Prolonged unrest in Tibet could unravel China’s monocracy
The scrutiny that will accompany the 2008 Beijing Olympics could be the spur that brings change to China.
By BRAHMA CHELLANEY
Japan Times, March 27, 2008
The monk-led Tibetan uprising,
which spread across Tibet and beyond to the traditional Tibetan areas
incorporated in Han provinces, marks a turning point in communist
China’s history. It is a rude jolt to the world’s biggest and longest
surviving autocracy, highlighting the signal failure of state-driven
efforts to pacify Tibet through more than half a century of ruthless
repression, in which as many as a million Tibetans reportedly have lost
The open backlash against the Tibetans’ economic
marginalization, the rising Han influx and the state assault on Tibetan
religion and ecology constitutes, in terms of its spread, the largest
rebellion in Tibet since 1959, when the Dalai Lama and his followers
were forced to flee to India. Even in 1989, when the last major Tibetan
uprising was suppressed through brute force, the unrest had not spread
beyond the central plateau, or what Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous
Region. Now, the state’s intensifying brutal crackdown across the
Tibetan plateau — an area more than two-thirds the size of Western
Europe — dwarfs other international human-rights problems like Burma
and Darfur, Sudan.
Indeed, the current revolt openly challenges China’s
totalitarian system in a year when the Beijing Olympics are supposed to
showcase the autocracy’s remarkable economic achievements. It is a
defining moment for a system that has managed to entrench itself for 59
long years and yet faces gnawing questions about its ability to survive
by reconciling China’s dual paths of market capitalism and political
monocracy. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern
history was 74 years in the Soviet Union.
The latest events have laid bare the strength of the
Tibetan grassroots resistance despite decades of oppression, including
the demolition of monasteries, the jailing of independent-minded monks
and nuns, the state’s wanton interference in the mechanics of Tibetan
Buddhism, and the forced political re-education of Tibetan youth and
monks. Tibet’s rapid Sinicization today threatens to obliterate the
Tibetan culture in ways the previous decades of repression could not.
That threat has only sharpened the Tibetan sense of identity and
yearning for freedom.
For Chinese President Hu Jintao, who owes his swift
rise to the top of the party hierarchy to his martial law crackdown in
Tibet in 1989, the chickens have come home to roost. The fresh
uprising, coinciding with Hu’s re-election as president, epitomizes the
counterproductive nature of the Hu-backed policies — from seeking to
change the demographic realities on the ground through the "Go West"
Han migration campaign, to draconian curbs on Tibetan farmland and
The Tibetans’ feelings of subjugation and loss have
been deepened as they have been pushed to the margins of society, with
their distinct culture being reduced to a mere showpiece to draw
tourists and boost the local economy, which benefits the Hans.
The natives also have been incensed by atheistic
China’s growing intrusion into Tibetan Buddhist affairs, as exemplified
by Beijing’s recent proclamation making itself the sole authority to
anoint lamas — traditionally a divine process to select a young boy as
a Buddha incarnation. Having captured the institution of the Panchen
Lama, the second-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, Beijing is
preparing the ground to install its own puppet Dalai Lama after the
present aging incumbent passes away. So shortsighted is this approach
that the rulers in Beijing don’t realize that such a scenario will
surely radicalize Tibetan youth and kill prospect of a peaceful
settlement of the Tibet issue.
The ongoing crackdown, behind the cover of a Tibet
that has been cut off from the outside world, symbolizes what the
communist leadership itself admits is a "life and death struggle" over
Tibet. The likely further hardening of the leadership’s stance on
Tibet, as a consequence of the uprising, will only help mask a serious
challenge with wider political implications. At a minimum, the
crackdown by a regime wedded to the unbridled exercise of state power
promises to exacerbate the situation on the ground.
The muted global response thus far to the bloodletting
and arbitrary arrests in Tibet is a reflection of China’s growing
clout, underscored by its burgeoning external trade, rising military
power and unrivaled $1.5 trillion foreign-exchange reserves, largely
invested in U.S. dollar-denominated assets. Given that even the 1989
Tiananmen Square massacre did not trigger lasting international trade
sanctions, the lack of any attempt to penalize China for its continuing
human-rights violations in Tibet should not come as a surprise.
But Tibet’s future will be determined not so much by the international response as by developments within China.
After all, the only occasions in history when Tibet
was clearly part of China was under non-Han dynasties — that is, when
China itself had been conquered by outsiders: the Mongol Yuan dynasty,
from 1279 to 1368, and the Manchu Qing dynasty, from mid-17th century
onward. It was only when the Qing dynasty began to unravel at the
beginning of the 20th century that Tibet once again became an
independent political entity.
What Beijing today asserts are regions "integral" to
its territorial integrity are really imperial spoils of earlier foreign
dynastic rule in China. Yet, revisionist history under communist rule
has helped indoctrinate Chinese to think of the Yang and Qing empires
as Han, with the result that educated Chinese have come to feel a false
sense of ownership about every territory that was part of those
The truth is that Tibet came under direct Han rule for
the first time in history following the 1949 communist takeover in
China. Just as the politically cataclysmic developments of 1949 led to
Tibet’s loss of its independent status, it is likely to take another
momentous event in Chinese history for Tibet to regain its sovereignty.
That event could be the unraveling of the present
xenophobic dictatorship and the synthetic homogeneity it has implanted,
not just in institutional structures but also in the national thought
process. Today, the Chinese autocrats are able to fan ultranationalism
as a substitute for the waning communist ideology because the central
tenet of the communists’ political philosophy is uniformity, with Hu’s
slogan of a "harmonious society" designed to underline the theme of
conformity with the republic. The Manchu’s assimilation into Han
society and the swamping of the natives in Inner Mongolia have left
only the Tibetans and Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang
as the holdouts.
With 60 percent of its present landmass comprising
homelands of ethnic minorities, modern China has come a long way in
history since the time the Great Wall represented the Han empire’s
outer security perimeter.
Territorially, Han power is at its pinnacle today.
Yet, driven by self-cultivated myths, the state fuels territorial
nationalism, centered on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, and its claims
in the South and East China Seas and on India’s Arunachal Pradesh state
— nearly thrice the size of Taiwan. Few realize that China occupies
one-fifth of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Tibet, however, is a reminder that attempts at
forcible assimilation can backfire. That was also the lesson from
Yugoslavia, a model of forced integration of nationalities. But once
its central autocratic structure corroded, Yugoslavia progressively but
violently fell apart. It will require a similar collapse or loosening
of the central political authority in China for Tibet to reclaim
Those who gloomily see the battle for Tibetan
independence as irretrievably lost forget that history has a way of
wreaking vengeance on artificially created empires. The Central Asian
states got independence on a platter, without having to wage a
struggle. Who in Central Asia had dreamed of independence in mid-1991?
Yet months later, the Soviet empire had unraveled. The Baltic states of
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania twice lost their independence to an
expanding Russian empire, only to regain it each time due to a
cataclysmic event — World War I and the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The post-1991 flight of Russians from large parts of
Central Asia is a testament that the Sinicization of the Tibetan region
is not an unalterable process.
The Tibetan struggle, one of the longest and most
powerful resistance movements in modern world history, exposes China’s
Achilles’ heel. The reverberations from the latest bloodshed on the
land of the pacifist Tibetan Buddhist culture will be felt long after
Chinese security forces have snuffed out the last protest.
Hu knows that the Tibetan uprising has the potential
to embolden Han citizens in China to demand political freedoms — a
campaign that would sound the death knell of single-party rule. The
last time he suppressed a Tibetan revolt, his then boss, Deng Xiaoping,
had to borrow a leaf from Hu’s Tibet book to crush prodemocracy
protesters at Tiananmen Square two months later. Hundreds were slain.
This year could prove a watershed in Chinese history.
Just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics set the stage for Nazi Germany’s
collapse, the 2008 Beijing Games — communist China’s coming-out party
that has already been besmirched by the crackdown in Tibet — may be a
spur to radical change in that country.
privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the
author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India
The Japan Times