17 May 2008

Thunder from Tibet

The police and soldiers were pelted with stones, their cars were burned, and, pursued by a group of stone-throwing youths, they fled. No reinforcements were sent into the area for at least three hours (one Western journalist who witnessed the events saw no police for twenty-four hours), though they were waiting on the outskirts. It was the traditional response of the Chinese security forces to serious unrest—but the hours of inaction left the citizenry unprotected and allowed the violence to escalate.

In this vacuum, a number of Tibetans turned from attacking police to attacking the next available symbol of Chinese governance, the Chinese migrant population. About a thousand Chinese-owned shops were set on fire by rioters who were seen by foreign tourists igniting cooking gas cylinders or dousing shops in gasoline. According to The Economist's correspondent James Miles, the only accredited foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time,

almost every [Chinese or Chinese Muslim] business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch.

Miles saw Chinese passersby, including a child of about ten years old, pelted with stones, and several Western tourists described hard-core rioters beating random Chinese civilians with enough force to have killed them. Eleven Chinese civilians and a Tibetan were burned to death after hiding in shops set on fire by the rioters, and a policeman and six other civilians died from beatings or unknown causes, according to the Chinese government.

The events of March 14 challenged any assumption that Tibetan Buddhists are necessarily nonviolent or that their political actions are limited to what Deepak Chopra has called "inert pacifism." If the six rounds of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's representatives since 2002 had suggested that a negotiated solution for the Tibet issue might occur in the near future, such a solution [now] remains unlikely.

Tibetans were lifted out of feudal bondage by what China terms the liberation of 1950–1951, notes that the Tibetan Autonomous Region has received $13.8 billion in the form of government subsidies from Beijing since 1965, and that its GDP has boomed at over 10 percent per year for the last decade. As a result, a new and wealthy middle class of Tibetan Chinese has been created in the larger towns in the Tibetan region, and in 2007 alone the average annual urban income increased by 24.5 percent over the previous year to 11,131 yuan ($1,588) per person in the Tibet Autonomous Region. To say that Tibetan protests are driven primarily by people being economically disadvantaged thus seems hypocritical to those struck by highly visible economic gains in those towns.

Tibet has been an integral part of their motherland since at least the thirteenth century. The Chinese argument is indeed correct that Tibet was several times under the authority of Beijing.

It would seem that for many Chinese, and even some Westerners, the principal source of aggravation is the Dalai Lama. The Chinese authorities say that, although he has repeatedly declared support only for autonomy and renounced the claim for independence, he is concealing a continuing desire or a secret plan for independence. The government cites as evidence his refusal to say that Tibet was part of China in the past, his increasingly frequent journeys to the West, which are seen as a courting of anti-China feeling and a public shaming of China on the international stage, and his refusal to condemn those of his exiled supporters who continue to call for Tibetan independence.

The use of violence by Tibetans in some protests, leading, by the Chinese government's count, to the deaths of eighteen Chinese civilians and at least three policemen, raises a question about the ability of the Dalai Lama to persuade Tibetans to uphold his repeated calls for pacifism.

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