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China: Lessons from Tibet

“The influence of Christianity and the devotion of their Catholics to the Pope remain as strong as ever. Despite their constant demonisation of the Dalai Lama, he is still a highly venerated figure not only in Tibet, but also among the Buddhists of their Mongolia. The influence of Islam amongst the Muslims of not only Xinjiang, but also other areas of China is equally strong. Objective observers admit that Tibet and Xinjiang have made tremendous economic progress during the last 20 years, but this has not weakened the hold of religion on the people. It is said that in the interior areas of Tibet, if a peasant is offered a choice of either an electronic gadget or a picture of the Dalai Lama as a gift, he would without hesitation choose the latter………If one day there is serious instability in China and if its society comes unstuck, it will, most probably, be not due to political, economic or social causes, but due to the State continuing to come in the way of the religious and spiritual yearnings of the people.”

—Extract from an article written by me after a visit to China in May,2002. The article titled “CHINA: God As Threat To National Security” was carried by the South Asia Analysis Group on July 11,2002, at


Even though no new major incident of violence has been reported from Greater Tibet since the night of March 18,2008, the Chinese continue to make large-scale arrests and send troop reinforcements to Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai in the face of calls by pro-independence activists in Greater Tibet and in the diaspora abroad not to allow the Olympic flame to be taken through Tibet to the top of the Everest. The Chinese were planning to stage this Everest spectacular to show that they have pacified Tibet once and for all . Through their uprising inside Greater Tibet since March 10,2008, the Tibetan youth, monks and others have proved them wrong.

2. Despite the loss of face already suffered by them, the Chinese have reiterated their determination to take the flame to the top of the Everest and from there to Beijing. The only modification they have made in their plan is not to allow foreign tourists and journalists to watch the spectacular. The event will be covered only by the Chinese media and by some pro-Beijing journalists from other countries.

3. While the Chinese have released details of the proposed passage of the flame through other countries,they have not released similar details of its proposed passage through China, including Tibet. As such, one does not know when it will reach Tibet, when it will be carried to the top of the Everest and when it will be taken out of Tibet. However, it is noticed they have banned foreigners from going to the foothills of the Himalayas till May 10. Nepal has reportedly imposed a similar ban at their request till May 10. It is,therefore, likely that the flame will be in Tibet towards the end of April and the beginning of May.One could expect a fresh flare-up of incidents during this period. The Chinese do not want to be taken by surprise this time. They are increasing their troop deployments all over Greater Tibet and making preventive arrests. They are likely to deploy more troops on their borders with India and Nepal. India should also see that the Tibetan refugees do not go to the border areas and provoke a confrontation with the Chinese border troops.

4. The current tension in Greater Tibet and Xinjiang has many lessons for the Chinese. The first is the serious deficiencies in their intelligence agencies and physical security apparatus. They did not have any inkling of the uprising being planned by the Tibetans inside and outside Tibet.They were taken by surprise by the revival of Uighur jihadi sleeper cells in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Three supporters of the Uighur jihadi movement managed to hoodwink their physical security personnel at Urumqi airport on March 7,2008, three days before the uprising in Lhasa, and allegedly smuggle into a Beijing-bound aircraft an inflammable liquid concealed inside a can of soft drinks. Fortunately, the security staff on board the flight detected them and had them overpowered before they could cause a fire.

5. Some years ago, a senior Chinese leader was reported to have told a foreign interlocutor that he was concerned that while the Chinese intelligence was well-informed on developments outside China, it was not equally well-informed about developments inside China. The events in Greater Tibet and Xinjiang prove that this state of affairs continues. The Chinese have been very confident that they will be able to provide effective security during the Olympics. One can only hope that their confidence is well-placed.

6. A message, which comes out loud and clear from Greater Tibet, is that despite being away from Tibet for nearly 50 years now, the Dalai Lama continues to command the respect of the Tibetan people inside China. Chinese attempts to demonise him and project him as the problem have not succeeded. A vast majority of the Tibetan people in China continue to look up to him with undiminished reverence as their political and spiritual leader. Continued demonisation of His Holiness by Chinese Government and party leaders would prove counter-productive and make the situation worse. It is time to stop their unrelenting abuse of the Dalai Lama and re-establish their lines of communications with him.

7. His Holiness has expressed his readiness to visit China, if invited, and meet President Hu Jintao. The Chinese are unlikely to agree to this in the near future—at least not until the Olympics are over. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, the Chinese would not like to project a soft image of themselves. They had seen how sudden policy swings—particularly in political matters— by Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin brought about the disintegration of the USSR.

8. It is in their interest to seek the co-operation of the Dalai Lama and to benefit from the respect and influence commanded by him among the Tibetans in order to seek reconciliation with the Tibetan masses. A stoppage of their anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric would help them not only internally in Greater Tibet, but also externally in the international community. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities continue to suffer from a delusion that if they wait till the death of the Dalai Lama and manage to manipulate the process of nomination of his successor, their problems in Tibet would be over. This will not happen. One saw how the appeals issued by the Panchen Lama nominated by them did not make any impact on the uprising. Any unwise step by them to nominate their own Dalai Lama would only further radicalise the Tibetan youth and make them even more uncontrollable than they are now.

9. The third message from the uprising is that by solely relying on their security forces and on the Han settlers for strengthening their hold on Greater Tibet, they have created for themselves a situation similar to what the Soviets had created for themselves in the Baltic States. They forcibly incorporated them into the USSR and tried to change the demographic complexion of the States by settling a large number of Russians—many of them ex-servicemen—in the Baltic States. They got caught in a vicious circle. The more the suppression, the more the people’s anger. The more the people’s anger, the more the suppression. The more the Russian settlers, the more the hatred for them. The more the hatred for them, the more the Russian settlers. Ultimately, the Soviets had to watch helplessly as the three Baltic States threw off the Soviet yoke and re-gained their independence. A similar situation has developed in Greater Tibet and could develop in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

10. If the Chinese are wise, they would take note of the growing divide between the Hans and the sons of the soil not only in Greater Tibet, but also in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Since the international community recognises Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia as parts of China, it cannot object to Chinese citizens—whatever be their ethnic background— migrating to other parts of China and settling down there. But the state-sponsored resettlement of Hans from outside in order to reduce the Tibetans to the status of Red Indians in their own homeland will not be accepted by the Tibetans and by the world of today. One has seen how the Israeli policy of settling Jewish people in the Palestinian territory under their occupation has boomeranged on them. It is time for China to reverse this policy.

11. Angry sections of Tibetan youth point out that while the Chinese showed accommodation to the people of Hong Kong and Macao and are prepared to show similar accommodation to the people of Taiwan, they are not prepared for any accommodation with the Tibetans. Their stand is: “This is all (Tibetan autonomous region as presently constituted) that we can give. Take it or leave it.”

12. The Chinese refusal to consider any proposal to grant to Tibet a status similar to what they have given to Hong Kong and what they are prepared to grant to Taiwan arises from their fear that a genuinely autonomous Tibet will look up to India for inspiration and guidance and not to Beijing. The Chinese fear the example of the Indian democracy and India’s moral stature more than its military power. Hence, the Hong Kong formula for Tibet may be a non-starter. One has to think of other options, which will satisfy the ethnic and religious aspirations of the Tibetans and at the same time, will be reassuring to the Chinese. There is a need for a debate as to what could be the other options for Tibet. (24-3-08)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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