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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Tibetan crisis

Jean-Luc Domenach

Texte intégral

1June 2008

2The crisis last March and April in Tibet and about Tibet requires two types of analysis from a specialist on Chinese politics. The first on the awful history of the Chinese domination since the 1950s, which remains an important fact, and the second, on the lack of diplomacy from Westerners and the Chinese during recent months, as well as on the difficulty in making plans for change.

3One thing is clear, since 1950, the policy of the Communist authorities has continued to contradict their version of it, treating Tibet like a difference to be destroyed and not as a part of the Chinese world. The research that I conducted on labour camps and political violence in China portrays Tibet as literally being crushed by the Communist authorities until the end of the 1970s. The Chinese repression was subsequently brought to an end, but the problem worsened. While the Tibetans have partially regained control of their tradition and customs, they have barely strengthened their economic and social influence. As a result of the economic development, Chinese colonists were setting down in increasing numbers, while the idea that Tibet was merely a charming tourist oddity was spreading across Chinese cities. Moreover, colonists and tourists were subsequently transported to Lhasa by train, which highlighted the empire of modernity.

4The Chinese authorities could therefore consider that their power, which was once essentially political and military, was both exerted and consolidated by extending itself to more modern areas of the economy, demography and even tourism. While the preparation for the Olympic Games made them agitated and anxious, it was more the dissidents and the Uyghur that they feared, which may explain their delayed reaction to riots on the 10th March. They had not understood that their colonial triumph had put the Tibetans in a desperate situation that restrained them from taking action. Their late reaction was made all the more difficult given the fact that Beijing did not dare to go against the Lhasa authorities, for at least three reasons these being the need to discourage other dissident minorities, the importance of the nationalist wave in the country and the unease between reformist central power and a number of exploitive provincial powers, even the Army itself sometimes.

5History – and experts on Tibet – will say that the chain of command was on the Tibetan side. Threatened with being crushed, they chose riot and martyrdom, thus publicising their cause internationally. As a result, they lost partial control of it, which was noticed by foreign supporters, a combination of the press, human rights militants, followers of Buddhism and modern elitists who were very efficient to begin with. On one hand, it influenced the media and political undercurrents of a democratic society; on the other hand and in particular, it leaned heavily on the brutality of the Beijing authorities’ repression. This presented a series of aspects with varying accuracy. China was using the Olympic Games for its nationalist interests (true); it had not kept its “promise” on human rights (partly true because it had promised nothing, the International Olympic Committee thought that China had promised something), and it remained a “totalitarian” regime (false). And so a battle of words began that was pointless and clumsy, as Tibet is still under China’s rule and insulting to the Chinese, who now know what is better for them, and, incidentally, what is still going wrong.

6Amongst the Chinese leaders, however, while they were able to make the most of their enemies’ mistakes, they displayed a rigid political front, using vulgar language that had been unheard of since the 4th June 1989 massacre, insulting the Dalai Lama, tarnishing the reputation of his followers, threatening Western governments, which sympathised with the Tibetan cause, using Mussolini-style vocabulary, and refusing to accept some of the responsibility. As it happens, as a result of not having anticipated the Sinophobia wave in the West, Beijing overplayed it and took the major risk of supporting nationalist grassroots movements, which had been affecting the country for a decade. This support went as far as a innovation, (which would have made Prime Minister Zhou Enlai turn in his grave) which supported nationalist initiatives of Chinese associations overseas and abroad, with protests taking place in Berlin, London and Paris. Zhou Enlai, on the contrary, had left a slogan for the Chinese people overseas, “remain discreet” (bu yao chutou).

7Beyond these relatively simple and known aspects, two things remain uncertain. First of all, the sequence of events. For the Tibetans, new aptitudes were surfacing, both tactical – in making the most of their strategic approach to the Olympic Games and repeated lack of sensitivity towards Beijing since the beginning of the year – and organizational – in trying to decentralise the outer corners of Tibet. However, it is unknown whether the Dalai Lama was consulted or not, to what extent the Tibetan plan of activities overshadows the claim for autonomy, and to what extent an agreement negotiated with the Chinese authorities (which would obviously involve painful concessions) could prove applicable.

8The uncertainties were much greater for the Chinese. First of all, how were the leaders of such a large country able to place Liu Qi, one of the most discredited men of the former Jiang Zemin team, at the head of the Chinese Organisation Committee? As long as he is there, further undiplomatic actions were expected to continue. In addition, there were also uncertainties regarding the Chinese occupation authorities’ attitude in Lhasa. They were surprised, so what was the point of their thousand informers? Why was their reaction weak at first, then violent? And why were they so verbally violent? All these uncertainties boil down to a central issue. In this so-called colonial situation, will Beijing (Paris) still be capable of refuting Lhasa (Algiers)? This is ambiguous, especially because Hu Jintao governed Tibet in the 1980s. On the other hand, the clever stance of the central authorities after the earthquake could be interpreted as Lhasa’s authorities being refuted.

9Behind these uncertainties that are linked to the present economic climate, there is a much more fundamental question, that of the link between law and force. China is paying heavily for disrespecting its people’s rights, but Tibet is paying for its lack of force. Am I mistaken? I have the impression that beyond the wavering sympathy that Tibet musters in the West, the country will remain weak for a long time. Therefore the answer has to be based on intrinsic change in China, and in particular, on the founding of a rule of law in Beijing. For the time being, this development is beginning to yield results, but it will still take time.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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