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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."

Another year of the Iron Fist

February 27, 2009

Feb 26th 2009
 >From The Economist print edition
If this is success, maybe China should look for an alternative

AS TIBETANS around the world this week marked the advent of the new year
of the Earth Ox, many did so in a spirit of mourning rather than
jubilation. The festival fell just before a bloodstained anniversary
season: 50 years since the Chinese suppression of an uprising that saw
the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader, flee into exile in India with
some 100,000 followers; 20 years since protests that led to the
imposition of martial law in the capital, Lhasa; one year since ugly and
murderous anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa that brought a sharp and lasting
security backlash. The fact that so many troops are still needed, merely
to prevent commemorative protests, suggests that China’s Tibet policy is
in need of an overhaul.

China’s officials seem to be contemplating nothing of the sort. Indeed,
they may believe things are going their way. A year ago Tibet seemed a
real threat to China’s hopes of presenting the Beijing Olympics as an
unblemished celebration of its achievements. As the Olympic torch was
carried round the world, it was met from London to Delhi by protests
against Chinese rule in Tibet. Yet the Olympics themselves passed with
no serious protest or international boycott.

Since then Tibet has slipped down the international agenda. In her first
overseas visit as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton recently stopped
in Beijing to beseech China’s co-operation in fixing the world economy
and stopping the planet from frying. In the apparent belief that China,
oddly, will not pursue such aims out of its own self-interest, she
forbore from harping on issues such as human rights and Tibet.

Chinese diplomats, meanwhile, are cock-a-hoop at a concession they wrung
last October from Britain, whose government had hitherto been the only
one not formally to recognise China’s “sovereignty” in Tibet, accepting
instead only its “suzerainty” (ie, de facto control) over the region.
Apparently unaware of the importance of the issue to both China and
exiled Tibetans, Britain changed policy in a bland and obscure statement
published on the internet. At talks with the Dalai Lama’s
representatives in Beijing the following week, China, perhaps not
coincidentally, hardened its position even further. The talks, in which
China has never appeared sincere in offering any compromise to the
exiles, now seem more futile than ever.
Himalayan clouds

Yet the refusal to talk to the Dalai Lama comes at a cost. This week, in
both what China misleadingly calls the “Tibet Autonomous Region” and in
adjoining provinces, security has been intense. Foreigners have been
kept out. Tibet has been closed. China can easily quash any protests by
those foolhardy enough to mount them. But repression is hardly the way a
successful, modern power wants to govern.

In 1959 the Dalai Lama’s escape from his homeland produced a myth: that
he had conjured up a belt of cloud to hide his retinue from the Chinese
air force. At the time, The Economist scoffed at this (see next
article). “The real cloud”, we argued, “was evidently the unity of the
Tibetan people in their hatred of Chinese military rule.” Sadly, despite
all the economic advances, despite the easing of Chinese policy after
the Cultural Revolution, and despite (indeed, because of) the influx of
Han Chinese into Tibet, that assessment remains largely true today.
Sadly, too, the Chinese explanation for unrest remains unchanged: in
1959, as now, it was blamed on a “few reactionaries manipulated by
foreign powers”.

The chief reactionary, of course, is the Dalai Lama himself, whom China
still vilifies. It seems to believe that its Tibet problem will be
solved with his passing. In fact, it is more likely to worsen. The Dalai
Lama, unlike many of his followers both in Tibet and in a remarkably
cohesive exiled population, accepts Chinese rule. He demands merely
that “autonomy” should have substance. And for all China’s accusations
against him, he has never wavered in his insistence that his followers
pursue their aims peacefully. China may one day come to regret spurning
his moderating influence.
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