Decades after call for reform, Tibet remains in crisis

The response of Chinese leaders is to tighten hardline policies further, writes John Garnaut. Thirty years have passed since the reformist Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang – the most important mentor of the present party boss, Hu Jintao – climbed to the roof of the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace, looked out at lavish government buildings in poverty-stricken Lhasa and resolved to turn his government's hardline policies upside down.

He lambasted the local cadres for perpetuating ethnic Han chauvinism and continuing the "ultra-leftist" policies of the Cultural Revolution, such as demonising the Dalai Lama.

He sacked the local party boss, ordered that thousands of Han Chinese cadres be replaced by Tibetans and issued what the Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett describes as "perhaps the closest thing in Chinese Communist Party history to a real apology".

"We feel that our party has let the Tibetan people down. We feel very bad!" Hu Yaobang told Tibetans on behalf of the party's central leadership, according to a member of his group, Wang Yao, as recorded in the book Resistance and Reform.

"The sole purpose of our Communist Party is to work for the happiness of people, to do good things for them. We have worked nearly 30 years, but the life of the Tibetan people has not been notably improved. Are we not to blame?"

One of the mysteries of modern Chinese politics is what goes through the mind of Hu Jintao when as President he honours Hu Yaobang's family shrine each Chinese New Year. In the nearly three decades since Hu Yaobang's extraordinary mea culpa, and 21 years since his death, Tibetan living standards have improved but the political situation remains at crisis point.

Two weeks ago, the head of the party's United Front Department told cadres to appoint only "politically reliable" monks and require clerics to play a leading role in "anti-separatist struggles".

And Tibetan sources revealed authorities had secretly sentenced Tibet's wealthiest businessman to life imprisonment, perhaps relating to a large donation to the Dalai Lama.

This week the official Xinhua news agency belatedly admitted that a "stray bullet" from security forces had killed a Tibetan protester on the Tibetan plateau, in western Sichuan province, while Tibetan sources put the death toll at three or four.

Visitors today to the Potala Palace look out over a Han Chinese-dominated business district, a lavish joint headquarters for the Communist Party and "autonomous" government, and occasional convoys of heavily armed police. The narrow cobblestone streets of the old Tibetan quarters crawl with police and their informants.

Tibetans are mostly too scared to talk openly with foreigners, but in dark corners after dusk many speak of their furious anger towards "the Chinese" as well as a near-obsessive faith in the Dalai Lama.

Formations of police patrols are as much a source of comfort and reassurance to many Han Chinese as they are a cause of anxiety and anger for Tibetans.

Two years ago, rioting Tibetans filled these streets with so much fire and blood that many Han witnesses still cannot bear to speak about it. At least 19 people died.

After the riots Zhang Yan shifted her small cosmetics business from Lhasa to more peaceful Shigatse. "We give them so many conditions and yet ... " she said, eyes filling with tears and unable to finish her sentence.

Parts of Lhasa still feel like a war zone but the situation to the north in Xinjiang is more serious.

About 200 people were killed there a year ago, mainly Han Chinese going about their business but also Uighurs killed by security forces. In the days after those riots, a Han construction worker spoke of seeing Uighurs slaughtering Han, "slicing their throats like lambs", before police opened fire, killing Uighurs.

"The Chinese have taken everything away and left us with nothing," a young Uighur in a restaurant said. "So we throw rocks and whatever we have in our hands, and they have guns."
And yet these two waves of race riots – China's worst violence since 1989 – were not accepted as evidence that hardline policies had reached their use-by date, but that they should be tightened further.

The stock response of Chinese leaders and official scholars is to claim things are fine. "The local, ordinary people love the country, they love the Communist Party of China," said Tibet's otherwise urbane and sophisticated deputy party chief, Hao Peng, on a rare foreign media tour.

The bloody race riots are blamed on the exiled Tibetan and Uighur leaders, the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, or on biased Western media, or simply on the ungrateful character of Tibetans and Uighurs.

Tibetans remember Hu Yaobang fondly, even as a hero. "I admire Hu Yaobang's courage," said the Dalai Lama in 2005. But few Tibetans or Uighurs pause to thank Hu Jintao for anything. A report by the International Campaign For Tibet, Tibet at a Turning Point, blamed him for brutal massacres and political repression when he was party boss of Tibet in 1989. It blamed him for the "hardline policies against Tibetan culture and religion" that were formalised in 1994 and also for the appointment of hardliners since. But Hu Jintao is the most opaque of Chinese political leaders and the truth may be more complicated.

Robbie Barnett, of Columbia University, says that "the unravelling of Hu Yaobang's ideas" over the past two decades is "fascinating because it seems so unnecessary, so inimical to China's interests, and because it almost certainly triggered the recent protests".

"Why has China persisted with this lose-lose policy?" he asks. "Perhaps it's because the only people who do not lose from it are the hardline bureaucrats who run it."

John Garnaut
September 4, 2010

Obama's Timidity on Tibet

Over the past few years, Beijing's repressive policies have increasingly alienated Tibetans. One indication was the March 2008 uprising and riots across Tibet. Yet Beijing responded not by moderating its policies but by intensifying repression—launching a "patriotic education" campaign and targeting members of the educated elite, many of whom have long gotten along with, and even flourished within, the communist system. Among these are the writer Tragyal, long associated with the state publishing house, who awaits trial on charges of "splittism," and Dorje Tashi, a businessman and hotel owner, who received a life sentence in June for allegedly collaborating with human-rights groups abroad.

Beijing has taken the same approach to criticism from abroad over its handling of Tibet, significantly raising the stakes by identifying Tibet as a "core interest." Beijing has given notice that unless the world adopts a "correct understanding" of Tibet by spurning any view contrary to the Communist Party line, there will be consequences for bilateral relations and it will be difficult for China to cooperate on the global economic recovery or other issues.

Washington has bent under the pressure. President Obama refused to schedule a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after his November 2009 visit to Beijing, although he did speak about Tibet there. Afterward, U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman adopted Beijing's line, stating that the president's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, had "trampled on a couple of China's core interests." These actions have serious implications for U.S. support for Tibet, for activists for freedom inside China, and the Dalai Lama and his democratic government in exile.

Often, when Chinese officials present their position on Tibet, senior U.S. officials cede ground by saying nothing publicly. Indeed, the words "Tibet" and "Dalai Lama" have gradually disappeared from the administration's vocabulary. Washington's official statements about the April earthquake in Yushu, an area that is 97% Tibetan, did not refer to Tibetans or Tibet.

The silence was even more troubling at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, major talks the U.S. and China held in Beijing in May. State Councilor Dai Binguo presented China's view on Tibet in his remarks at a joint session but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not respond or mention Tibet publicly. It was left to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, to state the U.S. position.

At a routine press briefing several days later, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley deflected a question about the way Tibet was handled during the talks, saying "It's hard for me from halfway around the world to describe everything we discussed," despite having just given remarks on the U.S. positions on Burma and North Korea presented during the S&ED.

The silence of the Obama administration is peculiar since U.S. policy on Tibet is clear. Spelled out in the Tibet Policy Act, it supports, among other things, talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing and respect for Tibetans' human rights and religious, linguistic and cultural heritage.

Past administrations have faithfully carried out this policy. The 2009 annual report on negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, required under the Act, recounts extensive contacts about Tibet between President George W. Bush and General Secretary Hu Jintao as well as between Chinese interlocutors and other American officials, such as the coordinator for Tibetan affairs, a position first created by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The current Tibet coordinator, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Maria Otero, was not included in the giant U.S. delegation to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Her predecessor in the post, Paula Dobriansky, traveled to China four times and met with the Dalai Lama 13 times. The 2010 report, due in March, was only submitted to Congress on Wednesday.

The administration's downplaying of Tibet undermines Chinese liberal intellectuals and activists who have criticized Beijing's policies on Tibet at great risk to themselves. After the March 2008 uprising, a Chinese think tank called the Open Constitution Initiative issued a report challenging Beijing's position that the riots were incited by the Dalai Lama and criticizing the crackdown that followed. This organization was later shut down and its staff harassed.

In addition, 29 intellectuals, lawyers and activists signed an open letter in March 2008 supporting dialogue with the Dalai Lama and urging and end to official propaganda vilifying him and Tibetans. One of them, Liu Xiaobo was later prosecuted on subversion charges for his writings and sentenced to jail for 11 years.

American officials should know by now that nothing is gained by acquiescing to China's overbearing behavior on Tibet or any other issue. Adapting to Beijing's "correct understanding" of Tibet undermines not only the Dalai Lama and human rights for Tibetans, but also America's own "core interest" in seeing these respected in Tibet and China as well. To be credible, America must clearly and publicly pursue a well-established policy on Tibet.

Ellen Bork, Foreign Policy Initiative

Ms. Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.