Little hope for change in Tibet
Recent media accounts dwell on the destruction and loss of life ensuing from the most recent uprising in the Tibet Autonomous Region and bordering Chinese provinces with predominately Tibetan populations. However, few have given much historical context.
About 10 percent of China's population falls into one of 55 minority groups, which occupy 60 percent of China's total land area, albeit sparsely. For the most part, the minorities are situated in highly sensitive strategic areas. For example, along the southern border with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand; in the southwest, Tibet shares a border with rival India; and in the northwest Xinjiang, rich in oil, neighbors restive Islamic states in Central Asia and Russia, which once occupied this far-flung corner of China.
Despite its growing reputation as a superpower, China is surprisingly fragile and could easily bifurcate into a group of competing regions. As much as Chinese leaders want to be recorded in history as the one who brought all areas that China lays claim to under the control of Beijing, they clearly recognize the potential for China to fragment. Hence their concern in passing laws and in promoting propaganda themes averring against "splittism," "separatism" and "independence. " If they seem unduly "uptight," one only has to remember that it was Sun Yat-sen himself who warned that "the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit ... they are just a heap of loose sand."
Once an empire stretching as far south as today's Bengal in India and as far northeast as Mongolia, the Tibetan Empire and China, starting in the 7th century, often fought as both sought strategic advantage. As the empire weakened, Chinese imperialism began making inroads in Tibet. Chinese claims of sovereignty in Tibet date from 1727 when two Chinese representatives were posted there. However, exercise of Chinese sovereignty has been sporadic due to the vicissitudes of Chinese domestic politics. After the defeat of the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, Chinese sovereignty existed in name only. Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China was too weak internally and damaged by the Pacific War and ensuing Civil War to ever give much attention to Tibet.
In 1950, shortly after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the People's Liberation Army marched into the Chamdo area of Tibet and easily subdued the poorly armed Tibetan army. In 1951, Tibetan representatives in Beijing were presented with the Seventeen Point Agreement, which declared China's sovereignty over Tibet. After a few months, the "agreement" was ratified in Lhasa.
In violation of the SPA, China sought to remold Tibet's social and religious systems. Parts of Tibet, Eastern Kham and Amdo, were made parts of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, respectively. Land reform was carried out accompanied by "struggle sessions" exposing landlords and supposed landlords to mass public humiliation.
As insensitive to Tibetan culture as China was, it did abolish slavery and serfdom, build highways and subsidize the Tibetan government. However, it continued to increase control over lamas and fully instituted land reform leading to rebellion in Eastern Kham and Amdo. Soon the rebellion spread to Western Kham and U-Tsang. In other parts of Tibet, China tried to create rural communes, just as it was doing in China proper only to be met with resentment.
China decided that the rebellion had gone too far and sent in the PLA to quell the rebels, which only lead to the "Lhasa Uprising" and Tibet-wide revolt. Concerned that the Dalai Lama might be arrested, Tibetans and the CIA helped the spiritual and political leader escape to India.
In 1965, Tibet was officially made an "Autonomous Region" of the PRC with the provision that the head of government would be an ethnic Tibetan; however, the real power is in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party secretary who has always been a Han Chinese with little experience, if any, in Tibet. The same holds true for the head of Public Security Bureau (police).
Interestingly, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, president of the PRC and chairman of the Military Control Commission, Hu Jintao, served as first secretary of the Tibetan CCP in the late 1980s. During Hu's watch, the second most important Tibetan religious figure, the Panchen Lama, who has the authority to select a new Dalai Lama, mysteriously died. Many Tibetans believe Hu was involved, although it remains to be proven. However, national leaders in Beijing were so impressed by his handling of Tibet that he was summoned to Beijing where he was put on the fast track to the highest levels of Chinese national leadership.
Since China embarked on its road to economic modernization in the late 1970s, Tibet has no doubt benefited. Nevertheless, the government's policy of "ethnic swamping," where it offers economic incentives to encourage Han Chinese migration to Tibet in order to dilute the Tibetan balance of the population, has resulted in Han being the largest beneficiaries of economic improvement. The recent completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway represented to many a way to further develop Tibet; to Tibetans it represented a further tool of suppression
Beijing is unable to produce a solution to its problems in Tibet. Contemporary China retains much of the cultural character of traditional China. Its innate Confucian mentality casts it in the role of father to whom all others are to bear unswerving loyalty and obedience. Its equally inborn sense of Han chauvinism makes it see all non-Han as culturally inferior. Lenin said that religion is the opium of the masses; the CCP came to power seeking to root out the mysticism in Chinese culture, much of which was reflected in religion. Moreover, Buddhist monks can be the source of great political upheaval as we have seen not only in Tibet but also in Myanmar's recent "Saffron Revolution. " Many hold that when the defunct Republic of Vietnam lost the support of monks, it lost any chance of winning the war.
Beijing's stubborn rejection of opportunities to negotiate with the Dalai Lama despite his insistence that he only wants autonomy in line with Section Six of the PRC Constitution and doesn't seek independence, belies a deeper concern and strategy. Section Six gives autonomous regions control over nationality affairs, finance, culture, education, economy, justice, etc. Beijing is afraid that any concession it might render in dealing with Tibet will be seen as a weakness that other restive "autonomous regions," such as Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia, might exploit. Moreover, Beijing is likely waiting for the 72-year-old icon to die and then manipulate the Panchen Lama to select a successor susceptible to their control.
Threats by global leaders to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics will only further inflame Chinese nationalism, a volatile force that all Chinese leaders must respect to protect their own political careers. A determined Buddhist clergy with wide global support pitted against a fragile, highly nationalistic budding superpower gives little hope for change in Tibet.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org