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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A torched Tibet shows through smoke and mirrors

April 30, 2008

The Age
April 29, 2008

AS THE faintly absurd Olympic torch relay looks likely to fall off the
lead-up agenda for future Games, China's inability to conduct itself
appropriately as a major world power has been starkly exposed. The error
is less in the knee-jerk reactions to the most recent events in Tibet,
but in the policy foundations and power plays that underlie them.

Two articles in the April issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review
pinpoint the fundamental weaknesses of China's approach in Tibet.

The first, by Australian academic Ben Hillman, offers insights into
China's skewed agenda in Tibet. Hillman details the remarkable economic
support Beijing provides to Tibet. State transfers to Tibet are budgeted
at about $US10 billion ($A10.7 billion) between 2006 and 2010. That's
not including the huge Golmud-Lhasa railway line, said to have cost
about $US4 billion, but does include about 180 other large
infrastructure projects.

This effort has generated a lot of economic activity. Since 2000,
annualised gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the Tibet Autonomous
Region has been about 12%. Last year, GDP growth jumped 14% on the
previous year.

It is these numbers that China's Tibetan administrators point to as
confirmation of their benevolent impact in the region. There is of
course some validity in this argument, but it also tends to highlight
China's insensitivity to Tibetan culture and society. In short, good
numbers in Tibet are not in themselves indicators of success.

Problems with employment for indigenous Tibetans remain and it can be
argued that Tibet's economic boom has benefited the locals less than it
has immigrants from elsewhere in China. There is also the sense that
many Tibetans would like to see a better balance between economic
momentum driven from Beijing and Tibetan cultural independence and
freedom. As such, the numbers tell only part of the story and actually
ignore the larger truth that China has failed to win hearts and minds in
Tibet, even as it has swelled some pockets.

A second essay in the Far Eastern Economic Review, by Hong Kong academic
Willy Lam, exposes the personal issues underpinning China's hard line on
Tibet. It is well known that President Hu Jintao cut his political teeth
as the TAR Party secretary. What is less widely known is that Hu has
positioned many of his former colleagues from his Communist Youth League
days in leadership positions in western China, including in Tibet, where
Zhang Qingli reigns.

As such, not only do the careers of these cadres depend on maintaining a
white-knuckle grip on western autonomous regions such as Tibet, so too
does that of Hu himself.

The driving fear of being the one to "lose Tibet" draws these party
officials more tightly together, a little like the circling strategy of
doomed wagons in the American Wild West.

 From both these viewpoints, it is clear that China's Tibet policies are
characterised by a misunderstanding of the needs of the Tibetan people
and by self-serving concerns over career and personal reputation. Not
exactly the sort of anchors likely to hold in the swirling seas of
nationalist uprisings and amid global political squalls. The Olympics in
this context are gathering storm clouds, presaging yet more trouble.

Not only has China blown the Olympics so far, but it is badly damaging
its international standing for years to come. Many have seen this coming
for some time. It is surprising, if not shocking, that Beijing
administrators were not among them.

China's weaknesses as a responsible international player have been
exposed by the failure in their actions and, more damagingly, in the
very conception of their policies.

Its international face is becoming more a leering, treacherous grimace
than the open and inviting mien Beijing erroneously thought it could
manufacture in the shadow of the Olympic rings. The solution, given the
depth of the policy rot, will not be easy, nor quick.

But drastic policy reform is needed, in Tibet as elsewhere, lest the
solution slip further and further over the horizon. Those charged with
overseeing western China's administration stand to lose a lot more than

James Rose is editor of
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