HONG KONG - Subdued Tibetans on Wednesday marked the beginning of their
traditional New Year, called Losar, with their troubled Himalayan region sealed
off from foreign journalists and tourists and blanketed by Chinese security
forces lest protests against Beijing's rule break out again.
For many Tibetans, a campaign to boycott customary Losar festivities, most of
which would normally take place over the next three days, has turned a usually
celebratory occasion into a time of commemoration and mourning for those who
died or were tortured and jailed during riots in the Tibet Autonomous Region
The boycott call - started months ago via text messages, e-mails and roadside
advertising - has been fueled by overseas Tibetan
groups, who claim that as many as 100 people died in last year's rioting. It
has also been endorsed by the Dalai Lama's government in exile in Dharamsala,
According to state media, 18 civilians and one police officer died in the
rioting; hundreds were injured.
As Losar approached, Chinese security forces stepped up their presence in Tibet
and also locked down towns in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces where many
Tibetans live. Police reportedly discovered several kilograms of explosives
under a bridge in Tibet's eastern Qamdo prefecture, which borders Sichuan.
The heightened security is likely to remain long after the first three days of
Losar have passed, because there is even greater potential trouble ahead.
On March 10, how will Tibetans choose to remember the 50th anniversary of the
failed uprising against Chinese rule that led to the Dalai Lama's flight into
exile? This is a date of tremendous emotional import; the protests that it
inspired last March culminated in the bloodshed that followed four days later.
The government in exile maintains that 87,000 people were killed by Chinese
forces during the 1959 crackdown.
Despite Beijing's 50-year vilification campaign, the 73-year-old Dalai Lama,
winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, remains widely popular among Tibetans.
China has denounced him as a "splittist", a "saboteur" and a "tool" of
anti-China forces in the West, but these insults only seem to enhance the
spiritual leader's standing among his people and raise tension in the region,
creating a bigger security headache for Beijing.
That tension may boil over into violence again as a mournful Losar is followed
by a painful 50-year anniversary that is then followed four days later by the
first anniversary of the bloody suppression of last March's riots, the worst
violence seen in Tibet in 20 years. The riots started in Lhasa, Tibet's
capital, but quickly spread to other Tibetan areas, attracting worldwide
attention and concern just as Beijing was burnishing its image ahead of its
international debut as host of the Summer Olympic Games.
Chinese leaders are determined to prevent a repeat of last March's deadly chaos
in the coming weeks. They have dispatched a special envoy to Kathmandu to ask
Nepal to ban anti-China protests, and security forces are armed and ready to
meet any challenge on Chinese soil.
Beijing has also increased attacks on the Dalai Lama and his followers,
declaring March 28 Serf Emancipation Day - a reminder of the feudal system that
existed in Tibet before the Chinese invaded in 1950. That reminder, however,
will probably only serve to further embitter Tibetans.
It could be well into April - maybe much longer - before the Chinese leadership
feels safe about lifting its siege of Tibet.
But, even if Beijing succeeds in keeping a lid on Tibetan tensions in the near
future, they will only rise to the surface again at a later date - and perhaps
with even greater force. Clearly, it is time - past time - for a new strategy.
So far, the Chinese leadership has been content to wait for the Dalai Lama's
death while swarming the region with Han Chinese, who have brought with them
modern infrastructure, education, the Chinese legal system and impressive, if
ill-distributed, economic growth. All these advances, leaders reckoned, would
be received with due gratitude and appreciation.
Meanwhile, state media have continued their unsuccessful propaganda campaign to
caricature the charismatic Dalai Lama - a figure who has gained international
respect and renown as a man of peace - as a radical extremist bent on violence.
If the Dalai Lama were to die tomorrow, his death would only bring China's
failed Tibet policy into sharper relief. True, Tibetans would lose a globally
recognized symbol of their cause, but that would not solve Beijing's problems
in the region.
At this point, the Dalai Lama's death would only widen the rift between
Tibetans and their Chinese masters as Dharamsala and Beijing moved into high
gear to compete for the naming of a successor, traditionally seen as a
reincarnation whose birth coincides with his predecessor's death. The Dalai
Lama has even considered breaking with tradition and naming his successor
before he dies - although that raises difficult questions about reincarnation.
Certainly, no successor perceived to be anointed by Beijing would be regarded
Following the Dalai Lama's death, then, Tibet would continue to be the
troubled, sporadically violent region that it is today. Unless, of course,
Beijing succeeds in virtually wiping out its cultural and religious heritage -
and that would be a far greater tragedy.
No sensible analyst of the thorny problem of Tibet would suggest independence
for the restive region. That would be a denial of political reality and of the
great economic advances Tibet has made under Chinese rule. But neither is it
reasonable to expect Tibetans to accept the tragic cultural losses that Beijing
has done its best to force upon them.
After 50 years of vilification, it is too much to expect China's leaders to
accept the "middle way" proposed by the Dalai Lama, but some other way needs to
be found, besides throwing rhetorical daggers and ratcheting up security every
time Tibetans threaten to rise up against Chinese rule.
Yet, in the run-up to the new year and these sensitive anniversaries, the
leadership has shown no signs of recognizing and correcting this failed policy.
And the rest of the world is too worried about the economic downturn to care
much about Tibet anymore.
For example, Tibet was barely mentioned during US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's recent visit to China. Indeed, America's top diplomat was quite
explicit about her country's priorities these days, saying that human rights
"can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change
crisis and the security crisis. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an
understanding and cooperation on each of those."
In other words, human rights and religious freedom are side issues in a
Sino-American relationship now driven by fears over the global economic
meltdown, global warming and terrorism.
So it is likely Beijing will face little meaningful opposition to its approach
to Tibet. Thus, permanent hostility toward China is building in the region,
especially among monks who have been turned out of their monasteries, ordered
to denounce the Dalai Lama and forced to take "patriotic education" classes and
to study Chinese law instead of Buddhist scriptures.
This kind of throwback to Maoism may produce a few insincere expressions of
loyalty to the Communist Party, but in the final analysis it will not win any
hearts and minds. That will only happen when what is in those hearts and minds
is honored and respected by the central government and when that government
also honors the protection of religious freedom guaranteed in its own
China can and will retain control of Tibet, despite the separatist aspirations
of Tibetan extremists, who are frustrated not just with Beijing but also with
the more moderate demands for greater autonomy made by the Dalai Lama. But
China will never truly bring Tibet into the fold of the nation unless it stops
trying to win over Tibetans by beating down their protests, emptying their
monasteries and smothering their cultural traditions.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at