Adrian Hamilton: The Chinese will never compromise over Tibet

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Chinese say they are still determined to take the Olympic torch through Tibet, for all the demonstrations and worldwide protests. Of course they are. The West consistently misunderstands China's attitude towards Tibet. For Beijing, it is not about the Tibetans and their treatment of them. It is about the territorial integrity of their country.

There is nothing new in what the Chinese are doing in Tibet, or to the Uighurs of Central Asia. Stalin did the same thing in the Soviet Union, moving whole populations out of areas to other parts in an effort to destroy their nationalism and pouring Russian settlers in their place. Half the problems of Ukraine, the Baltics and the Central Asian republics are the residues of this policy.

Nor is the Chinese policy of reducing local culture to a kind of tourist antiquarianism new to the world. It was, after all, what the Spanish did in Latin America, the US did with the red Indians after they had swamped the American West and what the Australians have done with the Aborigines.

When Australia's new Prime Minister, the refreshing Kevin Rudd, apologised for the "stolen generation" of Aborigines he was accepting responsibility and the shame of a deliberate policy of taking indigenous children and trying to re-educate them in Australian families on the grounds that only enforced uniculturalism could work with so backward a people. You get exactly the same approach, and racism, in the official Chinese statements on Tibet, never mind the blogs in China on the subject. But it is precisely because we have been here before that the outside world needs to be clear in our dealings with Beijing over Tibet.

It is all very well – and right – to express outrage at Chinese oppression of political voices in Tibet as if we are talking about monks in Burma or Palestinians in the West Bank. But Tibet is not Burma, an independent country suffering the oppression of its own rulers, nor Palestine, a land occupied but not claimed (or at least not all of it) by its conquerors. It would be a lot easier to work out a response if it were.

The Chinese regard their claim on Tibet as absolute and they simply will not compromise on it. And, frankly, the West, which went shamefully along with the invasion a half-century ago with only a squeak of protest, is in no mood to face a total confrontation on the issue. Calling for self-determination is easy enough, but so long as Beijing regards this as a step to unwarranted independence, the calls are going to go unheeded. Which is why the Dalai Lama has always sought not independence for Tibet but a self-governing role within China. The only trouble, as we have seen in the last few weeks, is that Beijing has no interest in this either. Their determination is not multiculturalism but the total absorption of the country within mainland China. Everything that China has done – the settlement of nomads, the building of road and rail links, the control of trade, the investment in raw materials and the insidious inducements to intermarriage is directed towards making Tibet another homogenous part of the Chinese nation. To the Chinese, this is all perfectly logical and, it has to be said, almost universally accepted. To them, the Tibetans should be grateful for everything that the Chinese have done in increasing investment, opening up transport links and encouraging immigration. If, as one official put it, the Tibetans have been left behind by the growth of Han Chinese businesses in Tibet, it is not because of exclusion but because they are "lazy" and in thrall to an outdated feudal church hierarchy. China is offering them "freedom", freedom from want and religious credulity.

Demonstrations along the Olympic torch route are not going to alter this, nor protests within Tibet. But at least they can, if only Western leaders are as courageous as the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – who went to Beijing and made clear his views, in Mandarin – repeat and keep repeating that the outside world does not accept this version of events, that it has an entirely different view of Chinese actions towards the Tibetan people and that it is genuinely concerned for Tibetan culture and self-expression. Not for a moment should Beijing be allowed to believe that it is persuading anyone of its version of history and the present.

And if the outside world does value Tibetan culture, there is something else that it can also do, which is to support the Tibetan refugee communities. As any visitor to some of the camps in Kerala, or elsewhere, can testify, the Indians have allowed the Tibetans in, but kept them isolated and in a dire state of poverty. The actions to exclude and drive out Tibetan refugees by that fabled, newly-democratising kingdom of Bhutan are little short of barbaric.

The Olympic protests have drawn the attention of the world, including China's, to the concern felt by the public over Tibet. Now it is up to our governments to show the same concern and resolution.