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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Q & A: The Olympic Torch in Xinjiang and Tibet

June 19, 2008

By Jeff Z. Klein
The New York Times
June 17, 2008

Today under heavy security, the Olympic torch relay proceeded through
the largely Muslim western province of Xinjiang. Yesterday Olympic
organizers announced that the relay's Tibetan leg, originally
scheduled for three days starting tomorrow, had been cut back to
Saturday only and would travel only to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

To find out more about the impact of the Olympics on the western
regions of China, we spoke to one of the leading scholars on modern
Tibet, Dr. Robert Barnett. He is program coordinator in modern
Tibetan studies at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian
Institute. A former journalist for The South China Morning Post, BBC,
and The Observer and The Independent in London, Barnett has written
several books about Tibet and is a leading chronicler of the events
unfolding there, most recently in a New York Review of Books article
detailing the unrest throughout the Tibetan plateau last March and April.

We spoke to Robert Barnett on Tuesday.

Q: The news from Xinjiang today was that there were big crowds in
Urumqi for the torch relay, but that they consisted mostly of ethnic
Han Chinese rather than the local Uighur population.

ROBERT BARNETT: Yes -- I just saw a quote on the AP from a local
Uighur woman who said that she was for China having a successful
Olympics, but did not support the torch relay.

I think what we're seeing with this relay is an attempt by China to
extend its claims for authority into areas where those claims are
weak, in places like Xinjiang and Tibet. And the government is
getting into a big fix by overextending its claims for propaganda
purposes, because the torch relay and Olympics in general are
creating a division between ethnic Chinese and other ethnicities,
whereas official Chinese policy for so many years has been to be seen
as creating a "harmonious society," a multiethnic melting pot.

Q: Earlier today, according to reports, the city of Kashgar in
Xinjiang was locked down for the torch relay.

RB: I heard this morning a little detail from Kashgar and Urumqi that
the authorities had installed extra closed-circuit security cameras,
even more than before, even in the smallest back streets. This is
what I'm being told by people there. So it sounds like they're being
pretty cautious there, obviously as we would expect.

There's a huge phenomenon all over China, huge companies involved in
setting these closed-circuit cameras up. And they've been doing it in
Tibet for several years. In Lhasa they've been mainly in the main
streets, but now they're apparently setting them up in all the
smaller streets of the Tibetan quarter.

Q: Is there a chance that there will be protests in Lhasa when the
torch relay does finally reach the city?

RB: No, I think people there are probably far too intimidated to do that.

The monks and nuns -- who are usually the first to protest, when
there are protests -- are all locked down now. All the big
monasteries are sealed off. There's no communication and people can't
get in and out, so nothing will come out of those places. The smaller
monasteries will not be completely sealed off but under heavy
restrictions, probably with party work teams in each of them,
officials who monitor whether pictures of the Dalai Lama have been
trashed or broken, or that monks have denounced the Dalai Lama.

It's different in the smaller towns in the east of Tibet and in other
Tibetan regions that are not officially considered part of Tibet.
There were big protests going on even last week in those areas, where
traditionally people are very tough and very proud, where the big
armed rebellions took place in the 1950s and '60s. But the torch is
not going through those areas. In the main central Tibetan areas and
in Lhasa we're not hearing of protests, because the control there is
much stronger.

Q: What do Tibetans want from the Chinese government? The Dalai Lama
is constantly saying that he's not for independence, but others seem
to believe that's the main thrust of Tibetan protests.

RB: It's a bit hard to know, exactly. Some exile activists insist
that the Tibetans inside are demanding independence, yet no one
really knows. However, from what we can tell, people inside Tibet
want solutions to very straightforward problems: Chinese migration
into Tibet, Chinese oppression of religion, economic differences, and so on.

They generally have a strong sense that Tibet is or was independent,
and that in itself is extremely worrying to China. But the primary
thing is that Tibetans inside Tibet support the Dalai Lama — they've
made that very clear through gestures, like having his photograph
during protests and so on. They probably know from foreign radio
broadcasts that he is prepared to give up independence, and I think
the indication is that many of them will also accept a compromise
solution if he gets one from China, because they support him.

Q: Whenever we write about Tibet on this blog, we get many comments
from Chinese readers that refer to the Dalai Lama as a slaveholder.
What is that about?

RB: First, we can see that as just propaganda that lodges in certain
people's heads, because it's not even what the Chinese government
says. The Chinese government uses the word "serf" -- it technically
imagines that Tibet is full of serfs, but very few slaves. It was a
mistranslation that has circulated and gained some purchase with the
Chinese public, including intellectuals, and now they've got hold of
the slave idea, which was never the case.

Q: Have the Olympics long been a target for Tibetan protesters?

The Communist Party sees history in terms of a set number of facts,
in this case the party says that 5 percent of Tibetans were
aristocrats or landowners, 90 percent were serfs and 5 percent were
slaves. I don't think any of these are actually what you and I would
call facts.

It's certainly the case that there was a taxation system that
involved permanent obligations to your landlord, which continued
through to your successors. It reminds us in the West of what we'd
associate with a serf system. But it's also true that the Tibetan
word that the Chinese are using for "serf" was also the word just for
"subject" or "commoner." Every country has a taxation system, and the
one that the Tibetan system had was pretty traditional, involving
your taxations being paid to your landlord through work, and he had
certain controls over you.

But those laws were made in the 14th century or so and had hardly
been used for hundreds of years. But the Chinese cite these old laws,
which are really horrendous in writing, and use those as the main
basis for these histrionic claims about slavery.

RB: Yes, although the politics of the exile movement and those for
people inside Tibet are different. Inside politics tends to be more
pragmatic, less emotional, more focused on getting solutions to
immediate problems. The outside politics have always been about
attacking China and putting pressure on China internationally to
leave Tibet. And there, the Olympics have for a long time been
thought of as a major focus. They see it as a major opportunity --
they call it the last opportunity to really put pressure on China.

But inside Tibet the Olympics themselves are not really an issue. Of
course people there are aware of it and probably resent the way China
uses it as an opportunity for yet more propganda and crackdowns —
that's what everybody expects any event to be for ordinary people in
places like Tibet or Xinjiang. But they're not particularly
interested in whether the Olympics go ahead or not. For them, the
Olympics represents the chance not to get shot if they demonstrate,
because it's an Olympics year. That seems to be one reason why the
demonstrations began last March.

Q: What will happen in August? Will there be big Tibetans protests
then, as the Chinese government seems to expect?

RB: One wouldn't expect anything to be done by Tibetans inside Tibet
-- that's not how these things tend to work. Instead what you tend to
see is sullen resentment of these major government-organized
activities. They're just huge inconveniences and nuisances for
everyone who isn't a Chinese patriot.

Every two years the Chinese come up with a huge celebration -- it's
usually an anniversary of, say, the liberation of Tibet, or the
anniversary of the return of Hong Kong or something like that. The
Olympics is just the biggest one of them.

These always involve huge inconvenience and problems for people such
as Tibetans, where a number of them are forced to sit for hours and
hours, literally, in a main square, like the one the Chinese built
especially for these events in the middle of Lhasa in 1995. They'll
have a parade with soldiers and officials, and from every local area
in the city and every local office, 100 or 200 people will be ordered
to attend. They're all given a lecture that if they don't wear their
best clothes -- it has to be traditional Tibetan clothes so it'll
look good for the photographs -- it will be considered a political
offence. And then they have to go to these places before dawn and sit
in lines until the parade ends at midday.

So these things just represent massive inconvenience to people. I was
out at a couple of them when I was at the university. We were told
not to leave the campus -- that particular celebration was the 50th
anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet. We were able to get
out of the campus toward the end of the event, and we could see
everyone leaving. There was this whole procession of military
vehicles, vehicles with barbed wire, water cannon, little tanks, a
huge array of security things. The television cameras didn't see any
of the apparatus of security, because it was all on the outside of
the main square.

In the week before these things, there are armed patrols of troops
who literally run round the city. It's quite menacing. But people are
used to it. So for local people it's a very strange mixture of an
opportunity to get off work and the state displaying its control.

Q: You were in Lhasa in 2001 when Beijing was awarded the Games.

RB: I happened to be in the main square that day. It was midnight, so
there was really no one around except for me and a couple of local
people watching the announcement on television. I was in a hotel just
off the main square. This is Lhasa — nobody is out past 10 or 11 p.m.
in a city like that. And yet the whole city was full of riot police
and water cannon, trucks. I think they'd been there all day. So the
Chinese were completely convinced, it seemed, that there would be
protests by Tibetans at the announcement of the Olympics going to
China, even eight years ago. Of course they completely misjudged it,
that the Tibetans would bother over something as dangerous as that
for purely symbolic reasons. That's not the way it works inside Tibet.

It was bizarre, a very surreal moment -- a totally empty city center
with riot police waiting for something to happen that was never going
to take place.
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