Defenceless Tibet is given no chance of forcing mighty China to relent. But David vanquished Goliath. David was armed with a slingshot. What weapon does Tibet have? It is the pressure of international opinion. Do not dismiss it for being inconsequential. It will be difficult for China aspiring to superpower status to ignore it. And the recent events in Lhasa may not signify the end of the story. They may herald a protracted struggle for democracy in China that could spiral far beyond the Tibetan issue. Consider some facts.
Beijing and the Dalai Lama have met and talked six times without reaching agreement. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that he wants autonomy. He has not demanded independence. Beijing has repeatedly asserted that the Dalai Lama is trying to split China. It is like a dialogue of the deaf. According to one source, agreement has been elusive because the Dalai Lama seeks ratification of any agreement by an international body. His bitter experience of China's going back on its word impels him to do this. Beijing will not countenance it. However, there is now a glimmer of hope.
Beijing's clampdown on the Tibetan unrest has been inexplicably harsh. Beijing's man in Tibet, Zhang Quingli, is a rigid hardliner. Under him the state media in Tibet has described the unrest as a "life and death struggle" between China and the Dalai Lama's followers. China's state-controlled media has called the Dalai Lama a "wolf in monk's robes". The reason for such hysteria is that the prestige of President Hu Jintao is involved. He was the author of China's hard-line Tibet policy. That policy is not succeeding. But its continuation is considered necessary in order to protect President Hu's reputation.
That may explain why Premier Wen Jiabao uncharacteristically lashed out at the Dalai Lama for spreading "deceitful lies". Premier Wen had to propitiate his boss President Hu. Having done that, he came to substantive policy. In a telephone conversation he told British Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he was prepared to have talks with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama reciprocated by expressing willingness to hold talks in Beijing ' which he had ruled out earlier. For form's sake, Wen continued to criticize the Tibetan leader. But the real climb-down was unmistakable. Prime Minister Brown's silent pressure seemed to work. Why? Because of economic compulsions. But the People's Daily in Beijing subsequently advocated that the Tibetan uprising be ruthlessly crushed. This may not only abort the dialogue with Dalai Lama, it may also signal the start of a power struggle in China. What other explanation is there for the official party newspaper rubbishing the Chinese Premier's assurance to the British PM? Now how will Wen Jiabao react?
The US economic slump has long term crippling effects no less for China than for the US itself. Chinese exports to the US are the lifeline of its economy. As purchasing power in America shrinks, so will import of goods from China. Beijing must arrange alternative export markets. Europe is the obvious choice. But will Europe cooperate? That is where British Prime Minister Brown comes in.
China Business Weekly quoted William Pedder, chief executive of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), saying: "The United Kingdom is the second-largest outward investor in the world, and is the gateway to the world's biggest single market ' Europe. . . . That is what you need when you want to find a place in Europe, because we have a long tradition of doing business with all other European nations. We expect to see more Chinese companies as they understand the potential of selling direct into Europe."
While China itself is a top destination for foreign direct investment, the UK is inviting companies from the Middle Kingdom to make direct investment in British equities. Right now that is a much more attractive destination for China's foreign exchange surplus than US Treasury securities. Initially Britain was hesitant to allow huge influx of Chinese direct investment because of security concerns. Once Prime Minister Brown cleared that hurdle, China was hooked. Little wonder that Brown's call for restraint and dialogue worked with Wen Jiabao.
However, even if Wen Jiabao prevails and an acceptable compromise with the Dalai Lama is achieved before the Olympic Games, it may not end Beijing's troubles. The Tibetan unrest could exert the domino effect theory in China. Commentators and Chinese authorities are focusing mostly on Taiwan. It is likely that trouble may erupt from a different direction.
On March 7th Chinese security frustrated a terrorist attempt on an airline flight. It was a crude attempt by a Uighur woman from Xingjian. The woman's husband who had put her up was from Central Asia and had already fled China. He had carried a Pakistani passport and was most likely an Al Qaeda member based in Pakistan. This reinforces this scribe's conjecture, written earlier, that under Ayman-al-Zawahiri the Al Qaeda has changed its cozy relationship with China, indicated by the agreement between Mullah Omar and the PLA in 2001, to one of outright hostility. Chinese arms for Iran's Shia militants were cited as reason for this change of attitude in the Taliban and Sunni dominated Al Qaeda. The 2001 agreement between China and pro-Al Qaeda Taliban was based on Osama bin Laden's assurance not to foment trouble in Xingjian. The murder of several Chinese based in Pakistan, lauded by Islamabad's Lal Masjid clerics, shattered that accord. Cannot more trouble now be expected on the Xingjian front? Especially since Al Qaeda and Taliban are far more geared for violence than are Tibetan protesters?
Arguably, autonomy and democratic self-rule for Tibet and Xingjian would help China defuse the crisis. But even that may not end China's problem. There is a silent mass of people within China that seeks much more freedom in this information era. Proof of that was provided by the Falun Gong, which was devoted solely to cultural affairs. The huge crowds that the Falun Gong mobilized so alarmed the Chinese communists that the movement was banned. Will not the sparks from Tibet ignite this movement to erupt before the Olympic Games? One has to wait and watch.
To write off the Tibet unrest would be premature. There is much that could follow the uprising in Lhasa. President Hu Jintao needs to read carefully the writing on the wall.