Isabel Hilton: The world is no longer looking – but Tibet's plight isn't over

Without real policy change, rewriting history will not bring peace

Share
Related Topics

A year after the biggest uprising against Chinese rule in half a century, Tibet is under military lockdown, foreign tourists and reporters are banned and an increasingly intransigent Beijing has ratcheted up its war of words.

It seems that few lessons have been learned from the 2008 protests, which came as China was polishing its image for the Olympics and which gave fresh impetus to international supporters of Tibet to disrupt Beijing's grandiose Olympic torch relay.

It's 50 years since the people of Lhasa rose against Chinese rule, precipitating the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama, and 20 years since the imposition of martial law following the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, Tibet's second most important religious figure.

In this month of anniversaries, Beijing is busy rewriting history to insist, against the evidence of repeated rebellions, that Tibetans are content, or, in the words of a government official last year, "most Tibetans are humble people who know how to be grateful."

In a White Paper issued for the occasion, China congratulates itself on half a century of material progress in Tibet. In another, published late last year, Beijing described a Tibetan cultural flowering and wide religious freedoms, positioning China as the protector of Tibetan culture. The destruction of 90 per cent of Tibet's monasteries and temples on Beijing's orders in the early Sixties, the looting of Tibet's cultural treasures by China or the continuing intensity in Tibet of "patriotic education" did not merit even a footnote.

In a state with only one political authority, everything is the Party's responsibility unless the blame can be shifted on to somebody else. Against this background, truculent nationalism can thrive. In the case of Tibet, unidentified "foreigners" and the increasingly demonised Dalai Lama are the problem, rather than decades of bungled Chinese colonialism.

In the 12 months since last year's protest, Tibetans have become the enemy within, mistrusted by the state, feared and despised by many Han Chinese citizens. Savage sentences have been imposed on Tibetans who have talked of events in Tibet to the outside world: they include a life sentence for a Tibetan NGO worker accused of "espionage," five years for a woman who made an international telephone call and several people arrested in the last few days for having "reactionary music" on their mobile phones.

Two weeks ago a 24-year-old monk in Sichuan province, holding a picture of the Dalai Lama, set fire to himself in protest against the banning of the annual Monlam prayer festival, one of the most important events in the religious calendar and frequently the occasion for protests.

When a movement grew in Tibet to mark this lunar New Year not as a celebration but as a commemoration of last year's dead and injured, officials took the unusual step of distributing fireworks in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, with strict instructions to householders to let them off.

Preparations are under way for the first of what are to be annual celebrations of the freshly declared "Serf Emancipation Day " on 20 March – a government-imposed festival intended to re-frame the events of 1959 – and the resonant month of March – as a happy occasion.

This strenuous propaganda may convince the Han majority that China is the rightful owner of Tibet, with all its mineral and natural resources and its extensive living space. They may even believe that the Chinese have nothing more than the generous intentions of sharing the benefits of Chinese civilisation with a people they perceive as dirty and backward – a view heard in Beijing with embarrassing frequency. But without real policy change, rewriting history will not bring peace to Tibet, or to China. More troops are to be stationed in Tibet. Can Beijing seriously believe this will be solved by force?

A few brave voices, Chinese and Tibetan, have tried to discuss other options and propose constructive ways forward. Invariably, they recommend renewed talks with the Dalai Lama on meaningful autonomy, and a willingness to acknowledge past policy errors.

There are examples of flexibility in other areas of the Chinese polity that might usefully be applied: the "one country, two systems" approach that has eased the return of Hong Kong to the mainland for instance, or the de facto offer of business as usual to Taiwan, provided no formal declaration of independence is made.

But instead of showing flexibility, or even a willingness to learn from failure, the Chinese approach grows increasingly – and destructively – dogmatic. It is hard to imagine that China would ever give up its hold on Tibet: all the more reason, then, to seek a political way ahead.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Richmond Fellowship Scotland: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Site Agent

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This traditional family company...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Refugees try to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, on Wednesday. The town sits on the ‘Balkan corridor’ used by refugees, mostly from Syria, to travel from Turkey to Hungary, the gateway to the EU  

The UK response to the plight of Syrian refugees is a national embarrassment

Kevin Watkins
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent