News and Views on Tibet

Q & A: The Olympic Torch in Xinjiang and Tibet

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By Jeff Z. Klein

Today under heavy security, the Olympic torch relay proceeded through the largely Muslim western province of Xinjiang. Yesterday Olympic organizers announced that the relay’s Tibetan leg, originally scheduled for three days starting tomorrow, had been cut back to Saturday only and would travel only to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

To find out more about the impact of the Olympics on the western regions of China, we spoke to one of the leading scholars on modern Tibet, Dr. Robert Barnett. He is program coordinator in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. A former journalist for The South China Morning Post, BBC, and The Observer and The Independent in London, Barnett has written several books about Tibet and is a leading chronicler of the events unfolding there, most recently in a New York Review of Books article detailing the unrest throughout the Tibetan plateau last March and April.

We spoke to Robert Barnett on Tuesday.

Q: The news from Xinjiang today was that there were big crowds in Urumqi for the torch relay, but that they consisted mostly of ethnic Han Chinese rather than the local Uighur population.

ROBERT BARNETT: Yes — I just saw a quote on the AP from a local Uighur woman who said that she was for China having a successful Olympics, but did not support the torch relay.

I think what we’re seeing with this relay is an attempt by China to extend its claims for authority into areas where those claims are weak, in places like Xinjiang and Tibet. And the government is getting into a big fix by overextending its claims for propaganda purposes, because the torch relay and Olympics in general are creating a division between ethnic Chinese and other ethnicities, whereas official Chinese policy for so many years has been to be seen as creating a “harmonious society,” a multiethnic melting pot.

Q: Earlier today, according to reports, the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang was locked down for the torch relay.

RB: I heard this morning a little detail from Lhasa that the authorities had installed extra closed-circuit security cameras, even more than before, even in the smallest back streets. This is what I’m being told by people there. So it sounds like they’re being pretty cautious there, obviously as we would expect.

There’s a huge phenomenon all over China, huge companies involved in setting these closed-circuit cameras up. And they’ve been doing it in Tibet for several years. In Lhasa they’ve been mainly in the main streets, but now they’re apparently setting them up in all the smaller streets of the Tibetan quarter.

Q: Is there a chance that there will be protests in Lhasa when the torch relay does finally reach the city?

RB: No, I think people there are probably far too intimidated to do that.

The monks and nuns — who are usually the first to protest, when there are protests — are all locked down now. All the big monasteries are sealed off. There’s no communication and people can’t get in and out, so nothing will come out of those places. The smaller monasteries will not be completely sealed off but under heavy restrictions, probably with party work teams in each of them, officials who monitor whether pictures of the Dalai Lama have been trashed or broken, or that monks have denounced the Dalai Lama.

It’s different in the smaller towns in the east of Tibet and in other Tibetan regions that are not officially considered part of Tibet. There were big protests going on even last week in those areas, where traditionally people are very tough and very proud, where the big armed rebellions took place in the 1950s. But the torch is not going through those areas. In the main central Tibetan areas and in Lhasa we’re not hearing of protests, because the control there is much stronger.

Q: What do Tibetans want from the Chinese government? The Dalai Lama is constantly saying that he’s not for independence, but others seem to believe that’s the main thrust of Tibetan protests.

RB: It’s a bit hard to know, exactly. Some exile activists insist that the Tibetans inside are demanding independence, yet no one really knows. However, from what we can tell, people inside Tibet want solutions to very straightforward problems: Chinese migration into Tibet, Chinese oppression of religion, economic differences, and so on.

They generally have a strong sense that Tibet is or was independent, and that in itself is extremely worrying to China. But the primary thing is that Tibetans inside Tibet support the Dalai Lama — they’ve made that very clear through gestures, like having his photograph during protests and so on. They probably know from foreign radio broadcasts that he is prepared to give up independence, and I think the indication is that many of them will also accept a compromise solution if he gets one from China, because they support him.

Q: Whenever we write about Tibet on this blog, we get many comments from Chinese readers that refer to the Dalai Lama as a slaveholder. What is that about?

RB: First, we can see that as just propaganda that lodges in certain people’s heads, because it’s not even what the Chinese government says. The Chinese government uses the word “serf” — it technically imagines that Tibet is full of serfs, but very few slaves. It was a mistranslation that has circulated and gained some purchase with the Chinese public, including intellectuals, and now they’ve got hold of the slave idea, which was never the case.

The Communist Party sees history in terms of a set number of facts, in this case the party says that 5 percent of Tibetans were aristocrats or landowners, 90 percent were serfs and 5 percent were slaves. I don’t think any of these are actually what you and I would call facts.

It’s certainly the case that there was a taxation system that involved permanent obligations to your landlord, which continued through to your successors. It reminds us in the West of what we’d associate with a serf system. But it’s also true that the Tibetan word that the Chinese are using for “serf” was also the word just for “subject” or “commoner.” Every country has a taxation system, and the one that the Tibetan system had was pretty traditional, involving your taxations being paid to your landlord through work, and he had certain controls over you.

But those laws were made in the 14th century or so and had hardly been used for hundreds of years. But the Chinese cite these old laws, which are really horrendous in writing, and use those as the main basis for these histrionic claims about slavery.

Q: Have the Olympics long been a target for Tibetan protesters?

RB: Yes, although the politics of the exile movement and those for people inside Tibet are different. Inside politics tends to be more pragmatic, less emotional, more focused on getting solutions to immediate problems. The outside politics have always been about attacking China and putting pressure on China internationally to leave Tibet. And there, the Olympics have for a long time been thought of as a major focus. They see it as a major opportunity — they call it the last opportunity to really put pressure on China.

But inside Tibet the Olympics themselves are not really an issue. Of course people there are aware of it and probably resent the way China uses it as an opportunity for yet more propganda and crackdowns — that’s what everybody expects any event to be for ordinary people in places like Tibet or Xinjiang. But they’re not particularly interested in whether the Olympics go ahead or not. For them, the Olympics represents the chance not to get shot if they demonstrate, because it’s an Olympics year. That seems to be one reason why the demonstrations began last March

Q: What will happen in August? Will there be big Tibetans protests then, as the Chinese government seems to expect?

RB: One wouldn’t expect anything to be done by Tibetans inside Tibet — that’s not how these things tend to work. Instead what you tend to see is sullen resentment of these major government-organized activities. They’re just huge inconveniences and nuisances for everyone who isn’t a Chinese patriot.

Every two years the Chinese come up with a huge celebration — it’s usually an anniversary of, say, the liberation of Tibet, or the anniversary of the return of Hong Kong or something like that. The Olympics is just the biggest one of them.

These always involve huge inconvenience and problems for people such as Tibetans, where a number of them are forced to sit for hours and hours, literally, in a main square, like the one the Chinese built especially for these events in the middle of Lhasa in 1995. They’ll have a parade with soldiers and officials, and from every local area in the city and every local office, 100 or 200 people will be ordered to attend. They’re all given a lecture that if they don’t wear their best clothes — it has to be traditional Tibetan clothes so it’ll look good for the photographs — it will be considered a political offence. And then they have to go to these places before dawn and sit in lines until the parade ends at midday.

So these things just represent massive inconvenience to people. I was out at a couple of them when I was at the university. We were discouraged from leaving** the campus — that particular celebration was the 50th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet. We were able to get out of the campus toward the end of the event, and we could see everyone leaving. There was this whole procession of military vehicles, vehicles with barbed wire, water cannon, little tanks, a huge array of security things. The television cameras didn’t see any of the apparatus of security, because it was all on the outside of the main square.

In the week before these things, there are armed patrols of troops who literally run round the city. It’s quite menacing. But people are used to it. So for local people it’s a very strange mixture of an opportunity to get off work and the state displaying its control.

Q: You were in Lhasa in 2001 when Beijing was awarded the Games.

RB: I happened to be in the main square that day. It was midnight, so there was really no one around except for me and a couple of local people watching the announcement on television. I was in a hotel just off the main square. This is Lhasa — nobody is out past 10 or 11 p.m. in a city like that. And yet the whole city center was full of riot police and water cannon, trucks. I think they’d been there all day. So the Chinese were completely convinced, it seemed, that there would be protests by Tibetans at the announcement of the Olympics going to China, even eight years ago. Of course they completely misjudged it, that the Tibetans would bother over something as dangerous as that for purely symbolic reasons. That’s not the way it works inside Tibet.

It was bizarre, a very surreal moment — a totally empty city center with riot police waiting for something to happen that was never going to take place.

The above interview piece was posted by The New York Times on Tuesday, June 17, 2008

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