Tibet exposes China’s Achilles heel

Repression May Unravel China’s Monocracy

Beijing faces moment of truth on its brutal occupation of the vast Tibetan
plateau

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age,
March 29, 2008

Growing authoritarianism
more often than not rebounds. The monk-led Tibetan uprising, which has spread
across Tibet and beyond to
the traditional Tibetan areas forcibly incorporated in Han provinces, marks a
turning point in communist China’s
history. It comes as 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 their lives.

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 since 1965 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 latest revolt is a challenge to 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 contradictory 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 recent 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 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
monastic life. 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 Han-benefiting local economy.

Tibetans
also have been incensed by atheistic China’s growing intrusion into their
religious affairs, as exemplified by Beijing’s 2007 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
short-sighted 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, thereby spawning an
enduring violent campaign.

The
ongoing Chinese 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 that
carries wider political implications for the Chinese state. In the Tibetan
plateau — about half of which has been hived off from Tibet and merged with Qinghai,
Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces — the crackdown by a regime wedded to the
unbridled exercise of state power promises to exacerbate the situation on the
ground.

The tepid global response thus far to the bloodletting and arbitrary
arrests in Tibet is a reflection of China’s growing international clout,
underscored by its burgeoning external trade, rising military power and
unrivalled $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 1644 to 1912. It was only when the Qing dynasty began to unravel
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 dynasties.

The truth is that the once-idyllic 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 unravelling 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 ultra-nationalism as a substitute to their
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
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 per cent 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, centred on
issues like Tibet and Taiwan, and its claims in the East and South 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
violently fell apart. It will require a similar collapse or loosening of the
central political authority in China
for Tibet
to reclaim independence. Until then, the Tibetans’ best hope is to strive for
the kind of autonomy Beijing has granted Hong
Kong and Macao.

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 dreamt of independence in mid-1991? Yet months later, the
Soviet empire had unravelled. 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
the 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 pro-democracy protestors 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, already besmirched by the Tibet
crackdown — may be a spur to radical change in that country. Given that
recurring protests are likely to greet the Olympic torch during its global tour
of 135 cities, 2008 promises to be, at a minimum, the year Tibet came back
into international spotlight.

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