The New Face of Civil Disobedience in Tibet

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 10

Sera Monastery in 1988/ Photo: Dan Southerland/RFA

The Chinese government is now locking down Tibet while attempting to placate the outside world by meeting with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Beijing’s harsh policing of Tibet is consistent with the tough line the government has taken in previous crackdowns in both 1959 and in the late 1980s. Little seems to have changed over the decades. As in the past, Chinese government actions range from mass arrests and “patriotic education” campaigns to charges that the Dalai Lama is to blame for the recent uprising in Lhasa and Tibetan areas of western China. But several new developments make the current situation more challenging for the Chinese government than previous uprisings.

First, while Western media tend to talk about the largest uprising to take place in Tibet in nearly two decades, the protests there have actually been the largest in almost 50 years. As Tibet expert Steven Marshall has noted, the 2008 protests have spread far beyond Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and into many locations in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces (Statement before Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, April 23).

Second, small groups of determined protesters have continued to rise up even as Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) units have surrounded monasteries, set up roadblocks, and rounded up suspects. While Buddhist monks led the first peaceful demonstrations in Lhasa and elsewhere, Tibetans from many varying social classes, including nomads, quickly joined in the resistance. Most recently, Tibetan sources in Sichuan province say, several children of middle-ranking Tibetan Communist Party officials have spoken out for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Meanwhile, monks continue to resist attempts to force them to fly the Chinese flag over their monasteries. On April 23, two Buddhist nuns staged a public protest in Sichuan province before being taken into police custody, according to several witnesses. They handed out leaflets in Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) town center calling for the return of the Dalai Lama (Radio Free Asia, April 27).

Third, up until recently at least, cell phone communications have made a difference in spreading ideas and anger among Tibetans. Although the police have seized cell phones and cut communications in several areas, enough phones remain in the hands of Tibetans for them to communicate at least briefly with foreign radio broadcasters and relatives in India. So stories of courage and resistance that might have gone untold in the pre-cell phone eras of the 1950s and 1980s now continue to reach the outside world.

Prairie Fire Protests

In a sense, the Communist Party has had to deal with the kind of widespread “prairie fire” that Mao Zedong claimed to be the basis for the communists’ rise to power in China. Such a prairie fire of protest has to be based on something more than alleged secret string-pulling by the Dalai Lama. It can only have been the result of party policies that alienated not only many Tibetan intellectuals but also many among the rank and file. A new railroad bringing more Han Chinese into Tibet, increased control over religious practices in recent years, and fierce denunciations of the Dalai Lama by TAR Party Secretary Zhang Qingli have all angered Tibetans of a variety of persuasions. A Communist Party document leaked to a reporter last year revealed fear that Tibetan cadres might turn against the party as part of a growing wave of protests and disobedience (Document No. 2, 2007, of the TAR Commission for Discipline Inspection).

Nomads have had their own particular grievances based to a great extent on a “settlement of nomads” policy that has disrupted many nomads’ traditional way of life. Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University, regards major nomad protests in Tibetan-populated rural areas that erupted in March—especially the temporary takeovers of government buildings, the taking down of Chinese flags, and the raising of Tibetan flags—to be an important new development, unheard of over the past four decades. As many as 20 cases in this category have been reported. Barnett believes that while crackdowns will occur, the Communist Party will have to take the nomads’ grievances seriously and will have to start asking people in the rural areas what the policy failures were in those areas (RFA interview with Robert Barnett, March 27).

The early indications, however, are not promising. Party Secretary Zhang has denounced the Dalai Lama as “an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast.” In a speech, he has called for “three quicks: quick arrests, quick prosecutions, and quick trials.” This kind of rhetoric suggests a return to the extremism of the Cultural Revolution (Zhongguo Xizang Xinwenwang –, March 17).

Party leaders have unequivocally blamed the Dalai Lama for instigating the recent uprising, but have failed to produce any credible evidence of his involvement. They have ignored the Dalai Lama’s repeated statements of support for the Beijing Olympics, accusing him instead of attempting to sabotage the games. They have also denounced him for allegedly attempting to “split” the country, despite his protestations that he merely seeks real autonomy for Tibet.

China Opens Talks

Under international pressure, the Chinese government opened informal talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives on May 4. On the eve of the talks, however, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s leading mouthpiece, called the Dalai Lama “the chief ringleader of activities to sabotage the normal religious order of Tibet.”

Chinese state-controlled media also focused up until the time of the talks on the Tibetan violence against Han Chinese that followed the first protests in Lhasa on March 10, but failed to mention that most of the Tibetan protests for the past two months have been peaceful, including the initial protests by monks in Lhasa and from two major monasteries on the outskirts of the Tibetan capital. The Chinese government has stated that 22 innocent persons died during the protests, all but one of them Han Chinese. The government-controlled media, however, have ignored Tibetan casualties, which appear to exceed those of the Han. The authorities have acknowledged killing only one Tibetan, an armed man allegedly shot toward the end of April while resisting arrest.

The Chinese media’s relentless focus for nearly two months on Tibetan violence has helped to stoke widespread Chinese nationalistic feelings and fears that Tibetan protests might disrupt China’s much-sought recognition as a respected power through its hosting of the Olympic Games. These strongly held, ultra-nationalistic feelings and the vilification of the Dalai Lama and the “Dalai clique” would make it difficult for any Chinese government to make significant concessions to the Dalai Lama.

As a concession perhaps to entreaties from Western governments and from the Tibetan government-in-exile itself, the Chinese media did suddenly appear to halt its attacks on the Dalai Lama a few days after the May 4 meeting between Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama’s envoys.

Not surprisingly, the first post-uprising meeting appeared to go nowhere. As Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, special envoy of the Dalai Lama, said, “We disagreed more than we agreed” (AP, May 8). The two sides did agree to hold more discussions at a later date, but most analysts are not optimistic that the talks will do anything more than defuse some of the foreign criticism of China’s handling of the Tibetan protests.

In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, the Dalai Lama himself sounded optimistic about the prospects for talks with the Chinese. He said that “concrete proposals” were made by both sides that could serve as a basis for formal talks during the next round, but he also acknowledged that the first meeting revealed “large differences” (The Associated Press, May 9).

Younger Tibetans Give Up on Talks

Many younger Tibetans in the India-based Tibetan Youth Congress, which China has labeled as a terrorist organization, gave up on talks with China some time ago. They argue that six previous rounds of talks between PRC officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama produced no concrete results. The Dalai Lama, however, in a meeting with Chinese reporters on April 24, stated that the Tibetan Youth Congress’ calls for full independence were “unrealistic” (RFA report, April 24).

According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, China appears to have concluded that it can out-wait the Dalai Lama, now 72 years old, in the hope that his death will result in the collapse of Tibetan resistance altogether. But China’s rejection of the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach may be undercutting his ability to exert a restraining influence on younger Tibetans, in the view of some Westerners who sympathize with the Dalai Lama’s more moderate approach (CRS report, April 10).

In the meantime, China shows no sign of examining what might be the real causes of the recent Tibetan unrest. One of those has been the failure to implement an autonomy law that now theoretically protects the Tibetans’ language, culture and religion. According to prominent Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, a significant cause of Tibetan resentment has been a Chinese decision in 1995 to disregard Tibetan tradition and impose a young boy of the Chinese government’s own choosing as the 11th Panchen Lama, an important reincarnate religious figure (Far Eastern Economic Review, May 8).

In September 2007, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) further offended many Tibetans by decreeing that the Chinese government would oversee the reincarnation of all living Buddhas. A new set of SARA regulations required government approval of “reincarnation applications.” Lodi Gyari described the new regulations as a blow against “the heart of Tibetan religious identity” (CRS report, April 10).

Reading the most recent Xinhua reports, however, one would get the impression that Tibet has no major problems at all except for a few pockets of poverty. The big story for Xinhua is economic progress; the recent clashes with Tibetans go almost without mention (Xinhua News Agency, May 5-11).

The significance of this propaganda shift at the central level should not be exaggerated, however. At the local, TAR-level, the official website still carries harsh anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric.

Resistance Persists

Meanwhile, getting news from Tibet has become more difficult since the crackdown began. But cell phone calls from Tibetans living in a variety of locations indicate that security forces continue to pour into the region. The crackdown is wide-ranging. Those arrested include not only monks and nuns but also a popular singer, a comedian and animal rights activist, the principal of a private school founded with donations from nomads, and a number of teachers.

Tensions remain high in some areas, but a semblance of normality is returning in others. The Chinese authorities are planning a mass rally of Han Chinese government backers to welcome the arrival of the Olympic torch in Lhasa. With tens of thousands of People’s Armed Police now stationed around the region, a renewal of mass protests seems unlikely.

But the callers report widespread Tibetan anger over “patriotic education” campaigns during which monks, nuns, and others are asked to denounce the Dalai Lama and sign statements agreeing that Tibet has always been a part of China. The police have searched for images of the Dalai Lama, tearing them up or forcing Tibetans themselves to take them down.

Nonetheless, small groups of Tibetans persist in engaging in sporadic acts of peaceful resistance. In Kardze, in southwestern Sichuan, the police continually remove images of the Dalai Lama from display in a monastery. As an indication of continuity of devotion and loyalty to the Dalai Lama, the monks keep replacing the images. A journalist who filmed the monks tried to obscure their identity by filming them from the back or side, but a senior monk was defiant. “I am so old that I am not afraid of anything,” he said, looking directly into the camera. Asked about the Dalai Lama, the monks said that the Dalai Lama remained their leader and voiced hope that he would some day return to Tibet (RFA Video, May 6).