As a Tibetan, it is bittersweet to see Tibet on the front pages. The world is finally seeing Beijing's repressive rule there, but the tragedy is that it has required such bloodshed. As Chinese forces now attempt to crush the protests, the crisis in Tibet has laid bare two important issues: the Tibetan people's unresolved demands, and how these aspirations impact Tibet, the world and China itself.
For more than 50 years, Tibet has been a land of simmering resentment. Tibetans have various grievances, but the common thread is that Tibetans want what all nations want: to control their own lives, society and religion. Tibetans are not simply protesting specific policies; they are demanding their right to self-determination. It is no coincidence that in many protests, Tibetans are attacking symbols of state power, ripping down the Chinese flag and replacing it with the banned Tibetan one.
Unlike the demonstrations in the 1980s, the protests have spread far beyond the capital, Lhasa, to towns and villages across Tibet. Tibetan exiles are staging sympathy protests worldwide, including when Beijing's Olympic torch comes through San Francisco today. These actions feed off one another, thanks to the Internet, digital cameras, cell phones and shortwave radio. This unity among Tibetans inside and outside Tibet represents a far stronger challenge to Chinese rule than before, and will give Tibetans renewed inspiration regardless of whether the protests in Tibet are temporarily suppressed.
For the international community, it is now impossible to accept Beijing's narrative that Tibetans are happy as part of China. The economic growth that Beijing touts in Tibet is exposed as a synonym for Chinese colonization. The world now sees that, like East Timor and other former colonies, the Tibetan people's demand for freedom may be temporarily repressed but is destined to boil over. The only question is whether the world will do anything to support these legitimate aspirations.
China's self-absorbed myth that it "liberated" grateful Tibetans has also been shattered; its central narrative justifying Tibet's place in its empire has vanished. Its policy of "Sinicizing" Tibet through immigration of Chinese settlers and vilifying His Holiness the Dalai Lama is just adding fuel to the fire. For the first time, Beijing has actually admitted that the Tibetan protests are widespread and conducted on a large scale.
Beijing has now resorted to a new propaganda tactic, casting Tibetans as violent criminals and Chinese as victims. This is largely because Beijing needed a domestic response to images seeping into China of Chinese forces attacking Tibetan protesters. State-controlled media are now broadcasting images of Tibetans attacking Chinese settlers; ignoring, of course, that the demonstrations in Lhasa were peaceful for days, and that most other Tibetan protests have been wholly nonviolent (the same cannot be said for Chinese forces, who used live ammunition against unarmed Tibetan protesters. The result of China's new propaganda strategy has been to create an "us versus them" backlash among many Chinese vis-À-vis Tibetans. This is a reckless and potentially dangerous incitement of Chinese nationalism, but also has the effect of changing Chinese perceptions of Tibet. Tibetans are no longer portrayed as colorful if slightly backward "minorities." Tibetans are now ungrateful colonial subjects in open rebellion. This is significant, because recognition of the difference between Tibetans and Chinese is the first step to recognition that Tibet is not China.
Looking forward, as with many colonized nations, there comes a tipping point when a sufficient number of people rise up and say "enough." That point has been reached in Tibet. Ngawang Sangdrol, a Tibetan nun who became a political prisoner at age 12, once declared, "There is fire inside our bodies, but we dare not let the smoke out." Now, the smoke has escaped, and for Tibetans in Tibet and across the Tibetan diaspora, there is a renewed push for freedom. And China? China will resist losing its colony, but then so did France with Algeria, Serbia with Kosovo, and Imperial Japan with Manchukuo.
The magnitude and vociferousness of the protests across Tibet demonstrate that Beijing cannot forever contain Tibetan demands for self-rule. Trying to do so only leads to instability. Through their courage and resilience in the face of a half-century of military occupation and religious and cultural oppression, Tibetans have made it abundantly clear that they want more than ever to determine their own future. The world should stand by their side.
Nima R. Taylor Binara is a member of the board of directors of Tibet Justice Center, a not-for-profit organization based in Berkeley that advocates the Tibetan people's right to self-determination. www.tibetjustice.org.