A Brittle China, Exposed By Instability

A protester holds a Tibetan flag in front of a Chinese flag held by China supporter Albert Xing as they wait for the Olympic torch, in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 9, 2008.
AP Photo/Jakub Mosur
This column was written by Gordon G. Chang.

Three weeks after the outbreak of violence in southwest China, Beijing's officials have apparently restored order. Before they were able to do so, they often spoke in grim terms. Tibet Communist party chief Zhang Qingli, for instance, stated that the country was locked in "a life or death struggle."

From the perspective of today, that assessment appears overwrought. Yet there was good reason for Chinese officialdom to be worried. Although the Tibetans clearly could not gain their independence or destroy the one-party state, their uprising exposed the fragility of the regime in Beijing.

Fragility? The global consensus is that China owns this century and will soon push the United States off center stage. Yet the violence instigated by Tibetans last month called into question the stability of Chinese governance. As an initial matter, the disturbances shattered not only the cultivated image of ethnic harmony but also the cherished notion that economic development was molding the nation together. China remains a multicultural empire of many ethnicities -- Beijing officially counts 55 minority groups -- and not all of them are content remaining inside the Chinese tent. Those who want their independence from Beijing's "Han" rule are indicating that the Communist party's formula for nation-building is deeply flawed. "The central government invests billions in Tibet each year hoping for stability in return," a Chinese source familiar with Beijing's thinking on Tibetan matters told Reuters. "But money cannot buy stability."

Largely as a result of this blind faith in modernization, officials in the horribly misnamed Tibet Autonomous Region and their bosses in Beijing believed their own propaganda on the benevolence of their minority policies and the righteousness of their actions. "The problem is that in the Party, they delude themselves by thinking that Tibetans don't have legitimate grievances," says Tsering Shakya of the University of British Colombia. Due to this perception, Chinese leaders were convinced that Tibetans should have been happy and that problems, when they occurred, were fomented from the outside. Therefore, Beijing quickly came to the conclusion that the recent unrest must have been orchestrated by the revered Dalai Lama, whom state media smeared as "a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast." Yet any casual visitor to Tibet could see that, even in the calmest of times, the Tibetans deeply resented Han rule. No independent observer endorses Beijing's charges that the Dalai Lama was behind this year's disturbances.

The self-delusion in this instance led to Chinese officials, both in Beijing and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, being taken by complete surprise when they should have been prepared. The protests started on an especially sensitive date -- March 10, the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising in Tibet -- and Tibetan lamas often take to the streets to commemorate the event. Moreover, the violence did not start until the fifth day of the disturbances, giving the state plenty of time to get ready. As a result of the almost complete paralysis of the government in Lhasa, the "scum of Buddhism" -- Beijing's term for angry Tibetans -- fought police and went on a rampage, attacking Hans and burning their property. They even managed to take control of the center of the capital city. "The whole day I didn't see a single police officer or soldier," said one American woman to the New York Times. "The Tibetans were just running free." Free-running Tibetans exposed another fundamental flaw in Beijing's governance. The Communist party's inflexible top-down political system is especially ill-suited to respond to fast-moving events. As a senior police officer in Lhasa told a Han businessman whose properties were damaged in the rioting, "We could not act without orders from above." Although the Chinese state is massive, its size is as much a disadvantage as a strength, as we saw last month -- and in every crisis in China this decade.

While Chinese officials deliberated during the breakdown of order in Tibet, the protests spread fast throughout Tibetan areas in southwest China. Within a day of the initial outbreak on Monday, similar demonstrations had taken place in Qinghai and Gansu provinces. By Sunday, the 16th, Tibetans in Sichuan province burned down a police station and engaged in other disruptive acts. Neighboring Yunnan province was also scarred by Tibetan unrest.

And now ethnic protests have jumped from Buddhist Tibetan lands, in China's southwest, to Muslim Uighur areas, in the country's northwest. Although authorities in the so-called Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have taken extraordinary precautions in recent weeks, such as banning weddings, they were not able to prevent the bombing of a bus in the capital city of Urumqi on March 18. Since then, there have been scattered incidents, most notably a demonstration, beginning on March 23 in the city of Hotan, of nearly 600 Uighurs. At the end of last week, authorities in the northwestern part of Xinjiang, also known as the "other Tibet," reportedly found bombs and made arrests. Fu Chao, an official there, said that Uighur protesters "want to echo the things in Lhasa."

Beijing has employed the same harsh -- and abhorrent -- tactics to repress both its Uighur and Tibetan populations. The forceful Chinese methods have stopped the worst rioting, but they have not been entirely successful. Some demonstrations continue even in the presence of hundreds of troops. In the past week, despite repeated government pronouncements of victory, sporadic disturbances continue to occur.

And at this time, it appears that the government's increased reliance on force is itself creating even more public dissent. Fresh violence, for instance, occurred in Sichuan province on April 3 when almost 800 monks and other Tibetans marched to seek the release of a monk and a monastery worker who had been incarcerated for possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama. The pictures were seized when 3,000 paramilitary troops invaded a remote monastery. Police opened fire on the protestors, killing as many as 15 and wounding dozens. Others have been reported missing. The incident is bound to fuel even more resentment and ultimately unrest. As Nicholas Kristof noted last week, China's repressive policies in Tibet have "catastrophically failed."

It's true that force has so far succeeded in keeping Tibetans and Uighurs from breaking away from the People's Republic, and almost no one thinks they will prevail in the foreseeable future. After all, Tibetans number approximately six million and the Uighurs about eight in a nation of approximately 1.5 billion souls.

Yet the recent Tibetan disturbances show what may happen in other circumstances and in other times. In the last few weeks, protests flared, escalated quickly, and spread uncontrollably. Central and local officials were surprised, reacted slowly, and now employ tactics that cause further unrest. In a future crisis, over different issues and involving different peoples, we will likely see the same themes we witness today, but then the mighty one-party state may not succeed.
By Gordon G. Chang