10 OCTOBER 1987, Page 11


Michael van Walt van Praag explains the growing anger of Tibetans

LAST week, the Tibetan national flag was unfurled in Lhasa amidst cries for freedom and demands by thousands of Tibetan demonstrators that China quit Tibet, in the first outburst of violence in Lhasa since Tibet was opened to foreign tourists in the early Eighties. The clashes with the Chinese security forces and army — in which about a dozen demonstrators were shot, including one seven-year-old child and three monks, and over 100 Tibetans were wounded — are being described by observers in China and Hong Kong as the most serious in the People's Republic of China since the violence of the Cultural Revolution.

The immediate cause of the present unrest in Tibet was the execution of two Tibetans and the imprisonment of nine others at a mass rally staged by the Chinese authorities in Lhasa on 24 September. The rally was called in response to the strong support received by the Dalai Lama from members of the US Congress for the five-point peace proposal he presented to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on 21 September, during a visit to Washington. In his address, Tibet's exiled head of state and spiritual leader called for the conversion of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace, abandonment of China's population transfer policy which threatens the very existence of the Tibetans as a people, respect for human rights and democratic freedoms in Tibet, restoration of the natural environment in Tibet, and the start of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and relations be- tween the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

The public execution of Tibetans in Lhasa three days later was a clear message, not only to the Dalai Lama and the US Congress not to 'interfere in China's inter- nal affairs' (to employ the language used in a warning issued by the Chinese embassy in Washington two days before the Dalai Lama arrived), but also to Tibetans inside Tibet not to get carried away by the congressional support for the Dalai Lama's peace plan. The son of one highly-placed Chinese official in Peking described the executions as 'killing the innocent chicken to frighten the monkeys', a reference to a traditional Chinese saying used frequently during the Cultural Revolution.

The Tibetan people's reaction in Lhasa to these executions appears to have been spontaneous. Perhaps encouraged by re- ports of the tremendous support the Dalai Lama received in the United States, on 27 September a group of Tibetan monks and lay people assembled near the Joh- khang, Lhasa's central cathedral, for a silent procession and prayer for the men executed three days before. As hundreds and then thousands of people joined iii, the procession turned into a series of demon- strations for Tibetan independence and for the withdrawal of Chinese troops and settlers from Tibet.

Although the present unrest in Lhasa has received more press attention than earlier protest actions, due mainly to the presence in the city of foreign tourists, it is not an isolated incident. Tibet's under- ground resistance movement has been active for a long time, and there have been over 50 demonstrations and uprisings in Tibet since the 1959 popular revolt. In fact, Tibet has posed a serious problem for China's communist government ever since it invaded and occupied Tibet in 1949-50, and the present unrest must be understood in the context of Peking's failure to sup- press the Tibetan people's religious faith and their determination to regain their independence.

Historically, Tibet's geographic and poli- tical isolation, its vastness and harsh clima- tic conditions, assured the country's con- tinued independence, even when other Asian nations were colonised in the 18th and 19th centuries. Asia's great powers succeeded for centuries in ensuring the continued existence of Tibet as a neutral buffer-state between them. It was when most empires were being dismantled and forced to shed their colonies that revolu- tionary China expanded its empire and established colonial rule over Tibet. It is the largest territory to have been robbed of its sovereignty since the second world war.

After their invasion of Tibet, the Chinese consolidated their position through a combination of military force and administrative and economic control. With the help of the army, the Chinese Communist Party waged a determined but unsuccessful struggle to eradicate the Tibe- tan people's national identity and the Buddhist faith which is inextricably linked to it. This led to violent confrontations culminating in a national uprising in 1959 and the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 Tibetans.

From 1959 to 1965 and again during the Cultural Revolution, political and religious persecution of Tibetans and the destruc- tion throughout Tibet of temples, monas- teries and other buildings of historic signifi- cance reached its peak. With the exception of a dozen religious buildings that survived the destruction and a few dozen that have been partially restored or rebuilt for tour- ists in the last decade, practically nothing remains of Tibet's 6,500 monasteries, tem- ples and historic buildings, and of its 2,000-year-old spiritual, literary and artis- tic heritage. The chairman of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region explained to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, during his visit to Lhasa in July, that 80 per cent of the buildings in Tibet were destroyed between 1959 and 1965 and the remaining 20 per cent met the same fate during the so-called Cultural Revolution.

The human cost is even more devastat- ing: so far over 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of China's occupation of Tibet and many more have lingered in prisons and labour camps. Taking the population figure for the whole of Tibet as six million, advanced by the Tibetan government-in-exile, this represents one- sixth of the country's population. Taking China's own population statistics — de- signed to minimise the importance of the Tibetan 'minority population' — which puts the Tibetan population at close to four million, the proportion would be even higher.

In 1980, Hu Yaobang visited Tibet and announced that in order to rectify the 'grave mistakes' committed in Tibet under Mao Tse-tung and the 'Gang of Four', a liberalisation policy would be implemented which would raise living standards to pre- 1959 levels within three years and give Tibetans more say in the region's adminis- tration. This policy was only partly im- plemented, however. Conditions have im- proved somewhat over the past eight years, but the degree of change is disappointing. The Chinese still control all important aspects of political, economic and cultural life in Tibet. The governance of the coun- try is wholly in Chinese hands and is dominated by the military, comprising an estimated 400,000 troops, 250,000 of whom are stationed in the so-called Tibet Auton- omous Region. Although a number of Tibetans are employed at lower levels in the administration and a dozen Tibetans have been given high-ranking positions, they have no real political authority and must always answer directly to Chinese superiors. Economic reforms have started to revive the economy in the major Tibetan cities, but in ways that benefit the Chinese.

Once China opened Tibet to tourism in 1983, visitors reported the country's pover- ty, the lack of education, the colonial and racist attitude of local Chinese officials, and the depressing atmosphere of a coun- try under foreign occupation. Reports of opposition to Chinese rule also appeared in the international press.

In 1983, China's leaders launched a new offensive in an attempt to solve their Tibet problem. The new strategy, which is in full operation, requires a massive and unpre- cedented population transfer of Chinese to Tibet, the economic development of the region's most strategic areas, and the transformation of Tibet's culture and reli gion into a tourist attraction. According to this plan, the 'final solution' to China's Tibet problem is to be achieved by reduc- ing the Tibetan people to an insignificant minority in their own country.

In the past, attempts to establish Chinese settlements in Tibet generally failed because Chinese civilians were reluc- tant to settle among a hostile people, who they consider uncivilised. Today, the mod- ernisation policy has made it possible for the government in Peking to launch major economic incentive programmes for young Chinese willing to shift to China's 'western territories', in particular Tibet. Young people, many of whom were unem- ployed in China, are given housing, jobs, loans and pension plans if they move to Tibet. The new opening of Tibet for tourists now provides the jobs and the infrastructure necessary to support much of the Chinese influx. Agricultural settle- ments in fertile valleys and small industries have been established to support the re- mainder.

There is evidence that the Chinese have relocated as many as 7.5 million civilians into Tibet, so that, for the first time in history, the Chinese outnumber the six million native Tibetans. There are now 2.5 million Chinese in the north-eastern pro- ince of Amdo. Although fewer Chinese have settled in central and western Tibet (referred to by the Chinese as the 'Tibet Autonomous Region') reli- able reports indicate that the Chinese have already moved two million settlers into this area. The Tibetan population of the 'Autonomous Region' is only 1.9 million.

If the population transfer is successful, Tibetans will indeed be reduced to a small and disfranchised minority in Tibet itself. They will become the 'Navajos' or 'Abor- igines' of a 'Greater' China. It is this new threat to the survival of the Tibetans as a people, to their culture and way of life, which has prompted the Tibetans, both in exile and at home, to become more vocal in their struggle for freedom.

Dr van Walt van Praag is the author of The Status of Tibet: History, Rights and Pros- pects (Westview Press, London 1987).