Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Tibet Protests of Spring, 2008

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Tibet Protests of Spring, 2008

Article excerpt

Chinese governments have only ever tried twice to exercise direct rule in Tibet. Each attempt has been primarily a military operation and has been marked by fierce and recurrent resistance. The first attempt, a brief occupation of Lhasa by a Chinese army in 1910-12, failed after months of street fighting by Tibetan soldiers. That period of direct rule led to exile for the Tibetan leadership, created a crisis of identity for the nation, and caused deep bitterness among Tibetans towards those members of the elite who were seen as collaborators, though it also triggered a movement intent on modernisation. The second Chinese attempt at direct rule is still underway, has had very similar results, and continues to meet considerable resistance.

China reacquired control of Tibetan territory in 1950 and nine years later finally replaced the traditional Tibetan government and began its second attempt at direct rule. Its management of Tibet saw three major waves of opposition in the first 20 years: those of 1956-1958 in Eastern Tibet, 1959 in Lhasa, and 1969 in Nyemo and other rural areas, as well as guerrilla attacks by exiles based in Nepal from 1960 until 1974. Those episodes consisted largely of armed revolts or attacks by unofficial armies, village-level bands, or guerrilla forces. Since the death of Mao in 1976, there have been consistent efforts toward the liberalisation of Chinese society, with much greater tolerance of diversity, religion, and travel. Tibetan protest under these conditions has consisted mainly of street protests, most prominently the four major demonstrations that took place between October 1987 and March 1989, the long series of smaller demonstrations from 1989 to 1996, and the protests of March and April 2008, which are still continuing. The two major waves of protest - those of March 1989 and March 2008 - led to responses that were primarily military: 13 months of martial law in Lhasa from March 1989, and 15 months of paramilitary presence in the streets of Lhasa and other Tibetan areas from March 2008 until the time of writing this article (late May 2009), with no sign of it being lifted.

The waves of protest in Tibet in the post-1979 era were not a reaction to doctrinaire communism. They came well after China had started to do everything that the Maoist regime had failed to do - improving the grassroots economy, opening up to the outside world, allowing some religious practice, celebrating cultural diversity, and encouraging some degree of intellectual life. Tibetan protests in this new, reformist China raised difficult questions. They differed from the atomised and economy-driven protests typical of mainland China - they were multiple actions taken by members of a single nationality with shared values, and they were directed against the state's ri^it to rule these areas. For some, they appeared to be the opportunistic pursuit of local advantage in China's new prosperity, while others saw them as invoking for China's leaders the spectre of legitimacy failure among their non-Chinese subjects. Whichever view is taken, these cycles of unrest raised critical questions about the modern China project: What does it offer? Can it deal with difference? Whom does it include?

The 2008 unrest in Tibet had significant political impact. It cemented an international perception of China as authoritarian at a moment when it seemed about to step beyond that at the Beijing Olympics that August; it propelled the Tibet issue to near the top of the agenda in Sino-US and Sino-European relations; and it led to China dealing with Europe primarily through an interdiction on its handling of Tibetan issues. It also led to a major reassertion of military or paramilitary presence on the ground in all Tibetan areas, a display of power that must have had negative impact on local perceptions of the Chinese state. The Tibetan unrest, coupled with the protests over the Olympic torch relays abroad, also changed the way politics is done and thought about in China. …

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