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China Must Face Home Truths on Tibet

John Lee

The self-immolation of an eighteen year old Buddhist nun on Saturday was the 22nd known instance of the act over the past year in the Chinese-governed Tibet autonomous region. Last week, Beijing’s pledged to ‘resolutely crack down’ on any ethnic Tibetan protesters while the Chinese Tibetan government issued a statement warning that any local official failing to perform their duty of maintaining order ‘will be fired on the spot and subject to disciplinary penalties.’

Despite the fact that China’s hold over Tibet is officially recognized by all major countries in the world, Beijing remains paranoid that external forces are seeking to split the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang—which together comprise one third of modern China by landmass—from the rest of the country. But problems in Tibet will not be resolved by condemning all those concerned with possible human rights abuses as ‘splittists’, as Beijing does routinely. Neither will throwing money at a region appease an indigenous people and culture who believe they are being suppressed. Instead, accepting the historical reality that China is a conquering power could well lead to better policies towards Tibetans, and improve Beijing’s standing in the autonomous region.

Beijing’s sense of domestic vulnerability is genuine. Figures last year indicated that Beijing allocated US$105 billion to fund the People’s Armed Police (PAP), more than the official budget for the People’s Liberation Army. Military armed and trained, and answerable solely to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a disproportionate and growing share of PAP resources is deployed in and around Tibet and Xinjiang.

According to official sources, Beijing also spent over US$50 billion on over 400 major development projects in Tibet alone over several decades. The government complains that such largesse is rewarded with dissent, ignoring the fact that ethnic Han Chinese encouraged en masse to move into these areas have become the major beneficiaries of development in these areas. Even though the living standards of ethnic Tibetans have undoubtedly been raised, discrimination in favour of Han Chinese is still widespread. Besides, few ethnic Tibetans can forget the reported destruction of an estimated six thousand Buddhist temples and shrines in Tibet since the late 1950s. Indeed, forcibly ‘regulating’ traditional Tibetan culture and religion under the watchful and suspicious auspices of state-sanctioned agencies is not likely to endure today’s Tibetans to the realities of Beijing-centered rule.

China’s paranoia over any sign of unrest in Tibet also betrays its own forced confidence that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official version of history can sustainably hold.

CCP history insists that modern day China, with its 33 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions (34 if one includes Taiwan) is China’s natural historical condition and has been as it is now for thousands of years. Yet, this version conveniently overlook the fact that the preferred geography of the People’s Republic of China was decided only after Mao Zedong’s communists came to power in 1949.

The new political arrangement had a number of historical precedents to choose from. Perhaps predictably, Mao chose the grander option, preferring to recreate the perceived glory of a greater China which the Qing Dynasty ruled over before it fell in 1911. In doing so, the newly created PRC laid claim to lands inhabited by Monguls, Central Asians and Tibetans. The 1950 invasion of Tibet was the first salvo in regenerating ‘Greater China’ that the Qing Dynasty bloodily cobbled together in the 18th and 19th centuries. Once incorporated, the reality that Tibet fell back into autonomy from 1911-1950 was conveniently ignored in official histories.

Conquering and re-conquering territories and incorporating these into the official maps of those who triumph is hardly unique to China. All powerful countries frequently use and misuse history to generate myths, entrench their rule over these conquered lands, and enhance their legitimacy over acquired territories to contemporary generations.

But China’s is emerging at a time when its every action is heavily scrutinized by a wary world, and brutally suppressing minorities within one’s country is no longer accepted as evidence of a responsible great power. Unlike past centuries, the covenant between sovereigns and citizens now place obligations on both to play their part in maintaining a just order.

For China, its modern habit for tolerance for different cultures and practices within its territories is still immature in an authoritarian system still tending to see domestic and external conspiracies against its rise in the shadows. Moreover, denying the historical truth that China is a conquering power leads Beijing to the counter-productive delusion that it has no need to arrive at a mutually acceptable and respectable concord with the Tibetan people under its rule. Revisiting official histories might help inform frustrated officials in Beijing why many of the indigenous people of Tibet feel little pride in the modern rise and achievements of the People’s Republic of China.

Putting more military and economic resources into imposing order will not do the trick in Tibet. But revisiting false histories in order to better understand the discontent of a conquered people and suppressed culture is the better way ahead for Chinese rule in Tibet, and in its attempts to convince the region and the world that its rise should not be feared.

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