It's time for Beijing to rethink Tibet policy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2008, 12:00am


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Eleven days after violence broke out in Tibet, two contending versions of what happened have emerged. The central government has put the blame squarely on the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile for starting riots in Lhasa and other parts of the country that have claimed the lives of 13 people. But Tibetan exiles have claimed they merely staged peaceful demonstrations, and that close to 100 protesters died in a crackdown by security forces.

With the international media barred from reporting on the ground, reports in the western media have tended to draw heavily on the Tibetan exiles' accounts. Meanwhile, the mainland's state-controlled media has been dominated by official accounts, which focus on the violence the rioters have inflicted on innocent people. The conflicting reports have left a cloudy picture of what really happened. Far more worrying is their adverse effect of reinforcing the west's image of Beijing as a repressive government, and ordinary Chinese people's view of the west being keen to demonise China.

Whatever the truth, the central government's policy towards Tibet has clearly failed. After almost half a century of direct rule, Beijing has failed to win over the hearts and minds of its people.

In terms of economic well-being, Tibet has long been the country's poorest region. But the nation's economic growth in recent years has given it the opportunity to pour in billions of dollars to push forward development. Building houses and infrastructure has been a key policy, most visibly with the opening in 2006 of a high-speed rail connection to Lhasa that has finally made fast and economic travel to the isolated region possible.

Yet material benefits have obviously failed to impress the Tibetans, whose culture is based on religion and whose traditional political system is a theocracy. While the Communist Party, which upholds atheism, has ceased being so hostile towards religion, there is no question of it loosening control over the way Buddhism is practised in Tibet. As the influx of Han Chinese to the region increases, the materialism they bring along has upset Tibetans, who feel they are being sidelined. Add to it the pull of the Dalai Lama, and a fertile ground for dissent has been created.

Tibet is officially an autonomous region but its degree of autonomy has been disputed by Tibetans. Last year, 60 per cent of government workers in the region were Tibetans and ethnic minorities, down from 70 per cent in 2005. Han Chinese held virtually all the top Communist Party posts at the county and prefecture levels. No wonder Tibetans do not feel they are masters of their own destiny. The Dalai Lama is ageing. What will happen if he goes ahead with threats to quit his political post in the face of the radicalisation of his cause by young Tibetans is unclear.

For the good of the people of the region and China's international standing, Beijing needs to rethink its policy on Tibet. Ideally, Hong Kong's model of 'one country, two systems' might be a solution. But the central government is clearly concerned its application to Tibet might also spark similar demands from Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, which are also regions with ethnic minorities. But real efforts need to be made to let Tibetans truly run Tibet in order to calm sentiments and breed stability in the restive region.

With the country's coming-out party, the Olympic Games, just five months away, such a shift would give Beijing a golden opportunity to markedly alter perceptions that it is a repressive regime that tramples on rights.