China's Balkan Crisis : The Violence in Kosovo Reminds Beijing of Its Own Ethnic Trouble Spot-And in Tibet, Far More Than Human Rights Is at Stake

By Liu, Melinda | Newsweek International, April 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

China's Balkan Crisis : The Violence in Kosovo Reminds Beijing of Its Own Ethnic Trouble Spot-And in Tibet, Far More Than Human Rights Is at Stake


Liu, Melinda, Newsweek International


The timing was terrible. As prime minister Zhu Rongji arrived in the United States last week to try to revive China's "strategic partnership" with Washington, most Americans were watching something else on TV--fiery scenes of U.S. forces bombarding the Balkans. Zhu was watching, too. What he saw was a high-tech version of the "gunboat diplomacy" that the West once used to bully China. If the Americans send cruise missiles to support Kosovar separatists today, Zhu reasons, what is to prevent them from one day helping separatists in Taiwan, in western China or in Tibet, where the CIA has had a history of covert gamesmanship?

Such issues were on Zhu's mind. That came clear when he answered a question on why China's leaders reserve the right to use force in Taiwan by citing Abraham Lincoln as a model leader who used force to keep his country unified. And it was even more obvious when Chinese officials got so rattled by "Free Tibet" protests that they threatened Zhu would boycott a privately hosted gala dinner Friday unless Tibetan activist Lodi Gyari did not attend. To defuse the "awkward" situation, Gyari didn't go.

It is Tibet, China's actual bleeding wound, that bears the most similarity to Kosovo. Populated by a discrete ethnic minority that was once promised autonomy only to see it brutally revoked, Tibet is the one human-rights issue that China simply cannot be rid of. President Jiang Zemin encountered it again on his own badly timed European trip in late March. After the indignity of landing in Rome just as NATO warplanes were taking off nearby, Jiang went to Bern, Switzerland, where whistling, jeering protesters ambushed him with free tibet banners unfurled from rooftops. "You have lost a good friend," the shaken Chinese visitor told his Swiss hosts.

More than human rights is at stake. Like the Balkans in Europe, Tibet occupies an Asian fault zone of clashing cultures and big-power politics. For centuries the empires of China, India and Russia have collided in Tibet while their spies circled each other warily. Now that India and Pakistan have detonated nuclear devices, any revival of the Great Game could have global consequences. Tensions are indeed growing. Tibetan activist Lodi Gyari recently warned that just as the spinoff of the Baltic states preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union, China's further alienation of Tibet would lead to a "drastic" popular backlash "that could destabilize the entire region... We're dealing with a time bomb and the clock is ticking."

Some Chinese strategists, too, are looking at Tibet with fresh concern. Zhang Wenmou, an influential foreign-policy analyst, has suggested that the United States and India aim to split off both Tibet and the neighboring, Muslim-majority Xinjiang province--China's two ethnic hot spots--to create "buffer zones" in the race to develop central Asia's vast oil reserves. "South Asia is the biggest hidden threat to China's security," Zhang writes in Strategy and Management, a journal with military links. "If the world wishes to avoid a war in the Indian Ocean, separatist activities aimed at splitting Tibet from China should be abandoned."

For their part, Indian officials publicly insist that their ties with China are just fine--partly because New Delhi's nuclear test calmed Indian fears about China's nuclear advantage. The Indians discount statements by their Defense minister, George Fernandes, a Tibet sympathizer who has cited the "China threat" as justification for going nuclear. "India's nuclear program is based on our security needs and does not pose a threat to China," insists Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath.

At the heart of the matter, Beijing's difficulties in Tibet boil down to the Chinese leadership's relations with one man: the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader in exile. From his headquarters in Dharmsala, India, the Dalai Lama has pursued a peaceful but relentless campaign for Tibetan autonomy--short of outright independence--in order to stop what he sees as the "cultural genocide" in his homeland. …

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