Issue of March 24 2008, published 19 March 2008
The truth about Tibet
By Lindsey Hilsum
Link to New Statesman poll "Is it now time to boycott the Beijing Olympics?" HERE
The last thing China wanted, in the year it is to host the Olympic Games, was the world watching its army brutally suppressing protesters
Things are not going as planned. The emblematic images of China in 2008 were supposed to be the magnificent "Bird's Nest" sports stadium, and millions of proud Chinese applauding their country's success in hosting the Olympic Games. Instead, the world is seeing gangs of angry Tibetan rioters attacking their Han Chinese neighbours, and Buddhist monks demonstrating against Chinese rule.
Since the 1989 unrest, which centred on Tiananmen Square but spread to Tibet, any protest has been suppressed quickly and effectively. But this time, initially, the Chinese hesitated. The government knew that nothing could be worse for China's reputation in this Olympic year than Tiananmen-type images of the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army firing on Tibetan demonstrators. So it flooded the streets with armour, in the hope that intimidation would do the trick. By Monday, Beijing had moved troops and paramilitary riot police into all sensitive areas, hoping to quash protest with a show of strength.
On Tuesday, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, accused the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the unrest, saying that the protesters wanted "to incite the sabotage of the Olympic Games in order to achieve their unspeakable goal". That goal is independence for Tibet, but it is the social rather than the political motivation that has disturbed the Chinese authorities.
They have been surprised by the ferocity with which ethnic Tibetans attacked Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. These two groups have settled in Tibet in recent decades, starting up businesses and benefiting more than local people from the upturn in the Tibetan economy. Yet never before has resentment turned to such widespread violence: one eyewitness in Lhasa described the riots as "an orgy of racist violence".
The Huis, who control the meat trade and other essential commercial sectors, have long been the target of Tibetan anger. Last month, fighting broke out in Qinghai, which borders Tibet, during New Year celebrations. The point of contention was, apparently, the price of a balloon that a Hui trader had sold to a Tibetan. After the police arrested several Tibetans, overseas activists said demonstrations were calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. But the spark for the protests was the tension between the two communities.
One of the central myths the Chinese government propagates is the unity of the state and the happiness of the 55 ethnic minorities within it. During the week, at the National People's Congress, the annual gathering of China's rubber-stamp parliament, women in aluminium headdresses and other exotic gear were paraded as the acceptable face of diversity.
"This is a planned, plotted activity that aims at splitting the country, sabotaging the union and damaging the harmony and social stability of Tibet," said Champa Phuntsok, governor of Tibet, an ethnic Tibetan whom many people regard as a collaborator. In an example of the overblown rhetoric that characterises Chinese statements on Tibet, the government proclaimed "a people's war against splittism" - the term used to describe the movement for Tibetan autonomy - and said it would "expose the hideous face of the Dalai Lama's clique".
To the shock of the Chinese authorities, the unrest rapidly spread to the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, which have significant Tibetan minorities. The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala claims all these provinces as part of "historical Tibet" - one reason for the failure of talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.
In Xiahe, in Gansu, the main street was lined with shuttered shops whose upstairs windows had been shattered by protesters. Here, Tibetans had targeted the Han Chinese who own most of the businesses. Knots of youths hung about at dusk, while riot police lurked at street corners, banging their riot shields menacingly. Most Tibetans still follow the Dalai Lama, but his entreaties that protest should be peaceful seem to have little resonance among the younger Tibetans. Speaking from Dharamsala, he said he had no power to call off the protests.
Monks from Labrang Monastery marched through the streets of Xiahe waving the banned Tibetan flag. "People in Lhasa and us are the same people. We have the same ideas," said a monk. "Today's young people think more of human rights. We want the Dalai Lama back."
Many westerners, who see justice in the Tibetan cause and nobility in the Dalai Lama's position, regard the Tibetans as a peaceful and oppressed people. That view, however, is not shared by all of the Han Chinese who live there. Many of them believe that China brought the chance of prosperity and modern isation to a backward area.
"Our party and government spend so much every year to support the development of Tibet.
"We don't wish for any reward, but those people controlled by Dalai still continue with separatism. They should go to hell," read one blog on the popular site China.com.
As communism has faded away, the ideological void has been filled by nationalism. The intention behind this year's Olympic extravaganza is to celebrate how great China is as a historical nation and as a modern state. Even those who dislike the government in Beijing may regard Tibetan nationalists as unpatriotic and ungrateful. A chat-room comment on Tianya.com reprimanded them: "We do not have to love the government and the party, but we must love China." Another said: "Those separatist trash should all be killed. It is not a good idea to just talk about it. Even if some day there is democracy, I will support a nationalist party to power."
Racism is usual. One blogger addressed Tibetans, writing: "If you behave well, we'll protect your culture and benefits. But if you behave badly, we'll still take care of your culture . . . by putting it in a museum. I believe in the Han people!"
None acknowledged that harsh policies in Tibet have provoked the unrest. It's easier to keep blaming the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese government had hoped to have a display of traditional Tibetan dancing at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. If it now moves to suppress the protests with force, it faces the possibility of an Olympic boycott. But if it lets the protests continue, the world will see how widespread is the unhappiness and resentment of China's Tibetan people.
Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News
October 1950 Chinese People's Liberation Army marches into Tibet^^^^^^^^^^
March 1959 Tibetans attempt uprising; thousands killed. Dalai Lama flees to India with 80,000 followers
September 1965 Tibet Autonomous Region formally established
1966 China's Cultural Revolution begins; Tibetan Red Guards smash statues of Buddha and close monasteries
1972 Richard Nixon visits China and ends CIA programme of training Tibetans to fight guerrilla war against Chinese
1989 Martial law imposed in Lhasa. Brutal suppression of Tiananmen Square student protests
May 1990 Martial law lifted. Dalai Lama disbands government-in-exile
1994 Dalai Lama suspends dialogue with China due to lack of progress
March 1999 China says its doors are open to Dalai Lama, provided he recognises Tibet as part of China
December 1999 Dalai Lama says Tibet would be satisfied with self-rule but accuses China of cultural genocide
July 2006 Tibet groups accuse China of accelerating influx of Han Chinese
March 2008 Anti-China riots in Lhasa
London ~~ Tuesday March 25 2008
Calls for boycott of Olympic opening ceremony
By Robert Verkaik
Calls for an EU-wide boycott of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games have now won the support of the president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering.
Mr Pöttering is the most senior Western politician to argue in favour of an Olympic protest if the Chinese government continues with its hardline response to unrest in Tibet.
Speaking ahead of a European Parliament debate this week on the crisis, Mr Pöttering told Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper "boycott measures" could be justified if the Chinese failed to negotiate a "compromise" with the Tibetan protest leaders.
His intervention has raised the political temperature and heightened the prospect of a European boycott. The idea of European politicians boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olympics was mentioned last week by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, although he later backed away from the idea.
The US House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, voiced strong criticism of the Chinese government on Friday during a meeting with the Dalai Lama, saying that events in Tibet were "a challenge to the conscience of the world".
Taiwan's President-elect Ma Ying-jeou said on Sunday after his landslide election victory that the Dalai Lama would be welcome to visit the island and repeated comments that Taiwanese athletes might not take part in the Olympics if the situation in Tibet worsens.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the highest-ranking Chinese cleric in the Roman Catholic Church, called on China to avoid acts of violence that might spoil its hosting of the Olympics.
Attempts to link unrest in Tibet to the Olympics is likely to enrage the Chinese government, which had hoped the games would be a showcase for the country's economic progress rather than a lightning rod for criticisms of its political system.
Last week, Mr Pöttering called for a cessation of violence in Tibet. He said: "The use of force is never advisable. I want to make a call to both sides to stop it. Tibetan protesters should demonstrate peacefully while the Chinese response has to be measured and never disproportional. Chinese borders and integrity are not in question. However, China must respect the minorities living in the country. Their right to live according to their traditions, languages and religion is a basic principle that has to be respected."
He also asked the Chinese authorities to give journalists free access to all parts of Tibet to report on the situation.
Yesterday, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, defended the decision to hold the Games in China, saying there was "no momentum" for a boycott. He said: "The major political leaders don't want a boycott."
London ~~ Tuesday March 25 2008
As the torch is lit, protesters send message of intent to China
A"free Tibet" protester is led away as Liu Qi, the president of the Beijing Olympics organising committee, speaks at the lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, yesterday (MICHAEL STEELE/GETTY IMAGES)
By Elinda Labropoulou in Olympia
China got a taste yesterday of the protests that could dog the Olympic flame as it makes its way around the world to Beijing.
Moments before the torch was lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics, human rights activists broke through the Greek security cordon and unfurled a banner showing the Olympic rings as interlocking handcuffs just as the head of the Beijing Games was talking about the "light and happiness" he hoped the sporting extravaganza would bring.
Later, as the flame began its 85,000-mile odyssey that will end on 8 August in the Olympic stadium in Beijing, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood lay down in the path of the first torchbearer, forcing him to jog on the spot until plain-clothes police cleared her off the route.
The Beijing leadership has been facing a public relations disaster since demonstrations in Tibet against China's rule turned violent, giving new momentum to human rights activists, some of whom are demanding a global boycott of the 2008 Games.
However, Chinese viewers tuning in to watch the lighting of the torch, the start of the official countdown to the Beijing Olympics, would have seen nothing of yesterday's protests. State television cut away to pre-recorded scenes, and a report on the state news agency Xinhua described the ceremony as "flawless". The three demonstrators who interrupted the opening speeches were from Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom group. "If the Olympic flame is sacred, human rights are even more so," the group said in a statement. "We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country."
One of the protesters unfurled a flag declaring "Boycott the country that tramples on human rights" and another tried to grab the microphone, shouting "Freedom, Freedom" before they were bundled away by Greek police.
Liu Qi, the president of the Beijing organising committee, refused to be distracted by the commotion and continued his speech unruffled. "The Olympic flame will radiate light and happiness, peace and friendship, and hope and dreams to the people of China and the whole world," he told the crowd assembled around the ruins of the Temple of Hera in ancient Olympia.
The actual lighting of the torch, where actresses dressed as high priestesses use a parabolic mirror to channel the sun's rays, is usually the most stressful part of the ceremony as officials fret about whether clouds will appear at the wrong moment. Yesterday that passed off smoothly. But once the torch was outside the confines of the ruins, it ran into more trouble. The woman covered in simulated blood jumped out of the crowd and threw herself across the path of the torchbearer. She was quickly joined by others, some with Tibetan flags, others singing the Tibetan anthem.
One protester, Pablo Lopsang, said the protest was about "fair play in Tibet". "We are sorry if we disturbed people here. But we are left with no choice. Blood is coming out of Tibet. We are not against the Chinese people, only their government," he said.
Greek police said they had detained nine people and that the three demonstrators from the ancient temple would be charged.
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said: "I think it's always sad when there are protests, but they were not violent and that's the most important thing."
Human Rights Watch said the torch should not go through Tibet unless the Chinese government agrees to an independent investigation into the recent unrest.
More protests are expected as the torch continues across five continents and through 20 countries to Beijing, with the most controversial section of the route expected to be up Mount Everest on the Tibet border.
e-Paper August 2 2007, Page 6