Spotlight on China, darkness in Tibet

Tibet is shouting. But China isn't listening.

Washington - China's media covered the country's earthquake tragedy more openly than any past disaster. But the Chinese government still maintains a blackout over news from Tibet, which experienced its biggest uprising in decades this spring.

The blackout explains why you probably haven't heard about continuing sporadic protests by Buddhist monks and nuns in eastern Tibet, along with further arrests by the Chinese police. As China consolidates control of territory it considers its own, many Tibetans are placing their hopes on a Chinese offer of talks, now postponed, with representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader-in-exile.

Previous talks have failed – and not just because of calcified mistrust. Rather, China appears to see its "Tibet problem" as a question of economic development, and seems unable to grasp the centrality of Buddhism to the Tibetan people's national and cultural identity.

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One high-ranking Communist Party official this spring called the Dalai Lama "a wolf in a monk's robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast." Such language deeply offends many Tibetans.

Still, optimists are watching for signs that Beijing is serious this time about discussing the Dalai Lama's proposal for "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet. At the heart of this hope is a belief that a newly confident China, bolstered by its relatively open and rapid response to the earthquake and then by the Beijing Olympics, will agree to loosen its hold over the region.

Pessimists note that China may have agreed to the talks simply to deflect international pressure prior to the Olympics while pursuing a harsh policy of arrests and "patriotic education" campaigns inside Tibet.

I saw all this two decades before as a reporter covering three Tibetan uprisings in Lhasa in 1987, 1988, and 1989.

Then, as now, it began with Buddhist monks protesting and shouting slogans. The police then detained and beat up some of the monks. Other Tibetans reacted violently. Blaming the Dalai Lama for causing all the trouble, Beijing finally reacted with massive force.

Western governments urged talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, and Beijing ultimately agreed. But in the end those talks led nowhere.

The two sides reopened "informal" talks on May 4, and what the Tibetans describe as a more formal meeting was set to begin June 11, but China has now postponed that meeting.

What will it take to break the cycle of protests, violence, crackdowns, and failed talks that has prevailed ever since the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1950?

Many young Tibetans are beginning to question whether the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way Approach," which calls for genuine autonomy for Tibet, has any chance of succeeding. In an interview with the Financial Times on May 25, the Dalai Lama conceded that he is losing influence over Tibetans who favor a more militant approach aimed at full independence.

Western experts say that the Chinese government's mistrust of the Dalai Lama is now so great that only small steps forward can be expected from the talks. The hope, though, is that even small steps will create movement toward a broader understanding. The Dalai Lama told the Financial Times that he would be willing to attend the Olympics if the Chinese halt the arrests and torture of Tibetans, provide proper medical aid to those who were wounded in the crackdown, and allow the international media access to Tibet.

Early signs are not auspicious. The Chinese government appears unwilling to acknowledge what may be the real causes of the recent Tibetan unrest. One of those causes is certainly China's failure to implement its own autonomy law that now, in theory, protects the Tibetans' language, culture, and religion. Another is a Chinese government decision last year decreeing that China will now oversee the recognition of all reincarnate Tibetan lamas, or "living Buddhas," presumably including the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama himself.

Yet another cause of unrest has been a state-run program to resettle Tibetan nomads, causing great disruptions in their traditional way of life. Nomads participated in large numbers in the recent protests.

But China appears to have concluded that it can out-wait the Dalai Lama, now 72, in hope that his death will result in the collapse of Tibetan resistance altogether. In the meantime, China plans for a major expansion of its new railroad network inside Tibet, bringing in more Han Chinese immigrants and some day possibly swamping the Tibetan population.

Experts who have tracked the recent uprising say this influx could well lead to even greater frustration and more unrest, with resentment lasting for generations. It's already lasted more than 50 years.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, is a former Monitor correspondent and Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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