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

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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.

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