Unofficial calls for a general boycott of China's Olympics have
gotten Beijing's attention, but Beijing remains confident that
Hollywood celebrities are neither serious about nor capable of
achieving a boycott.
Make no mistake: The dissent in China's ethnic Tibetan regions
has geopolitical as well as moral and ethical implications for U.S.
foreign policy. If Washington hesitates to confront-even
symbolically-Chinese human rights violations, the world will see it
as validating similar behavior by China's numerous repressive
client states, from North Korea to Sudan. Unless, with American
leadership, the democracies of the world can summon the inspiration
to stand up and do something meaningful about Chinese repression,
they will have little moral authority to induce the other petty
tyrannies around the globe to mend their ways.
The United States should let American athletes compete in
Beijing; they've worked hard for it. But America's political
leaders should think twice about the serious "public diplomacy"
impact of their appearances at the Games.
No one, least of all the Chinese leadership, can claim to be
surprised at Tibetan discontent. According to the U.S. Department
of State, China's Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) remains "one of
China's poorest regions, and Tibetans are one of the poorest
groups; malnutrition among Tibetan children [remains]
According to 2000 census data, illiteracy among Tibetans was
more than five times higher (47.6 percent) than the national
average (9.1 percent)-nearly twice as high as in the second-ranked
Qinghai Province (25.2 percent). China also seems to be reducing
the number of Tibetans employed in local governance. "During the
year  state media reported that Tibetans and other minority
ethnic groups made up 60 percent of all government employees in the
TAR," down from the 70 percent reported in August 2005. "However,
Han Chinese continued to hold the top CCP positions in nearly all
counties and prefectures, including party secretary of the TAR."
In addition, Chinese state policies have the apparent result of
encouraging considerable non-Tibetan migration into the TAR,
confiscation of Tibetan-occupied commercial real estate in Lhasa
and other population centers, and reassignment of land-use rights
to non-Tibetans. Tibetans report discrimination in employment and
claim that "Han Chinese are hired preferentially for many jobs and
received greater pay for the same work." It is also more difficult
for Tibetans than for Han to get permits and loans to open
In short, Tibetans believe that they now have even less say in
their own futures and less scope for their efforts than they had
just a few years ago.
The Dalai Lama, as the spiritual and intellectual center of
Tibetan political awareness, sought to engage the Chinese central
government in a dialogue about Tibet's future. Unsurprisingly, the
Chinese leadership spurned his advances, seeing little upside to
engagement with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGIE), which has
little leverage apart from moral suasion over the Tibetan
Beijing believes that time is on its side. The Dalai Lama is 73,
and Beijing believes that an ancient compact with the Qing Emperor
gives China's central government absolute power to choose the Dalai
Lama's successor. But in 2002, under gentle diplomatic
pressure from the United States, China did agree to formal talks in
Beijing with a representative of the Dalai Lama.
China's Engagement with the Dalai Lama,
By way of substantive results, China's central government did
finally agree that a representative of the Dalai Lama could spend
U.S. government grant money on development projects in Tibet that
the Chinese government would review, approve, and supervise.
Beijing also continued to hint that it was prepared to relax
China's propaganda onslaught against the Dalai Lama if he would, in
turn, restrain Tibetans overseas from visible demonstrations
Just prior to then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the
United States in October 2002, TGIE Prime Minister Samdhong
Rinpoche appealed to Tibetans and support groups not to protest. The
TGIE (based in Dharamsala, India) also discouraged demonstrations
when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the U.S. in April 2006.
One Chinese official reportedly suggested that Beijing might
approve a visit by the Dalai Lama, but shortly afterwards, Chinese
officials declared that the Dalai Lama's position was
irreconcilable with China's status quo, and China's
vituperation against His Holiness continues unabated.
At the time, the Dalai Lama had articulated a "middle-way" road
map that was to be a compromise between ardent Tibetan independence
advocates and China's demand for exclusive authority over the
region. The "middle-way," however, was seen by
Tibetan exiles as the abandonment of principle and the surrender of
the TGIE's last negotiating chip. Rather than improving the
general atmosphere regarding Tibet, the talks were accompanied by
an intensified Chinese diplomatic campaign against the TGIE and a
continued propaganda effort against the Dalai Lama personally.
Despite the well-documented repression in Tibet, the Dalai Lama
has tried to accommodate Beijing's concerns about Tibetan autonomy
in six grueling rounds of formal negotiations that his followers
have held in Beijing since 2002. Nonetheless, by March 10, 2008, he
had to admit that "on the fundamental issue, there has been no
concrete result at all."
March 2008 Protests
March 10 was the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against
China's occupation of Tibet. This month, protests across Tibet have
been met by violent crackdowns.
On March 10, about 500 Tibetan monks at Lhasa's Drepung
Monastery reportedly launched peaceful marches and demonstrations
to protest Chinese population, cultural, and commercial policies
that over the decades have had the effect of economically
disenfranchising Tibetans in their own cities and towns and eroding
the social and linguistic cohesion of Tibet's indigenous people.
Chinese police surrounded the monastery, shut off electricity and
water, and arrested several monks who had raised Tibetan
independence flags. Tibetans also demonstrated in Qinghai
Province's Hualong and Guinan counties and were dispersed by
On March 11, 600 monks marched out of the gates of their
monastery and again were contained by police. On March 12, two
Drepung monks slashed their wrists, and one began a hunger strike.
On March 13, several hundred monks from Lhasa's Gandan monastery
and 150 nuns from Qusa temple attempted to demonstrate, and police
established a cordon around both buildings that remained in place
as of March 16.
On March 14, monks from Lhasa's Xiaozhao temple forced their way
into the streets and reportedly were beaten by People's Armed
Police, sparking a demonstration by more than 1,000 civilians and
prompting "army units" (jundui) in the city to quell the
disturbances. Demonstrators became violent, according to reports in
U.S. newspapers, as Tibetans burned shops owned by ethnic-Chinese.
Chinese government news agencies reported 10 Chinese deaths, and
Tibetan sources say at least 30, and possibly 100, Tibetans were
Word spread to ethnic Tibetan regions in Gansu Province, about
500 miles from Lhasa. About 400 monks and Tibetan civilians from
Amdo Labrang Temple marched in the Gansu town of Xiahe, carrying
Tibetan independence flags and shouting "Tibet Independence, Long
Live the Dalai Lama and Religious Freedom," apparently with little
interference from police.
On March 15, the authorities reportedly sent regular army units
(zhenggui jundui) into Lhasa to conduct "mass arrests," but further
unrest broke out in the four counties surrounding Lhasa: Dazi,
Qushui, Linzhou, and Mozhugongka. In addition, 500 demonstrators
reappeared on the streets of Xiahe in Gansu, where police attempted
to disperse them with tear gas and batons. But the 500
police reportedly fled from the marchers. The demonstrators then
turned their wrath on the county government office, breaking
windows and overturning cars. They also razed shops owned by
Tibetan merchants from India, whom they considered turncoats. By
afternoon, Chinese forces with "40 Lanzhou Military Region Army
trucks towing cannon" and "20 armored vehicles" stormed the
demonstrators; fired on the rioters, killing several and arresting
20; and ultimately occupied the town. About 30 kilometers from
Xiahe, "over 100 Lanzhou Military Region trucks and over 20 armored
vehicles took up positions at a crossroads and awaited orders."
There was a "large scale demonstration" at Luqu County's Langmu
Temple and a protest by monks and civilians at Hezuo townships's
temple, which was "suppressed by people's armed police" as was a
second demonstration that evening. Tibetan students at the Hezuo
teachers college also exchanged blows with the college's Communist
One-hundred Tibetans marched and handed out leaflets in Dazi
county, Sichuan province, and they too were dispersed by police.
On March 16, protests and arrests continued in Lhasa despite
police curfews and controls, particularly in the area of the
Shannan Saye temple. Demonstrations spread to Sichuan's Abei
Tibetan district, where seven Tibetan monks, students, and herdsmen
were reportedly killed by police, and a prominent Tibetan was
arrested at 4 p.m. By mid-morning, telephone contact with the
district had been cut, and several hundred police were reportedly
deployed in the area to keep peace. More than 1,000 police were
sent to block demonstrations in nearby Ganzi Tibetan district in
Sichuan. Monks and civilians also demonstrated in Qinghai
province's Hainan Tibetan district. They, too, were dispersed by
On the evening of March 16, 500 Tibetan students at Lanzhou's
Northwest Nationalities University, also in Gansu, staged a silent
sit-in on campus and put up big character posters that described
the Tibetan demonstrations elsewhere in China. Tibetan language
students at a teachers college in southern Gansu also expressed
sympathy for the protests, only to have their campus locked down
and students prohibited from leaving the premises. Finally, there
were also reports of Tibetan student activities at the
Nationalities University in Sichuan's capital at Chengdu, even with
a major police presence on campus.
What the Demonstrations Mean
In authoritarian states, dissent is outlawed, and when
frustration with state policy boils over, there is little room for
compromise. Certainly, a large number of communities in China are
deeply frustrated with corruption, pollution and environmental
decline, disease and health risks, arbitrary arrests and property
confiscations, and the lack of labor bargaining rights and
These groups would like to make their voices heard in Beijing,
but when they protest, the state is inclined to arrest them. When
demonstrations get too large for arrests, the state is inclined to
shoot people, as they did in the farming village of Xichang in July
2005 or the sleepy Guangdong coastal town of
Dongzhou in December 2005.
Unlike most political interest groups in China, the Tibetans'
unique language and ethnic cohesion gives them an advantage in
coordinating and communicating protests, and thereby circumventing
Chinese state telecommunications and Internet surveillance
instruments. The Tibetan demonstrations this month will be put down
only with the Army's help. Even then, violence cannot be China's
permanent answer-unless, of course, Beijing is willing to imprison
and kill a lot of people.
Regrettably, as starkly demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in
1989, the Chinese state is quite willing and equipped to do this.
The monopolistic Communist Party is all-powerful, and dissent is
illegitimate. This has been the focus of American uneasiness as
China shoves Canada out of first place as America's top trading
partner and, in the process, amasses vast mountains of American
currency and debt. America stands for freedom and toleration, and
Americans are repelled by genocide in Sudan and killings in Burma,
North Korea, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, and many other places.
China, on the other hand, sees such behavior as perfectly
legitimate and essential to "development models suited to national
China as Patron of
In November 2007, Mr. Yuan Peng, a respected scholar at the
China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a
think tank run by China's foreign intelligence ministry, noted
wryly that, "In the world today, just about every single one of
America's adversaries is China's friend."
No doubt, Mr. Yuan had in mind North Korea, Burma, Iran, Syria,
Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, and Sudan-the ten
countries identified by the U.S. Department of State just last week
as the "world's most systematic human rights violators."
China's support for these (and other) abusive dictatorial regimes
around the globe has become a public relations headache for Beijing
as it prepares to host the Olympic Games this summer. But it should
also pose problems for the U.S. Administration. As CICIR's Mr. Yuan
There are some Americans who are pressuring China on Sudan's
Darfur, Burma and other issues by threatening a boycott of the
Olympic Games, but in the broader perspective, this is private
behavior. U.S. President Bush and his father have both already
responded by agreeing to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies.
No one can be gratified that China's long history of repression
of its Tibetan minority has once again blown up in Beijing's face,
but it is not as if Beijing ever adopted any negotiating stance but
intransigence in dealing with the deepest fears of Tibetans, both
inside and outside of China. And when China's Tibetans vent their
frustrations in peaceful protests, China's reflexive reaction is
police-and ultimately military-repression.
What the President Should Do
The United States has considerable leverage with Beijing.
With any other country, the immediate U.S. reaction to violent
crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations would be to threaten and then
impose some sort of commercial and/or financial sanctions. The
purpose is not so much to inflict economic pain, because most such
countries do not trade heavily with the United States. Rather, the
purpose is to delegitimize the regime in the eyes of its
It is debatable whether uncoordinated, unlilateral trade
sanctions have ever inflicted useful pain on any country; given the
hypermagnitudes of the U.S.-China trade relationships, it most
certainly would not do so with China.
But America cannot simply call for "restraint." Doing so would
be the moral equivalent of staring slack-jawed in the face of
serious human rights abuses.
In August, President Bush and his retinue of more than 500 high
officials, aides, factotums, security and communications
specialists, and drivers will descend upon Beijing. The President's
presence in Beijing, and all its attendant hoopla and media
coverage, will make quite an impression on the world's newspaper
readers and CNN-watchers. In short, he will not have the luxury of
anonymity at the Beijing Olympics.
But the President of the United States need not lend his
prestige to China's global debut as host of the Olympic
Games-prestige that China craves. If President Bush hopes to
influence China's behavior, not just with Tibetans, but with
Beijing's many friends around the world that are "America's
adversaries," he must leverage his attendance and that of his
family and even his father. He should also have a confidential chat
with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who also plans to be in
Beijing, and the leaders of other democracies. Nothing flashy need
President Bush needs only to let it be known, quietly, that he
is rethinking his participation in the Beijing Olympics, and his
press spokesmen need only respond to questions with a shrug of the
shoulder and a noncommittal grunt.
China will get the message.
John J. Tkacik,
Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China, Taiwan, and Mongolia
Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage
Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for China-2005
Tibet addendum, March 11, 2008, at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61605.htm
For some reason, these data are not covered in the 2008
Ibid. for the 2005 figure. For these and other data on
social indicators in Tibet, see U.S. Department of State, Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Country Reports on Human
Rights Practices for China-2007, Tibet addendum, March 11,
2008, at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2007/100518.htm.
Philip Delves Broughton, "Reincarnation Rift," The Wall Street
Journal, December 4, 2007, at
Lindsay Beck, "Dalai Lama's Demands Are Obstacle to Talks: China,"
Reuters, May 26, 2006.
Government of Tibet in Exile, "Statement of His Holiness the Dalai
Lama on the Forty-Sixth Anniversary of the Tibetan National
Uprising Day," Office of Tibet, London, March 10, 2005, at www.tibet.com/NewsRoom/hh2005statement.htm.
example, see International Campaign for Tibet, "Nepal Orders
Closure of Dalai Lama's Office and Tibetan Refugee Organization,"
press release, January 27, 2005.
For the Tibetan view of these grievances, see "Statement of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama on the Forty-Ninth Anniversary of the
Tibetan National Uprising Day," March 10, 2008, at www.dalailama.com/page.70.htm.
This chronology is taken from a private e-mail, in Chinese, which
appears to be from an ethnic Tibetan source.
Ibid. Protests were also noted at
the Panchen Lama's Bushilunbo Temple.
For example, see Chinese Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, "China's African Policy," January 12, 2006, at www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t230615.htm.
("[C]ountries in Africa have been conscientiously exploring a road
to development suited to their national conditions and seeking
peace, stability, and development by joint efforts.") See also Luo
Hui, "Jin Richeng hui Li Changchun: Chaozhong Renmin Chuantong
Youyi Bu Ke Po"[Kim Jong Il sees Li Changchun: The traditional
friendship between the peoples of the DPRK and China is
unbreakable], Xinhua News Agency, September 12, 2004, at www.people.com.cn/GB/shizheng/1024/2778612.html.
("China will continue to support North Korea's party and people in
their insistence on the socialist road to development, and support
the North Korean comrades in their exploration for development
models that are suitable to this nation's [DPRK's] actual
situation.") See also Mark Landler, "For Many Burmese, China Is an
Unwanted Ally," The New York Times, December 31, 2001, p.
1. (Chinese President Jiang Zemin said Burma "must be allowed to
choose its own development path suited to its own conditions.")
Yuan writes: "duiyu Aoyun, xianzai Meigui you
xie ren yi Sudan Daerfuer, Miandian deng wenti xiang Zhongguo
shiya, weixie dizhi Ao yunhui, danshi, zongtishang lai kan, zheixie
zhi shi minjian xingwei. Meiguo Zongtong Bushi he lao Bushi duo
yijing daying chuxi Aoyunhui kaimushi."