The World is No Longer Looking - but Tibet's Plight Isn't Over

A year after the biggest uprising against Chinese rule in half a
century, Tibet is under military lockdown, foreign tourists and
reporters are banned and an increasingly intransigent Beijing has
ratcheted up its war of words.

It seems that few lessons have been learned from the 2008 protests,
which came as China was polishing its image for the Olympics and which
gave fresh impetus to international supporters of Tibet to disrupt
Beijing's grandiose Olympic torch relay.

It's 50 years since the
people of Lhasa rose against Chinese rule, precipitating the flight
into exile of the Dalai Lama, and 20 years since the imposition of
martial law following the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, Tibet's
second most important religious figure.

In this month of
anniversaries, Beijing is busy rewriting history to insist, against the
evidence of repeated rebellions, that Tibetans are content, or, in the
words of a government official last year, "most Tibetans are humble
people who know how to be grateful."

In a White Paper issued for
the occasion, China congratulates itself on half a century of material
progress in Tibet. In another, published late last year, Beijing
described a Tibetan cultural flowering and wide religious freedoms,
positioning China as the protector of Tibetan culture. The destruction
of 90 per cent of Tibet's monasteries and temples on Beijing's orders
in the early Sixties, the looting of Tibet's cultural treasures by
China or the continuing intensity in Tibet of "patriotic education" did
not merit even a footnote.

In a state with only one political
authority, everything is the Party's responsibility unless the blame
can be shifted on to somebody else. Against this background, truculent
nationalism can thrive. In the case of Tibet, unidentified "foreigners"
and the increasingly demonised Dalai Lama are the problem, rather than
decades of bungled Chinese colonialism.

In the 12 months since
last year's protest, Tibetans have become the enemy within, mistrusted
by the state, feared and despised by many Han Chinese citizens. Savage
sentences have been imposed on Tibetans who have talked of events in
Tibet to the outside world: they include a life sentence for a Tibetan
NGO worker accused of "espionage," five years for a woman who made an
international telephone call and several people arrested in the last
few days for having "reactionary music" on their mobile phones.

Two
weeks ago a 24-year-old monk in Sichuan province, holding a picture of
the Dalai Lama, set fire to himself in protest against the banning of
the annual Monlam prayer festival, one of the most important events in
the religious calendar and frequently the occasion for protests.

When
a movement grew in Tibet to mark this lunar New Year not as a
celebration but as a commemoration of last year's dead and injured,
officials took the unusual step of distributing fireworks in the
Tibetan capital Lhasa, with strict instructions to householders to let
them off.

Preparations are under way for the first of what are to
be annual celebrations of the freshly declared "Serf Emancipation Day "
on 20 March - a government-imposed festival intended to re-frame the
events of 1959 - and the resonant month of March - as a happy occasion.

This
strenuous propaganda may convince the Han majority that China is the
rightful owner of Tibet, with all its mineral and natural resources and
its extensive living space. They may even believe that the Chinese have
nothing more than the generous intentions of sharing the benefits of
Chinese civilisation with a people they perceive as dirty and backward
- a view heard in Beijing with embarrassing frequency. But without real
policy change, rewriting history will not bring peace to Tibet, or to
China. More troops are to be stationed in Tibet. Can Beijing seriously
believe this will be solved by force?

A few brave voices, Chinese
and Tibetan, have tried to discuss other options and propose
constructive ways forward. Invariably, they recommend renewed talks
with the Dalai Lama on meaningful autonomy, and a willingness to
acknowledge past policy errors.

There are examples of
flexibility in other areas of the Chinese polity that might usefully be
applied: the "one country, two systems" approach that has eased the
return of Hong Kong to the mainland for instance, or the de facto offer
of business as usual to Taiwan, provided no formal declaration of
independence is made.

But instead of showing flexibility, or
even a willingness to learn from failure, the Chinese approach grows
increasingly - and destructively - dogmatic. It is hard to imagine that
China would ever give up its hold on Tibet: all the more reason, then,
to seek a political way ahead.