April Fool's days in Tibet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:32pm


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'Spend April Fool's Day in Tibet' might be the next Chinese travel agency slogan. Although the Chinese government claims that Tibet continues to be open to foreign visitors, agencies and hotels maintain that no visits will be allowed until April 1. This conflict between theory and practice is reminiscent of the Beijing Olympics, when the government announced that three protest facilities were open for use but punished anyone who took the statement seriously.

Of course, this is not the first time during the past year that Tibet has been sealed off; it was closed for three months after last year's tragic riots, and visitors who have managed to get there since have been subject to severe restrictions.

To be sure, for many Tibetans every day is April Fool's Day. They are trapped in a situation where, despite substantial government-sponsored improvements in their economy, infrastructure, health and education, they detest their rulers. Last week, instead of beginning Losar, their traditional two-week new year celebration, with customary feasting and drinking, they marked the occasion with solemn prayer.

From abroad, their revered Dalai Lama, who is still seeking a compromise with the central government, supported their decision to mark the memory of those who died as a result of last year's riots and the subsequent repression, and of 'all those who are still suffering under Chinese rule'.

Beijing, by contrast, ordered Tibetans to be happy. It has distributed 800 yuan (HK$908) to each of almost 70,000 poor Tibetans 'to enable people in difficulty to enjoy a happy and harmonious Tibetan New Year'. Due to the almost total blackout on free reporting, we do not know how many have chosen silent protest over a show of 'happiness'. What we do know from numerous incidents reported recently is that the political-security situation has further deteriorated and that the main event is yet to come. March 10, which triggered last year's riots, will this year be the 50th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising.

To prevent massive popular protests, the authorities have been waging intensive 'patriotic education' campaigns that emphasise the supposed evils of the Dalai Lama and Beijing's impressive economic and social investments in the region. The government has also deployed formidable police and military forces to intimidate, investigate, interrogate, detain, torture, convict and sentence all those who openly question whether the benefits of officially imposed modernisation make up for the lack of religious, cultural, linguistic and political freedoms, and for the discrimination and terror against many local people. Today, Tibetan areas are an armed camp.

Never have prospects for relaxation of tensions and compromise been worse. The government and the Dalai Lama's representatives are at an impasse. The Dalai Lama continues to advocate a 'middle way' that accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, despite the restiveness of many younger Tibetans at home and in exile, and despite Beijing's refusal to take him at his word. He is waiting, however, for the Chinese to suggest another round of talks, and recently charged that the government intended to subject the Tibetan people to such an intolerable level of cruelty and harassment that they will be forced to rise up again. 'When this happens,' he said, 'the authorities can then indulge in an unprecedented and unimaginable forceful clampdown.'

Beijing still endorses 'talks' - not 'negotiations' - that deal only with the personal status of the Dalai Lama, but not the status of Tibet or Tibetans. The government also recently vowed to 'firmly crush the savage aggression of the Dalai clique, defeat separatism, and wage people's war to maintain stability'.

In these circumstances, by April Fool's Day, any reference to the host of suggestions for peaceful settlement and genuine autonomy that critics inside and outside China have made will be regarded as a bad joke.

The Chinese government, and virtually all Chinese, reject the thought that their rule over Tibet is a colonial one. The world community does not challenge China's claim to Tibet, nor does the Dalai Lama. And China has both the will and the power to crush any local resistance, whatever the cost.

Yet, is it wise for Beijing to continue to rely on repression? Can it, even now, apply to Tibet bold, far-sighted, imaginative and flexible leadership of the kind that Deng Xiaoping summoned to peacefully resolve the future of Hong Kong? That would be a wiser course than betting that Tibetan resistance will wither after the Dalai Lama's demise.

Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of New York University's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York