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."
September 4, 2010