The Thorn in China’s side

Hannah Millar marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, and looks at the current situation with the troubled Himalayan region

March 10th 2009 marked the 50-year anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese occupation. Tibet, or rather the Tibet Autonomous Region, has been progressively assimilated into the People’s Republic of China. Its unique beauty and traditions are little known, as is their enduring erosion the past 50 years have seen.

In 1949, as the People’s Republic of China was established with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the helm, China invaded Tibet, asserting its ownership on the remote Himalayan country. Throughout its history, Tibet has maintained a distinctive linguistic, cultural, religious and ethnic identity to its Chinese neighbours. In 1951, China promised preservation of Tibet’s autonomy and political institutions through its Seventeen Point Agreement but it became clear in the latter half of the decade that China was not going to honour this agreement.

Fear amongst the Tibetan people that the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, was to be kidnapped sparked revolt amongst the populace and on March 10th 1959, 300 000 Tibetans surrounded the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.

In the following days, the uprising escalated and tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed by Chinese forces with thousands more feared to have died in the subsequent guerrilla fighting. The Dalai Lama fled to Northern India where today he remains with the Tibetan government in exile, maintaining his role as Tibet’s voice in the international arena.

Today the Chinese military is ever present and threatening in Lhasa. Thousands of Tibetans have attempted the treacherous journey across the Himalayas in order to escape; many with tragic consequences. Those who remain are denied basic rights as the Chinese culture and CCP regime is heavily imposed upon the Tibetan’s in their own land.

One strategy employed by the CCP has been to move a large number of the Chinese ethnic group of Han people into the region. This action means that ethnic Tibetans are a minority in parts of their own country. The struggle continues behind closed doors for fear of arrest, torture and even death but recent years have seen a re-ignition of violence on the streets of Tibet as a result of what the Dalai Lama remarks as being “long, pent-up physical and mental anguish.”

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 were an event surrounded with hype, contention and global media interest. The games were of particular importance to China in its bid not only to host a successful Games, but perhaps more so in its desire to present itself to the rest of the world as a dominant player on the global stage and to enhance its international regard as a modern, civilised nation. For the people of Tibet and their supporters across the world, the games provided the opportunity to appeal to the world and expose the ongoing oppression of a population’s culture, religion and way of life.

Although received with animosity by human rights activists across the world, the Olympics themselves are generally deemed to have been a success. However, an increase in worldwide awareness of China’s history and continuing violation of human rights has been raised, which in the wake of the games has been reported to be worsening. Despite the further targeting of Tibet’s population, supporters and foreign journalists, who attempted to highlight details of the situation, the Olympics provided Tibet with fresh impetus publicity.

The protests that occurred along the Olympic torch route prior to the games aroused a unifying spirit amongst supporters of Tibet and human rights. In Tibet itself, violence started in Lhasa on the day of the 49th anniversary of the uprising and spread to regions outwith the Tibet Autonomous Region. Journalists’ movements were heavily restricted at this time and no official figures can be placed on those shot, arrested and imprisoned.

The ‘Great Firewall of China’ neatly sums up the intensive censorship measures and media constraints implemented not only within China but also enforced upon foreign media outlets. The Western media continue to bow to the propaganda machine of the CCP, concealing the plight of Tibetans.

In 2006, it was widely reported that the search engine Google was adapting its service in China in order to comply with Beijing’s regulations. This involved censoring what were considered to be sensitive topics like the issue of Tibet and independence and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Furthermore, earlier this year the Chinese government was linked to an electronic spy network that had been suspected of hacking into government computer systems across the world; Tibetan IT systems of the government in exile reported a discovery of real-time spyware and extraction of important documents from the Dalai Lama’s personal office. These findings are contested and China denies the allegations, suggesting that this may be a tool of a propaganda campaign employed by the Tibetan government in exile.

Tashi Dhondup Tsering, a Tibetan now living in exile in Sweden, works closely with Chinese human rights activists whom he has discovered desire the same rights and freedoms as the Tibetan people.

He argues that the regime imposed by the CCP has created a climate of fear whereby the Chinese are so oppressed that they are unable to express their appetite for change. He asserts, after speaking to many Chinese citizens, that the Chinese government are rapidly losing support from their own people and it remains only those who benefit economically and those who willingly work in conjunction with the regime who remain loyal advocates for the Chinese communist propaganda.

He said: “Tibetans should keep close relations with the Chinese human rights and freedom fighters because we both want the same thing – that’s why I think if we work together we could get freedom for both the Chinese and Tibetans faster.”

As for the future of Tibet, the Tibetans are now torn between their love for their leader and their lifelong dream for independence. Tibet’s Cry for Freedom – a film recently shown at the Glasgow Film Theatre, as part of the Tibet Film Festival, highlights this conflict of belief.

Many have become increasingly frustrated with the failure in the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ to make any progress for his people. The ‘middle way’ proposed by the Dalai Lama seeks to negotiate with China for the recognition of Tibetan autonomy in association with the People’s Republic of China.

Tashi openly admits; “I don’t mind to have just recognized autonomy, as long as the Chinese Government don’t bother us, but in my heart I want full independence.” This opinion seems to be shared by so many Tibetans who would rather settle for the lesser degree of freedom than simply remain under occupation.

The situation between Tibet and China is just one example of many strained relations between world nations; where one ideology asserts a sense of superiority over another and gradually destroys a people, their land and their culture. However, as China’s dominance in the world economy continues to expand, it appears that no international law or foreign state will, or is able to, intervene in their domestic regime.

The future of Tibet looks to remain firmly in the hands of the Chinese government. The wealth that Tibet is bringing to China through its mineral resources was a catalyst for the 1949 invasion and its continued development and exploitation of resources is altering an environment that once brought sustenance into a landscape of destruction. As the Dalai Lama has commented, the reality of today’s world is that sometimes money and power are more important than ethics or principles.

It has been assumed that China believes that the ‘problem’ of Tibet will simply disappear with the death of the Dalai Lama, now aged 73, but the Tibetans in exile remain confident that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama will continue to lead the Tibetans in exile and those who remain on their land to regain their autonomy once again.

Tashi told me that the younger generation are emerging stronger and more defiant for a future of full independence for Tibet and so the struggle will not end. China’s actions may have had physically destructive effects in Tibet but it cannot destroy the memory and spirit of a people and their legacy.

Tashi’s final words to me encompass the undying spirit of the people on the roof of the world when he states: “We will get our freedom but the only question is when. It will take time but we will get our freedom back with the support from people around the world. India got its freedom after 100 years of Occupation, I do believe that we will get our country back one day.”


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