Tibetan Unrest: Growing Disquiet in the Chinese Periphery

The unrest in Tibet, particularly the spontaneity and the scale of rioting, has made the worst Chinese fears come true. The scale of protests and violence in Lhasa and other predominant Tibetan settlements has unnerved the Chinese leadership. This is discernable by the stridency in the remarks of Premier Wen Jia Bao, who heaped fulsome abuse on the "Dalai Lama clique" for what he called were orchestrated events. He did so while holding an olive branch with the Dalai Lama provided he accepts unconditionally Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and calls for a halt to the ongoing protests.

These protests need to be seen as a part of the growing disquiet around the Chinese periphery and the timing of an opportunity to raise voice against Chinese repression.

On March 7, the Chinese media reported an attempt by the Xinjiang Ughirs belonging to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement to crash a China Southern airline plane flying from Beijing to Urumqi. The announcement came in the backdrop of remarks made by the Communist Party chief of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, on the sidelines of the parliament session in January when he remarked that the security forces had smashed a Uighur militant cell in Urumqi plotting an attack against the Olympics. Wang added that the government would strike first against the "three evil forces": terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists.

Adding to the Chinese discomfiture is the fact that the violence that has broken out in Tibet comes just two months before the Olympic celebrations kick off with the arrival of the Olympic torch in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. China's fears that more violent riots could disrupt the Olympic torch relay - a highly symbolic event of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympics Games (BOCOG), said recently that preparations for the torch relay in Tibet, including a planned ascent of Mount Qomolangma (Mount Everest), "have been progressing very smoothly and according to schedule". Sun added that the organisers opposed the linking of any political campaigns to the Olympics in August, amid renewed calls to boycott the Games after the recent crackdown on Tibetans protesting against the Chinese rule.

According to the torch relay route announced by BOCOG on its website, the Olympic torch will arrive in Tibet's Shannan Diqu region June 19, from the neighbouring Sichuan province, and pass through Lhasa June 20-21. Given the stakes involved, China is expected to step up vigilance and security to ensure the relay passes through the Himalayan region smoothly in June.

Chinese authorities are convinced that the riots are part of an orchestrated campaign aimed at jeopardizing the torch relay to humiliate the Beijing Olympics by the supporters of the Dalai Lama and other groups who are expected to stage more violent protests in the run up to the Olympic torche's journey to Lhasa as indeed to embarrass Chinese authorities. The manner in which the local and national authorities have handled the protests, including induction of large PLA contingents, restrictions on media and television and bundling out of tourists, signify that the Chinese have made up their mind to undertake tough measures against detractors even as they allow a little rope to the detractors.

Beijing has mobilised officially favoured religious figures to denounce the riots and discredit international calls for a lenient response. The 11th Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking monk in the complex Tibetan hierarchy, issued a statement in which he "resolutely supported the party and the government efforts to ensure the safety and stability of Lhasa".

Gyaincain Norbu is the Panchen Lama recognized by Beijing, but not by the Dalai Lama and his followers in exile. The six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, chosen by the Dalai Lama, to take the title of Panchen Lama, disappeared soon after the choice was made public in 1995 and has not been heard of since.

Beijing has put on top priority the need to hold successful Games, seeing it as a matter of national pride. But the riots in Tibet and the attempted hijack of a passenger airplane by a Uyghur girl have sparked off concerns over security and safety. The authorities in China have been prepared to tackle possible troubles created by pro-independence elements in Xinjiang and Tibet ahead and during the Beijing Olympics. The violence in Lhasa is the worst in the past two decades.

The central government's long-standing paranoia with its ethnic minorities is at the core of Chinese stridency and reaction. The home of the Han Chinese, the predominant ethnic group who dominate the country, comprises the area around the three major rivers in the East: the Yellow, Yangtze and Pearl. This fertile area has long provided the food and industry for the various Chinese states that have emerged over the centuries.

But this same area, which nurtures a sedentary society, has always been vulnerable to invasion by the various nomadic peoples around it. It is this fear that has made China to expand its territorial limits and over time expand its borders to absorb a de facto buffer zone - including Tibet, Xinjiang, Manchuria and Inner Mongolia.

These buffer states are marked by ethnic and cultural diversity and have instead of enhancing security created multi dimensional problems of integration and absorption into the Chinese cultural milieu. Control of the ethnic minorities and incorporating the buffer zones into China has been a struggle for the Chinese government. It has constantly been found wanting in maintaining control over minority groups that are the majority in their own lands, distant from the Han dominated central core. Chinese have been employing force and transmigration policies as also inducements and massive infrastructure development with typical Chinese characteristics to control and ensure security of these buffer territories.

It is obvious that the experiment of building a harmonious society in Tibet as indeed in Xinjiang has not succeeded given the stridency and widespread rioting and disturbances. The lingering prejudices and inequalities have been matched by long-lasting resentments and occasional uprisings. This is primarily because the Chinese have failed to assimilate these minorities in the cultural mainstream. Added to above is the fact that additional ethnicities were added to the country, not primarily by immigration, but rather by conquest of surrounding territories -- and these ethnicities were never assimilated into a greater Chinese culture.

This is because the fundamental tenet of Chinese political philosophy is not "diversity" but "uniformity". This lack of integration has left the core of China with a constant sense of insecurity that continues to be reflected today in its national policies. It also leaves China less concerned overall about security threats from abroad than about domestic ones - whether they are real or imagined.

(Arun Sahgal heads the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, United Services Institution of India (USI), New Delhi. He can be contacted at brigarun.sahgal@gmail.com)


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