Paul Mooney, Foreign Correspondent
Tibetan monks carry lamps at the Labrang monastery in Xiahe (Tib: Sangchu), in Gansu province. (AP Photo)
BEIJING - China’s campaign to clamp down on dissent and wipe out independence sentiments in Tibetan areas of the country is leading to what some experts are calling a new-found feeling of Tibetan unity and consciousness throughout the world.
Experts say the protests that broke out in Lhasa in March were unique in that for the first time the trouble escalated and spread to the so-called Tibetan autonomous regions around China – the result of the IT age and the proliferation of the internet and mobile phones.
Jamyang Norbu, a Western expert on Tibet, said the Chinese government exacerbated the situation by its heavy-handed media campaign that exaggerated the Tibetan involvement in the violence, which he believed rapidly triggered a “grassroots animosity” among Chinese citizens against Tibetans.
“There’s been a breakdown in the trust in the party’s promise to treat people impartially,” Mr Norbu said.
A by-product of this is that it has altered the way many Tibetans see themselves, even in areas that were not traditionally strongly united in their identity as Tibetans.
“There seems to be a uniting of Tibetans in all areas,” said Mr Norbu, who is also a writer.
“That’s why these distant and disparate groups have been waving the [Tibetan] national flag.
“In some of these places, they never even saw the national flag before.”
Woeser, a popular Tibetan poet and writer, who visited Lhasa in August, says: “The national consciousness of Tibetans has never been so strong.”
She said she found this feeling was strong even among farmers and common people, who she said are more conscious of being Tibetan. “I never heard this expressed so strongly before this time,” she said.
Mr Norbu said there was a growing realisation that Tibetans were not part of China. “They feel they can never be a part of China. Even if they wanted to, they can’t be accepted in a genuine way.”
He said Tibetans had always felt a sense of difference with the Chinese, and opposition to Chinese colonialism. “But I never saw signs of hatred or aggression. This was very rare,” he said. “I’m not sure now whether this sense of distance is beginning to move towards aggression. It’s not impossible.”
He said, however, that the government’s policy towards Tibet had resulted in a huge backlash and a fall in the credibility of the Chinese government. Tibetans feel the state “has let them down”, the writer said.
Woeser pointed to worsening relations between Tibetans and Han Chinese, which she said “has never been so bad before”, especially in Lhasa.
“Tibetans were always angry about Han Chinese taking their jobs and breaking their rice bowls, but they felt they could accept it,” she said. “Now they can’t.”
Loesel Tenzin, a researcher for the International Campaign for Tibet in Dharamshala, India, agreed. “There’s now a huge emotional gap between Han Chinese and Tibetans,” he said. “It did exist before, but it was not as strong as now.”
Woeser said the attitude affected even young Tibetans. She told the story of a Tibetan friend who worried because her two middle-school children unexpectedly rooted for Chinese to lose in the Olympics, which Beijing hosted. “They didn’t want China to win,” Woeser said.
“It will be very difficult to paper this over. It will be very difficult to return to normal.”
Observers say the growing differences are leading to a change in thinking about how to resolve the Tibet question. Mr Norbu, who has criticised the Dalai Lama’s approach to China as conciliatory, pointed out that the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from China would be next year, that the religious Tibetan leader was getting older and that his brother died recently.
“People think they have to make some hard changes,” he said, “and so people are looking for stronger answers to their questions.
“Unless Tibetans can come out with their own political identity, there’s no chance they can survive.”
He said the recent trouble had nudged Tibetans towards “taking positions they would not have taken. The whole game has changed now.
“A lot of Tibetans are saying whether we get independence or not; we have to keep up this demand in order to survive, so we are not wiped out completely.”
He said Tibetans had learnt that the issue of independence was the only way to reach out to the Chinese people.
“Even if they are against independence, they know there is this issue. And a lot of Chinese didn’t know there was a Tibet issue before.”
Mr Norbu, who served as a member of a Tibetan resistance group, warned that with China’s overwhelming military power, turning to violence would be a mistake.
“My advice to young Tibetans is to forget about bombs and violence,” Mr Norbu said. “We don’t have the capacity to do anything like this. But we can hit them where they are the weakest.
“Just keep the issue of Tibet going, keep harassing the Chinese,” Mr Norbu said. “The biggest weakness of the Chinese is the need to be accepted as a big power, and this affects them like no bomb could.”
He said the underlying resentment was there, and there would be more problems.
“There’s no short-term solution,” the writer said. “It’s going to be a grim and hard slugout. Let’s face it. This is China, a big power in the world, and Tibet is small. But you can keep the game going until you find an opening. I tell people to keep their expectations low.”