internet and mobile-telephone services have reportedly been
cut off. Such technology played a big role in fanning the flames last year.

Mr Wen’s reticence could also be a sign that when it comes to Tibet, the
party has run out of ideas. In the 1990s it was able to marginalise the
Tiananmen protestors’ demands by launching market-oriented reforms that
resulted in rapid economic growth. This decade it has marginalised Falun
Gong with the help of a remarkably effective propaganda campaign that
has convinced many people that the once-popular spiritual movement is no
more than a sinister cult. In both cases, widespread arrests and other
forms of official intimidation kept dissenters in check.

In Tibet, the party has tried economic inducement and failed; the
region’s economy has grown at a double-digit rate annually since the
early 1990s. The party has had no better luck with trying to portray the
Dalai Lama as a manipulative figure who uses religion to deceive his
people (similar accusations were made against Li Hongzhi, the founder of
Falun Gong). In Tongren county of Qinghai province, which borders on
Tibet, portraits of the Dalai Lama are still ubiquitous in monasteries
(officials in the area have not sought to eliminate them with quite the
dedication shown by their counterparts in Tibet itself).

Arrests and patrols by riot police may have kept the plateau quiet so
far (as the Dalai Lama put it in an anniversary speech delivered in
India, ‘Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear’), but few officials
believe that separatist sentiment has ebbed. If anything, the central
government’s behaviour over the last year will have strengthened support
for greater Tibetan autonomy, if not outright independence. Economic
growth may not have nurtured Tibetan fondness for the Communist party,
but the slump brought on by the crackdown and the global economic crisis
will certainly fuel hostility.

Another explosion of discontent in Tibet is therefore just a matter of
time. Why such an outbreak occurred last year, despite extensive
security preparations in preparation for the Olympics, remains a matter
of conjecture. But one plausible explanation is that some officials
actually wanted turbulence in Lhasa so that they could justify tighter
security in the city well before the games. With thousands of foreign
journalists due to cover the Olympics in August, officials would have
feared that any outbreak of unrest close to that date would be difficult
to control because of intense media scrutiny. The clampdown enabled the
authorities to keep the media hordes at bay and protesters off the
streets. The astonishing near-total absence of any security deployment
across a wide area of Lhasa during the first few hours of the rioting on
March 14th last year lends credence to this theory.

If this is what the authorities had intended, they are unlikely to try
the same tactic again. Even the most Machiavellian of officials would
not have wanted last year’s outcome: protests that spread rapidly across
a huge area and an international outcry that’until the earthquake in
Sichuan Province in May’threatened to overshadow the Olympics and
seriously undermine relations between China and the West.

But the political machinations behind China’s handling of Tibet are
difficult to divine. Mr Wen and his Politburo colleagues have avoided
visiting Lhasa publicly since March 2008. It is widely supposed that
President Hu Jintao is a hardliner on Tibetan issues, having presided
over the imposition of martial law in Lhasa in 1989 when he was party
chief in Tibet. On March 9th, Mr Hu told deputies to the legislature
that China should reinforce its ‘solid Great Wall for combating
separatism’. No doubt some officials may not be convinced by his
approach, but the unrest last year caught many by surprise. This year
they have become more wary.
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