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    Greater China
     Feb 26, 2009
China closes the door on Tibet
By Kent Ewing

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 last March.

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, India.

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 as legitimate.

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 constitution.

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 kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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