Prolonged unrest in Tibet could unravel China’s monocracy

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The monk-led Tibetan uprising, which spread across Tibet and beyond to the traditional Tibetan areas incorporated in Han provinces, marks a turning point in communist China’s history. It is a rude jolt to the world’s biggest and longest surviving autocracy, highlighting the signal failure of state-driven efforts to pacify Tibet through more than half a century of ruthless repression, in which as many as a million Tibetans reportedly have lost their lives.

The open backlash against the Tibetans’ economic marginalization, the rising Han influx and the state assault on Tibetan religion and ecology constitutes, in terms of its spread, the largest rebellion in Tibet since 1959, when the Dalai Lama and his followers were forced to flee to India. Even in 1989, when the last major Tibetan uprising was suppressed through brute force, the unrest had not spread beyond the central plateau, or what Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region. Now, the state’s intensifying brutal crackdown across the Tibetan plateau — an area more than two-thirds the size of Western Europe — dwarfs other international human-rights problems like Burma and Darfur, Sudan.

Indeed, the current revolt openly challenges China’s totalitarian system in a year when the Beijing Olympics are supposed to showcase the autocracy’s remarkable economic achievements. It is a defining moment for a system that has managed to entrench itself for 59 long years and yet faces gnawing questions about its ability to survive by reconciling China’s dual paths of market capitalism and political monocracy. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union.

The latest events have laid bare the strength of the Tibetan grassroots resistance despite decades of oppression, including the demolition of monasteries, the jailing of independent-minded monks and nuns, the state’s wanton interference in the mechanics of Tibetan Buddhism, and the forced political re-education of Tibetan youth and monks. Tibet’s rapid Sinicization today threatens to obliterate the Tibetan culture in ways the previous decades of repression could not. That threat has only sharpened the Tibetan sense of identity and yearning for freedom.

For Chinese President Hu Jintao, who owes his swift rise to the top of the party hierarchy to his martial law crackdown in Tibet in 1989, the chickens have come home to roost. The fresh uprising, coinciding with Hu’s re-election as president, epitomizes the counterproductive nature of the Hu-backed policies — from seeking to change the demographic realities on the ground through the “Go West” Han migration campaign, to Draconian curbs on Tibetan farmland and monastic life.

The Tibetans’ feelings of subjugation and loss have been deepened as they have been pushed to the margins of society, with their distinct culture being reduced to a mere showpiece to draw tourists and boost the local economy, which benefits the Hans.

The natives also have been incensed by atheistic China’s growing intrusion into Tibetan Buddhist affairs, as exemplified by Beijing’s recent proclamation making itself the sole authority to anoint lamas — traditionally a divine process to select a young boy as a Buddha incarnation. Having captured the institution of the Panchen Lama, the second-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, Beijing is preparing the ground to install its own puppet Dalai Lama after the present aging incumbent passes away. So shortsighted is this approach that the rulers in Beijing don’t realize that such a scenario will surely radicalize Tibetan youth and kill prospect of a peaceful settlement of the Tibet issue.

The ongoing crackdown, behind the cover of a Tibet that has been cut off from the outside world, symbolizes what the communist leadership itself admits is a “life and death struggle” over Tibet. The likely further hardening of the leadership’s stance on Tibet, as a consequence of the uprising, will only help mask a serious challenge with wider political implications. At a minimum, the crackdown by a regime wedded to the unbridled exercise of state power promises to exacerbate the situation on the ground.

The muted global response thus far to the bloodletting and arbitrary arrests in Tibet is a reflection of China’s growing clout, underscored by its burgeoning external trade, rising military power and unrivaled $1.5 trillion foreign-exchange reserves, largely invested in U.S. dollar-denominated assets. Given that even the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre did not trigger lasting international trade sanctions, the lack of any attempt to penalize China for its continuing human-rights violations in Tibet should not come as a surprise.

But Tibet’s future will be determined not so much by the international response as by developments within China.

After all, the only occasions in history when Tibet was clearly part of China was under non-Han dynasties — that is, when China itself had been conquered by outsiders: the Mongol Yuan dynasty, from 1279 to 1368, and the Manchu Qing dynasty, from mid-17th century onward. It was only when the Qing dynasty began to unravel at the beginning of the 20th century that Tibet once again became an independent political entity.

What Beijing today asserts are regions “integral” to its territorial integrity are really imperial spoils of earlier foreign dynastic rule in China. Yet, revisionist history under communist rule has helped indoctrinate Chinese to think of the Yang and Qing empires as Han, with the result that educated Chinese have come to feel a false sense of ownership about every territory that was part of those dynasties.

The truth is that Tibet came under direct Han rule for the first time in history following the 1949 communist takeover in China. Just as the politically cataclysmic developments of 1949 led to Tibet’s loss of its independent status, it is likely to take another momentous event in Chinese history for Tibet to regain its sovereignty.

That event could be the unraveling of the present xenophobic dictatorship and the synthetic homogeneity it has implanted, not just in institutional structures but also in the national thought process. Today, the Chinese autocrats are able to fan ultranationalism as a substitute for the waning communist ideology because the central tenet of the communists’ political philosophy is uniformity, with Hu’s slogan of a “harmonious society” designed to underline the theme of conformity with the republic. The Manchu’s assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the natives in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang as the holdouts.

With 60 percent of its present landmass comprising homelands of ethnic minorities, modern China has come a long way in history since the time the Great Wall represented the Han empire’s outer security perimeter.

Territorially, Han power is at its pinnacle today. Yet, driven by self-cultivated myths, the state fuels territorial nationalism, centered on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, and its claims in the South and East China Seas and on India’s Arunachal Pradesh state — nearly thrice the size of Taiwan. Few realize that China occupies one-fifth of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Tibet, however, is a reminder that attempts at forcible assimilation can backfire. That was also the lesson from Yugoslavia, a model of forced integration of nationalities. But once its central autocratic structure corroded, Yugoslavia progressively but violently fell apart. It will require a similar collapse or loosening of the central political authority in China for Tibet to reclaim autonomy.

Those who gloomily see the battle for Tibetan independence as irretrievably lost forget that history has a way of wreaking vengeance on artificially created empires. The Central Asian states got independence on a platter, without having to wage a struggle. Who in Central Asia had dreamed of independence in mid-1991? Yet months later, the Soviet empire had unraveled. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania twice lost their independence to an expanding Russian empire, only to regain it each time due to a cataclysmic event — World War I and the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The post-1991 flight of Russians from large parts of Central Asia is a testament that the Sinicization of the Tibetan region is not an unalterable process.

The Tibetan struggle, one of the longest and most powerful resistance movements in modern world history, exposes China’s Achilles’ heel. The reverberations from the latest bloodshed on the land of the pacifist Tibetan Buddhist culture will be felt long after Chinese security forces have snuffed out the last protest.

Hu knows that the Tibetan uprising has the potential to embolden Han citizens in China to demand political freedoms — a campaign that would sound the death knell of single-party rule. The last time he suppressed a Tibetan revolt, his then boss, Deng Xiaoping, had to borrow a leaf from Hu’s Tibet book to crush prodemocracy protesters at Tiananmen Square two months later. Hundreds were slain.

This year could prove a watershed in Chinese history. Just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics set the stage for Nazi Germany’s collapse, the 2008 Beijing Games — communist China’s coming-out party that has already been besmirched by the crackdown in Tibet — may be a spur to radical change in that country.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”