Tibet's new resistance to Chinese repression

By David Whitehouse

TIBETAN PROTESTS against Chinese repression have escalated into a series of riots and confrontations in Tibet and three neighboring provinces.

The protests began March 10 when Buddhist monks gathered near a monastery in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to commemorate a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Security forces arrested several monks and forcibly broke up the gathering.

In the following days, the city's old Tibetan Quarter erupted in riots in response to the news about confrontations between robed monks and armored riot police. By March 16, Tibetans throughout the region, including Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, took to the streets in crowds numbering from 100 to 3,000, according to reports gathered by TibetInfoNet.

The Chinese central government has sent in tens of thousands of security forces to shut down the protests. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao blamed the agitation on the "Dalai clique" of the exiled Dalai Lama, who leads a Tibetan "government in exile" from Dharamsala, India.

The protests threaten to tarnish China's image in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in August, so the government has avoided an overt declaration of martial law. President Hu Jintao rose to prominence in the Communist Party for leading a crackdown in Tibet in 1989.

The Dalai Lama denied organizing the movement, and distanced himself from its violence. The Beijing government claims that 13 ethnic Chinese died in the Lhasa riots, but the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile claims the victims, numbering nearly 100 so far, are Tibetans killed by Chinese armed forces.

The Dalai Lama is probably correct to say that he hasn't controlled the direction the protests have taken, but his close followers clearly promoted the initial phases of the movement. The monks' March 10 action in Lhasa was coordinated with a demonstration in Nepal and an attempt of exiled Tibetans to march from India to Tibet.

Mirroring the Chinese repression, Indian and Nepalese officials shut down the local protests out of fear of antagonizing their important neighbor, China--and to avoid encouraging ethnic insurgencies in their own countries.

Criticism of the Chinese crackdown was likewise muted from U.S. and European officials, apparently in light of China's importance to their own economic future. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, merely urged the Chinese to "show restraint" toward protesters.

On the other hand, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared with the Dalai Lama during a previously planned visit to Dharamsala. She called on the world to take note of the Tibetans' plight--but like the Dalai Lama himself, she stopped short of a call for countries to boycott the Olympics.

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THE TARGETS of the protests reflect the grievances of Tibetans. Religious and cultural freedoms are at the center of their demands. Tibetan students and governmental employees, for example, are banned from Buddhist religious observance, and images of the Dalai Lama--Tibet's chief religious figure--are illegal.

But Tibet is also the poorest region in China, and the country's rapid economic growth of recent years has left most Tibetans behind. One-third still live below the official poverty line of $150 yearly income.

The class divide in China has a strong ethnic character. Han (or ethnic) Chinese dominate business, including the growth sectors--tourism and real estate--along with a small elite of Mandarin-speaking Tibetans. Han Chinese individuals and businesses were the main targets of the Lhasa riots.

Outside Lhasa, however, "the protesters' anger was largely focused on symbols of state power and government-owned properties," according to TibetInfoNet.

Prosperity was supposed to follow when the first railroad link to the rest of China was completed two years ago, but many Tibetans say the railroad only brought more Han Chinese, who have bought up prime properties in Tibetan neighborhoods.

In addition, a program of forced relocation of Tibetan herders--affecting 10 percent of the population since 2006--has bred widespread resentment. The program requires the Tibetans to pay most of the cost and do most of the construction, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Chinese officials say that the new housing is necessary for hygenic reasons--to separate the herders from the diseases of their livestock. But many are now separated completely from their animals, their main source of income. Without job skills or Mandarin education, these displaced herders face unemployment, according to HRW.

Economic grievances like these, which mirror the experience of Han Chinese workers and peasants elsewhere, have fueled the protests as they have spread beyond the monks. Wang Lixiong, a Beijing-based Tibet specialist, noted the expanded scope of the protests in an interview with Inter Press Service.

"The last major unrest in Tibet in 1987 and the riots of 1989...were limited to...Lhasa and involved only monks, intellectuals and students," Wang said. "But today's unrest has spread over all Tibetan areas, and there are people from all walks, including peasants and workers."

In fact, the Tibetan movement takes place six years into a rising movement of strikes, riots and demonstrations that have involved millions of Chinese peasants and workers since 2002.

The Chinese leadership, including Hu Jintao, the engineer of the last Tibetan crackdown, is well aware that Tibetan protests and price inflation were precursors to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. But this time, incomparably larger social forces have already moved into action.

It could turn into a long Olympic year for Chinese officials. It could also be a breakthrough year for the social movements--if they can find political common ground that allows them to reach beyond the sectional and regional limits that have kept them isolated from each other so far.