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Tibet's looming eruption

November 13, 2008

Cameron Stewart
The Australian
November 13, 2008

THE groans of a man being tortured waft out of the old prison at the
base of Tibet's most famous landmark, the Potala Palace in the
capital, Lhasa. But the sound is a fake recording; the former prison
has been turned into a gruesome museum, depicting scenes of torture
such as prisoners having their eyeballs torn out.

Chinese soldiers patrol a street near the Jokhang Temple in central
Lhasa. Picture: Cameron Stewart

The museum is meant to teach visitors to Lhasa about the barbarity
and brutality that Tibetans displayed towards their own people in the
centuries before China ostensibly liberated the region in 1950.

As propaganda goes, it is hardly subtle, but then subtlety has never
been a feature of China's troubled rule over Tibet.

As The Australian revealed last week after a visit to Lhasa, Beijing
has launched a fresh security crackdown in Tibet to maintain order in
response to what it claims is an increase in "separatist activities"
by opponents of China's rule. It has placed snipers on rooftops
across the city while in the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa, Chinese
soldiers patrol the streets in large numbers around the clock.

During meetings last week with senior Chinese officials, the rhetoric
was similarly hardline. Greater autonomy for Tibetans to manage their
affairs was unnecessary and out of the question, they said. To allow
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to play a role in
Tibet's future would see it "reduced to a backwater society (that)
features theocratic rule", one official said.

In every sense, China appears to have closed the door on the great
dream of many Tibetans to secure greater control over their own affairs.

"China is not serious about granting concessions," says Ben Hillman,
of the Australian National University's China Institute. "I
anticipate a continued hard line. It is simply not possible at the
moment to reverse the hard line and the demonisation (of the Dalai
Lama) without admitting that the most powerful faction in Chinese
politics (has) got it wrong." As a result, the issue of greater
freedom for Tibet - one of the most popular causes celebres in the
West for more than a half century, is at a crossroads.

Beijing's uncompromising approach has forced the Dalai Lama and the
so-called Tibetan government-in-exile to call a special meeting of
Tibetan exiles in the Indian Himalayan town of Dharamsala next
Monday. This meeting, the first of its kind since 1991, will conduct
a wholesale review of their global strategy towards Tibet.

"The question will be, do they stick to the middle way?" says Robbie
Barnett, Tibet expert at New York's Columbia University.

The middle way is the term used to describe the Dalai Lama's
long-held approach to China in which he has sought greater autonomy
for Tibet, to preserve its culture and traditions, while accepting
China's rule over the region. But in recent months the 73-year-old
religious leader has lost faith in China's willingness to negotiate
any form of autonomy.

"My trust towards the Chinese Government is thinner, thinner,
thinner," he said last week, a day before the latest talks with China
over the issue ended in yet another stalemate.

"Now I find my direct responsibility, dealing with the Chinese
Government, I find (it) very difficult."

Hillman believes the Dalai Lama's comments are "just a very honest
indication of how he feels". "His advisers seem to be bereft of any
new strategy in gaining leverage in talks with Beijing," he says.
"They face the problem of irrelevance."

Criticism of the Dalai Lama's non-violent middle way is growing among
some Tibetan exiles, who are calling for a more radical and
confrontational approach towards Beijing.

Groups such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, which boasts 70,000
members worldwide and advocates independence for Tibet, may use the
meeting to push for a tougher stand against China. But what good
would this achieve? China's response to the anti-Chinese uprising in
Tibet last March, which left as many as 200 people dead and involved
1317 arrests, was to send more soldiers to keep the peace in Lhasa.
Its response in recent weeks to expectations of further trouble has
been to further increase its military presence.

Walking through Lhasa last week, it seemed to me inconceivable that
the Tibetans could pose any serious threat to China's large military
contingent. Further radicalisation of the pro-Tibet movement may
render a solution even more elusive.

Tibet is one of those hot-button global issues where facts are
frequently distorted by advocates on both sides. "Tibet excites
people's passions," Hillman says. "People have often made up their
minds about it and both sides play it as if it is black and white,
but nothing is ever that black and white."

An opinion column in the China Daily last week summarises Beijing's
view on why Tibet is the darling of the Western media. "Most
Westerners hold a particularly romantic notion of anything Tibetan,"
the column says. "And the Dalai Lama has reached celebrity status by
his writings and speeches that pander to Westerners' bourgeois and
yuppyish regret of the Western world's 'lost innocence'."

Certainly Tibet is seen in the West as having been a kind of
Shangri-la before China's 1950 invasion, but this is more myth than reality.

Old Tibet was a deeply undemocractic society and was sharply divided
into haves and have-nots. As one reader wrote on The Australian's
Tibet blog site this week: "Just because the Dalai Lama is an
articulate, swell guy doesn't mean he is the political saviour of an
underdeveloped province. Let's call a spade a spade: he's a monk
appointed by the voodoo musings of a religious hierarchy adored by a
population, with little experience of effective governance and a
bunch of celebrity flips."

Given that there is some truth in this, it is surprising that Beijing
has so comprehensively mishandled the Tibetan issue domestically as
well as internationally.

China has tried to win the hearts of Tibetans by pumping billions of
dollars into the region, building new roads, hospitals, schools and
factories to create economic opportunities.

"The policy assumption was that once Chinese migrants from central
and eastern provinces moved into these new markets and opened
businesses, Tibetans will watch and eventually copy them," Hillman says.

However, that approach has not worked because Tibetans, most of whom
are still uneducated farmers and herdsmen, are ill-equipped to
capitalise on these opportunities and have become marginalised in
this new economy, he points out.

The biggest cause for resentment among Tibetans is what they see as
China's intolerance of their religion, culture and heritage.

"Tibetans are being handed down a death sentence," the Dalai Lama
says. "This ancient nation with an ancient cultural heritage is
dying." In interviews with The Australian in Lhasa last week, Chinese
officials denied that they have slowly suffocated Tibetan culture,
pointing to the large numbers of Buddhist pilgrims outside Lhasa's
holy sites as evidence of official tolerance.

Yet the enlarged presence of Chinese troops in Lhasa betrays
Beijing's fears that it has lost the support of local Tibetans.

The central mystery surrounding the Tibet question is why China does
not defuse the issue by negotiating a modest, symbolic degree of
autonomy with the Dalai Lama while maintaining firm control over the
region. This would quell persistent international criticism of
Beijing over the issue, including from Australia, while placating the
hostility of Tibetans.

Instead, China is talking itself into a corner by demonising the
Dalai Lama, accusing him of being a "splittist" despite his
acceptance that Tibet should remain a part of China.

"It is totally counterproductive to demonise the Dalai Lama," Hillman
says. Chinese officials told The Australian last week that they
believe the Dalai Lama was behind the March uprisings and continues
to fuel separatist activity behind the scenes. It is clear that they
also blame the religious leader for the protests that dogged the
Olympic torch relay and for using his popularity in the West to fan
criticism of China over Tibet.

Some observers fear that Beijing's antipathy is irreversible: the
Chinese have washed their hands of the Dalai Lama and are waiting for
him to die (he has been ill recently) so they can choose his successor.

The Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, says this would
lead only to more violence.

"In the absence of the Dalai Lama there is no way that the entire
population would be able to contain their resentment and anger," he
said in a speech at Harvard University last month. "If the issue
remains unresolved and the Dalai Lama passes away, there would be a
volcano-type eruption of sentiments in Tibet. This is not a threat
but a statement of fact."

Some China watchers say Beijing is taking a hardline position on
greater autonomy for Tibetans because it does not want to set a
precedent for 55 other minority groups across the country. Yet
Beijing has agreed to a "one country, two systems" policy for Hong
Kong, showing that such arrangements are not entirely unacceptable to
China's policymakers.

The more ominous explanation is that China's iron-fist policy is
driven in part by anger at what it sees as traitorous and ungrateful
behaviour by Tibetans and the unjustified interference of the
international community in China's internal affairs.

Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet
in London, dismisses China's claim that it needs to boost security in
Lhasa to counter the activities of the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

"This is evidence of an official response that owes more to the
political extremism and paranoia of the Maoist era than to a
21st-century would-be superpower," she says.

Maybe so, but the weight of China's rhetoric about the Dalai Lama and
the sheer scale of its military presence in Lhasa suggests it has
made its mind up on Tibet.

Zhu Weiqun, the Chinese official in charge of talks with the Dalai
Lama's envoys this week, describes demands for greater autonomy in
Tibet as a push for "disguised independence". He says the door to
such an outcome was not open "and never will be in the future".

Given this, it is not surprising that the Dalai Lama is talking about retiring.

Since he fled his homeland in 1959, the prospects of his epic
campaign for a more independent Tibet has never looked bleaker.

Cameron Stewart was the first Australian journalist to visit Tibet
since the March riots. He was invited by the Chinese Government along
with News Limited journalist Steve Lewis and federal Liberal MP
Michael Johnson, vice-chairman of the Australia-China Parliamentary
Friendship Group.
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