Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2008
Issue No. 890
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tibetan tinderbox

For all the hype around Tibetan angst, Western longings to trash the Olympics are bound to flounder, argues Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
A monk comforts his companion who was beaten by police during a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Katmandu, Nepal

The Dalai Lama's overblown performance as the defender of Tibetan cultural specificity was traditionally accorded standing ovations by Western leaders. His was the definitive popular mythology in Western minds of the downtrodden David standing up against the oppressive Chinese Goliath. Only last week, Nancy Pelosi, House speaker of the United States, sang his praises in no constrained tones. Applause for the Dalai Lama reached a piercing crescendo this week when the Tibet's spiritual leader complained that his people face "cultural genocide" by the Chinese authorities.

That game is now up. People all over the world watched ethnic Tibetan monks in Tibet and in neighbouring provinces of western China in their distinctive vermilion apparel torching ethnic Han Chinese property and challenging Chinese policemen. That was certainly no image of the underdog.

The rage, arson, the wanton destruction of property and carnage exploded in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and other Tibetan cities, even in neighbouring Chinese provinces with ethnic Tibetan minorities. Yes, there are disgruntled ethnic Tibetans in the neighbouring provinces of Xingjiang, Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. Yes, there are flourishing monastries in Tibet and elsewhere in western China -- Drepung, Sera, Ganden and the now notorious Ramoche Temple in Lhasa from where the current Tibetan insurrection was sparked. True, Tibetans are angry and emboldened as never before, hoisting eye- catching "Free Tibet" flags.

The most startling and glaring truth is that the West, governments and civil society organisations, are bending over backwards to accommodate Tibetan independence activists. This was symbolically caught on camera when a black flag depicting Olympic rings made from handcuffs, was raised right behind Liu Qui, the head of the Beijing Olympic organising committee in the vicinity of the Temple of Hera, Olympia, Greece. The perpetrators of this act of brazen audacity were none other than representatives of Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF). The organisation issued a statement lambasting China: "We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic human rights situation in the country," the RSF statement read.

Tibet, as the Chinese have long pointed out, has since the mid-13th century been administered by Beijing as an "inalienable part of China". The Chinese pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Tibet has enjoyed an average economic growth rate of 12 per cent for the past seven years. Indeed, last year Tibet's growth rate of 14 per cent exceeded the national Chinese average. Moreover, independent studies suggest that last year alone, urban residents in Tibet enjoyed a 25 per cent hike in disposable income. So why are the Tibetans so angry today? Undoubtedly because this bounty is enjoyed almost exclusively by the Han Chinese who live in the cities, whereas the Tibetans continue to eke out a meagre existence in the rural backwaters.

A Chinese firewall has blocked offending websites, even though the BBC website was "unblocked in China" this week. Part of the answer is that there has been an influx of non- Tibetans who happen to control key sectors of the economy.

Moreover, the indigenous Tibetans feel swamped by outsiders, not withstanding a Chinese policy of permitting Tibetans and other ethnic minorities to have more than one child, even though the majority ethnic Han Chinese are restricted to one child per couple. The crisis in Tibet is not a question of demography; rather it is a matter of economics and its social consequences.

Ethnic Han and Hui (Muslim) Chinese, a group that incidentally control the butcheries and meat trade of Lhasa, have become the focus and target of Tibetan rage, because of skyrocketing meat prices.

The Dalai Lama is the big-talking standard-bearer of the Tibetan national cause, even though he insists that he abhors violence and adamantly refuses to condone Tibetan political independence by violent means. The Chinese grudgingly acknowledge the spiritual significance of the Dalai Lama. And, that could offer the chance of a historic rapprochement. However statements like the following from the People's Daily.:

"China must resolutely crush the conspiracy of sabotage and smash Tibet independence forces," do not help Beijing's cause. Such gaffes suggest a serious crisis, but not a political catastrophe.

The Beijing Games are in no danger of being hijacked, however, like the ill-fated Moscow Games of 1980. It is not as if China could be in for an unpleasant surprise. In all probability, the Chinese will organise the Olympics in spite of all the bad publicity Tibet has incurred.

But first things first. The situation in Tibet must be contained before the Olympics. Tibet has increasingly become a game of chess and Beijing cannot afford to be checkmated.

As far as China is concerned, containing the Tibetan crisis entails Herculean effort. The People's Republic could well stop the Tibetans with violence. China, however, cannot afford an outright clampdown. The Chinese authorities so far have refused to officially impose martial law in Tibet. The words of Mao Zedong come to mind: "If we cannot solve the two problems of production and trade, we shall use the material base for our presence [in Tibet], the bad elements will cash in and will not let a single day pass without inciting the backward elements to oppose us." In our own entangled era, his axiom stretches to the ends of the Earth.

The West would be wise to hold back from overtly backing Tibetan independence. Under these prevailing circumstances, perhaps Tibetans, too, can learn to make the most of association with China, and to partake of the benefits of the growing economic buoyancy of the country destined to be the world's economic powerhouse.

Why stay within a closed community when Tibetans can roam outside their walled paradise? There are echoes of the uprising that occurred 49 years ago. The two uprisings were triggered by the terrible thrashing of monks by the Chinese authorities. Now history seems to be repeating itself, albeit in a somewhat different form. International forces are at work, and openly against China's interests. Small wonder then that China's military spending has risen sharply in recent years. A recently released Pentagon report disclosed that the People's Republic defence spending shot up by 18 per cent in 2007 to reach $159 billion. The war of words between Washington and Beijing is in no danger of erupting into open conflict.

The ideal would be for Tibetans to continue willingly to be part of a People's Republic that recognises their legitimate complaints about the cultural and ethnographic invasion of Tibet and the need to acknowledge their beloved Dalai Lama as a religious and political leader, however constrained by the regime in Beijing.

So is it a question of rescuing the Tibetans from their own follies? To its credit, the Chinese government has shown considerable restraint though no willingness to address the grievances of the Tibetans.

There is no time to lose. It is a tragedy that has gone on for too long. Ethnic Han Chinese could integrate more peaceably with their Tibetan hosts -- and encourage the indigenous Tibetans to take advantage of the economic boom. Han Chinese cannot monopolise economic power, nor can they impose their version of the good life on a culture with very different strivings.

The mistrust between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese is tremendously corrosive. The enormous damage it could do to the world economy cannot be underestimated. The long hard task of fixing it must start now without delay. China faces many challenges. It is a question of priorities.

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