by Ed Douglas
Beijing can be benevolent or brutal, but it will find that national identity lies at the heart of Tibetan demands for self-determination
Putting the Olympic flame on the summit of Mount Everest must have seemed a great idea to the planning committee of the Beijing Olympics. What better expression of China's inexorable rise to superpower status could there be? Everest was the crowning glory for the Queen in 1953. So it would be for China's political elite.
Now the game is up. On Friday, a friend who organises expeditions to Everest called me on his way to Katmandu for the start of the climbing season. He had just heard that the Nepalese authorities, at China's request, had decided to stop climbers going on the mountain until after those carrying the Olympic flame had been and gone.
It was, on China's part, an act of frantic paranoia. Beijing had only just banned foreign climbers from China's side of the mountain, fearing pro-Tibet demonstrations. Now Beijing was bullying Nepal, distracted by a chaotic election campaign, to do China's bidding. China recently offered Nepal £100m for two new hydroelectric dams and increasingly calls the tune in Katmandu, so there wasn't much argument.
With people dying in Lhasa and Tibetan exiles agitating in India and Nepal, what happens to a bunch of Western tourists may not seem so important. True, people living around Everest will lose a lot of money, but that's no big deal in the scheme of things. It's what this says about China's position in Tibet which is so revealing. In a matter of days, the self-assurance of a regime that promised to light a beacon to the world on the summit of Everest has been utterly undermined. For the last 60 years of Chinese occupation and colonialism, the Tibetan people have been starved, murdered, tortured, imprisoned and marginalised in their own land.
But even now, after decades of effort to subjugate Tibet, the Chinese authorities couldn't guarantee that they wouldn't be humiliated in Tibet's most remote, and easily controlled, location - the slopes of the peak Tibetans call Chomolungma. Rather than have Western climbers unfurling banners to demand a free Tibet during a live broadcast beamed around the world, they have preferred the embarrassment of closing the peak to outsiders, as they did until 1980, four years after Mao's death. It's an admission of failure. It must be galling for Beijing. Following violence in the late 1980s and another period of dreadful human-rights abuses, the Communist party had embarked on a policy of colossal capital investment in Tibet to develop its sclerotic economy. If old-school oppression didn't work, why not try consumerism?
Leaving aside the inequalities between Tibetans and migrant Han Chinese, there's no question that the Chinese have done a huge amount to improve the economic conditions of the indigenous population. Drive along the highway between Lhasa and Shigatse, seat of the disputed Panchen Lama, number two in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, and you can see bright new houses being built to replace the smoky hovels many Tibetans used to occupy. True, part of this resettlement programme is aimed at settling nomadic herders whose mobility threatens China's grip. China recalls how nomads in eastern Tibet put up strong resistance following the invasion in 1950. But it would be a gross caricature to deny China's attempts to bring economic development to a disadvantaged region.
China says it has rehoused 10 per cent of Tibet's population in 2006, building 279,000 new homes. Now that's progress. The high-tech, high-altitude railway, opened in 2006 and tying China more firmly to its Tibetan fiefdom, has brought a wave of new investment along with more migration. When I first visited Lhasa in 1993, people still defecated in the street. Now it is a modern and much bigger city, albeit a largely Chinese one.
Tibet campaigners often argue that this combination of investment and migration will swamp Tibetan's ancient culture and snuff out resistance to China's annexation. If that was the plan, it seems to have failed. Beijing predictably blamed the Dalai Lama and his 'splittist clique' for masterminding the riots that gripped Lhasa last week. But reports filtering out from the Jokhang temple area, the holiest of holies for Tibetan Buddhists, suggest the anger on the streets is real and instinctive. It is the resentment Tibetans feel at the inequality they face in their day-to-day lives.
Life might have got better for some Tibetans, but they see Han Chinese migrants doing a whole lot better and at their expense. The new railway might bring more money to Lhasa, but it is also carrying back Tibet's vast mineral deposits and timber to feed China's galloping economic growth.
It's inevitable, given his huge profile and the popularity of his cause, that many Westerners see the Dalai Lama and Tibet as synonymous. The Dalai Lama remains a source of hope for many Tibetans, but beneath the charm and exoticism of his story, Tibet's agonies should be familiar ground to any student of colonialism. It is that inequality, and the despair it brings, that feeds Tibet's resistance.
But Beijing is fixated by a personal and bitter campaign against a man regarded as an icon around the world. Rather than allow the possibility that he has influence inside Tibet, and affection outside it, China courts ridicule by peddling transparently false statements about him. An example. In November, the Dalai Lama used his prerogative as a reincarnate lama to suggest his rebirth wouldn't take place within Tibet.
He has said this before, but the statement launched a typically petulant response from Beijing, suggesting the Dalai Lama's statement 'violated [the] religious rituals and historical conventions of Tibetan Buddhism'. Given the wholesale destruction of monasteries in the 1950s and 1960s, and renewed efforts in the 1990s to crack down on religious freedoms, and the strict controls placed on monks within Tibet, the idea that atheist Beijing should offer advice on the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism was understandably laughed off by the Dalai Lama's office.
China must hope, and friends of Tibet must fear, that when the Dalai Lama dies, much of the momentum towards Tibet's eventual freedom will die with him. Don't count on it. Tibet will still be a country that is ethnically and culturally very different from China. It's not a question of preserving Tibet's ancient culture; that hangs on in remote villages, but it's mostly gone in Lhasa. It would have changed anyway. Mobile phones and the internet would have undermined Tibet's oppressively religious polity, already being reformed by the current Dalai Lama, just as they are doing to China's version of communism.
It's a question of identity. The fact remains that Tibetans feel Tibetan. No amount of economic development will change that. It's also true that China is implacable in its determination to stay put. Only a settlement that allows Tibetans genuine freedoms and economic equality will bring lasting peace. And that means meaningful agreements with the Dalai Lama. Only then will Tibetans begin to trust the Chinese.
Right now, China is stoking a future of ethnic conflict that will take generations and huge resources to solve. That conflict is deeply damaging to China's image abroad as a progressive and modern country. The real question is what does China have to fear from a more independent Tibet? It is the risk of difference, of heterogeneity that frightens China - a fear of multiculturalism.
The above article appeared in the Observer on Sunday March 16 2008 on p35 of the Comment section.