As Tibetans around the world this week marked the advent of the new year of the Earth Ox,many did so in a spirit of mourning rather than jubilation. The festival fell just before a bloodstained anniversary season: 50 years since the Chinese suppression of an uprising that saw the Dalai Lama,their spiritual leader,flee into exile in India with some 100,000 followers; 20 years since protests that led to the imposition of martial law in the capital,Lhasa; one year since ugly and murderous anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa that brought a sharp and lasting security backlash. The fact that so many troops are still needed,merely to prevent commemorative protests,suggests that China’s Tibet policy is in need of an overhaul.
China’s officials seem to be contemplating nothing of the sort. Indeed,they may believe things are going their way. A year ago Tibet seemed a real threat to China’s hopes of presenting the Beijing Olympics as an unblemished celebration of its achievements. As the Olympic torch was carried round the world,it was met from London to Delhi by protests against Chinese rule in Tibet. Yet the Olympics themselves passed with no serious protest or international boycott.
Since then Tibet has slipped down the international agenda. In her first overseas visit as secretary of state,Hillary Clinton recently stopped in Beijing to beseech China’s co-operation in fixing the world economy and stopping the planet from frying. In the apparent belief that China,oddly,will not pursue such aims out of its own self-interest,she forbore from harping on issues such as human rights and Tibet.
Chinese diplomats,meanwhile,are cock-a-hoop at a concession they wrung last October from Britain,whose government had hitherto been the only one not formally to recognise China’s “sovereignty” in Tibet,accepting instead only its “suzerainty” (ie,de facto control) over the region. Apparently unaware of the importance of the issue to both China and exiled Tibetans,Britain changed policy in a bland and obscure statement published on the internet. At talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives in Beijing the following week,China,perhaps not coincidentally,hardened its position even further. The talks,in which China has never appeared sincere in offering any compromise to the exiles,now seem more futile than ever.
Yet the refusal to talk to the Dalai Lama comes at a cost. This week,in both what China misleadingly calls the Tibet Autonomous Region and in adjoining provinces,security has been intense. Foreigners have been kept out. Tibet has been closed. China can easily quash any protests by those foolhardy enough to mount them. But repression is hardly the way a successful,modern power wants to govern.
In 1959 the Dalai Lama’s escape from his homeland produced a myth: that he had conjured up a belt of cloud to hide his retinue from the Chinese air force. At the time,The Economist scoffed at this. “The real cloud”,we argued,”was evidently the unity of the Tibetan people in their hatred of Chinese military rule.” Sadly,despite all the economic advances,despite the easing of Chinese policy after the Cultural Revolution,and despite (indeed,because of) the influx of Han Chinese into Tibet,that assessment remains largely true today. Sadly,too,the Chinese explanation for unrest remains unchanged: in 1959,as now,it was blamed on a “few reactionaries manipulated by foreign powers”.
The chief reactionary,of course,is the Dalai Lama himself,whom China still vilifies. It seems to believe that its Tibet problem will be solved with his passing. In fact,it is more likely to worsen. The Dalai Lama,unlike many of his followers both in Tibet and in a remarkably cohesive exiled population,accepts
Chinese rule. He demands merely that autonomy should have substance. And for all China’s accusations against him,he has never wavered in his insistence that his followers pursue their aims peacefully. China may one day come to regret spurning his moderating influence.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009