Tibetan Troubles

Perhaps international criticism of the Chinese government’s handling of unrest in Lhasa was a bit exaggerated. Still, Beijing doesn’t earn good marks for its long-term Tibet policy.

The recent unrest in Tibet is regrettable, but the Chinese government had every right to stop the violence. The United States uses many similar means at their disposal. I am reminded of the police response to the Seattle protests in 1999 and the sometimes violent demonstrations at World Bank annual meetings here in Washington. I am uncomfortable condemning the Chinese government on this point.

Likewise, I also feel that the Chinese government acted with restraint and demonstrated that they have made some strides in their management techniques for "mass incidents" such as these. The pictures that did emerge from Lhasa showed members of the People's Armed Police (not regular army) engaging civilians with Plexiglas shields and batons, not AK-47s and tanks. These units are specially trained for this type of situation, and certainly these units possess firearms, but they were kept "in the rear" where they would not be used indiscriminately or out of fear. The guns come out after the mob has dissipated and the riot-control role transitions to a policing function. Had the government deployed regular units of the People's Liberation Army to quell the riots, the outcome would likely have been much more devastating.

However, I am concerned about the Chinese information campaign that emerged beginning on March 15, when foreigners (including media) were ejected from Tibet. Chinese media began to release images of the violence and pointed out the many inaccuracies of the international press (who were denied first-hand information and access to the area). Chinese reports almost exclusively highlighted attacks made on Han Chinese by Tibetans. Chinese press and government spokespersons have shaped a message of the situation as a "law and order" issue, with no dialogue about the underlying causes of discontent-lack of religious freedom, cultural differences and economic marginalization. This treatment of the situation has further stoked nationalism in China and severely limited critical thinking and much needed introspection.

Denying the international press corps access to Tibet appears to violate Chinese commitments to allow unfettered access to the media prior to the Olympics, though I believe the Chinese government feels justified in doing so because of the dangerous situation and their broad definition of "state secrets" which are conditions of their obligation.

Select members of the foreign press corps were allowed into Lhasa last week on a carefully choreographed visit, providing some insights into the Chinese government's approach to the difficult situation. At a visit to the main temple in Lhasa, a group of monks were able to approach the media delegation, though it appears the government handlers accompanying the delegation acted with restraint and allowed the press to speak to them for almost 20 minutes. A senior provincial official provided assurances that there would be no reprisals against the monks.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has not shown any inclination to engage the Dalai Lama in an attempt to achieve a "lasting solution" to the Tibet problem. The Dalai Lama has carefully shaped his messages, affirming publicly that "Tibet is a part of China" and calling for economic and cultural autonomy, while assuring that the central government in Beijing retains jurisdiction for security and international relations. The Dalai Lama's formula is similar to Deng Xiaoping's Hong Kong model of "one country, two systems" but unfortunately, the devil remains in the details when it comes to Tibet. The Chinese government objects to the Dalai Lama's stance that Han migrants to Tibet leave, and also point out that the Tibetan government in exile's Constitution calls for independence, contradicting the Dalai Lama. Recognizing that the Dalai Lama's message has resonated globally, the most recent government line has declares that "the Dalai Lama's version of autonomy is akin to independence."

Regrettably, the Chinese government's hard-line approach restricts their own ability to re-open negotiations with the Dalai Lama. Some analysts believe the Chinese government is pursuing a long-term strategy of waiting for the Dalai Lama to pass away, then appointing his next incarnation and seeking "a better deal" with him. This strategy is unlikely to succeed, because the current Dalai Lama is the only unifying force between the Tibetans in "greater Tibet," which includes Tibet and Tibetan communities in Sichuan and Gansu provinces, and the exile community in South Asia. No subsequent leader will have his authority and legitimacy or be able to bring the hard-line and moderate factions of the Tibetan community together to back a new paradigm for peace and stability in Tibet.


Drew Thompson is the Director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center