Opinion: Tibet -- China's Gaza Strip

By Jürgen Kremb

The violence in Lhasa is not part of a separatist campaign. Rather, it is the result of failed political policies. To avoid an Olympic-sized debacle, it is time for Beijing to sit down together with the Dalai Lama. The radical Tibetan alternative is far more dangerous.

Tanks in the streets of Lhasa, burning cars on the Roof of the World, while thousands of soldiers brandish assault rifles, imposing peace at the barrel of a gun -- it's as if China were an imploding banana republic. On top of that, there are unknown numbers of dead on both sides. This, surely, is not the new China -- a gleaming economic powerhouse -- that Beijing wanted to present to the world before its celebration of the century, the 2008 Olympic Games.

In fact, the situation is turning into a nightmare. The horror is worst for the locals, who in the next few days will be dragged out of their homes and subjected to terrible punishments and torture. The promise that Beijing will uphold human rights in the run-up to the Olympic Games has now gone out the window.

Even before the Olympic torch passes through the streets of Lhasa and is carried up Mount Everest later this spring, Chinese judges will likely have already handed down the first death sentences to demonstrators.

For the planners of the Olympic Games and for China's politicians, who were hoping to bask in the glory of a clean and apolitical Games, their worst nightmares have come true.

Unspeakable Suffering

Pointing the finger of blame now helps nobody. Instead, it is time to confront reality. The fact remains that the Tibetan conflict is a political problem. Beijing and the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, are paying the price of wasting 20 years, when they could have worked towards a serious and peaceful solution.

The last time this happened was in the 1980s. At the time the Dalai Lama, with Chinese approval, sent three delegations to Tibet. Each of the groups, who were led by the Dalai Lama's relatives, exile politicians and high-ranking Buddhist dignitaries, led to tumult in the region.

People broke down in tears. They reported unspeakable suffering and terrible human rights abuses during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. They spoke of genocide and the destruction of Buddhist culture. According to various estimates, up to 1.2 million Tibetans have died due to the Chinese occupation and various political campaigns since the Dalai Lama fled his homeland in March 1959.

Beijing was shocked by the outpouring of grief and has avoided any dialogue since then. It has denounced any form of opposition -- even from the Buddhist clergy -- as "mob riots." According to Communist propaganda, the Dalai Lama is a "separatist who wants to split up the mother country."

Offers made to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile that they can return if they want, but may not live anywhere other than Beijing, demonstrate just how unprepared the Communists are to engage in any real dialogue. Even owning pictures of the Dalai Lama is punishable by law.

Minority in Their Own Homeland

In reality, the Chinese government isn't at all interested in an amicable solution to the conflict. Instead, Beijing is using the Chinese populace as its most potent weapon, in the form of a resettlement policy that has seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese relocated to Tibet in recent years -- and the resulting assimilation of the region. Party members, farmers, blue-collar workers -- for decades they have been sent to those areas of China which used to have a Tibetan majority.

Those areas include not only the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, but also provinces such as Qinghai, Gansu and parts of Sichuan, where approximately 6 million Tibetans still live. The apex of this policy was the construction of the train line to Lhasa, completed three years ago. While the project brought prosperity and economic development to the region, it also accelerated the process whereby locals have become a minority in their own homeland.

The Dalai Lama, for his part, has unfortunately been unable to find an adequate political strategy to counter Beijing's cultural imperialism. As a monk living in exile who is dedicated to non-violence, his options are limited. But despite his reputation as the jet-setting pop-star of contemplation and reflection, he has not found a political approach to guide his people into the future.

In the 1980s, in recognition of the realities of Chinese occupation, he abandoned demands that Tibet be granted independence. Instead, he has insisted that China guarantee to preserve Tibetan culture, as was promised by Mao Zedong after China occupied Tibet in 1951.

But even as the Dalai Lama seems to adhere to political realism, his government in exile often engages in such esoteric debates as to whether Tibet was truly sovereign prior to the arrival of the Chinese, or whether it had been granted suzerainty. Beijing's mistrust is also fuelled by the fact that the Dalai Lama remains head of the Free Tibet Campaign, which demands freedom and independence.

That may seem like a desirable outcome -- that Tibet receive its freedom like Kosovo and East Timor. But it has little to do with realpolitik. China would never consent to an independent Tibet -- neither a Communist People's Republic nor the nationalist power which is currently flexing its muscles in Asia. A "democratic China," developed through increasing trade with the world, is merely a chimera called into being by dreamers in the West. China sees Tibet as a "domestic affair" and as such is not willing to listen to council from outside its borders. Furthermore, America's human rights record of the last few years has made it easy for China to follow an aggressive course.

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