TOPICS > Politics

Deep-rooted Tensions Surface in Tibet Unrest

March 25, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The United States joined several European nations Tuesday in urging the Chinese government to engage in talks with the Tibetan government-in-exile, after two weeks of anti-government protests in the region. Experts examine the roots of the dispute.

RAY SUAREZ: Unrest over Chinese rule in Tibet. We start with some background, narrated by NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s protests erupted outside the country’s borders in a Tibetan enclave in western China. Two were killed. There also were new protests in India and Nepal led by Buddhist monks.

The latest unrest comes two weeks into a campaign of demonstrations started in the capital, Lhasa, by Tibetan Buddhist monks. They’ve since spread into the general population, protesting China’s nearly six-decade rule of the remote mountain region.

Thousands of Chinese troops and police have poured in to quell the uprising. The Tibetan government-in-exile said 140 people have been killed in the violence. The Chinese said the number was much lower.

Yesterday, protesters hoping to pressure China disrupted the lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece at the game’s ancient home. The Olympic Summer Games will be held in Beijing later this year.

Along with several European countries, the U.S. State Department urged restraint on both sides of the dispute today. U.S. officials asserted that Beijing would benefit from speaking with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists.

SEAN MCCORMACK, State Department Spokesman: We would urge the Chinese government to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama. He is a man of peace; he is a man of reconciliation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, the Dalai Lama said he is prepared to talk to Beijing.

DALAI LAMA: We always respect the Chinese people and their culture. Even Chinese communism we are not against. Many Tibetans who participate in these demonstrations are ideologically communist.

REPORTER: What do you think China will talk to you?

DALAI LAMA: I don’t know — it isn’t my view or not. It’s up to them.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the Chinese have blamed the Dalai Lama for the unrest, saying he was trying to disrupt the Olympics.

SHAN HUIMIN, Spokeswoman, Public Security Ministry of China (through translator): It’s the Dalai Lama who organized and carefully planned the provocation and violence. It’s caused by the Tibetan separatists inside and outside China in a bid to create chaos to interfere with the Beijing Olympics.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chinese authorities also have banned foreign journalists from Tibet and neighboring regions in western China.

Simmering economic, ethnic tensions

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what's behind the protests in Tibet and China's response, we get three views.

Donald Lopez is a professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies at the University of Michigan.

Jeffrey Bader held posts dealing with Asia at the State Department and National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And Abrahm Lustgarten, a contributing writer at Fortune magazine, is the author of the forthcoming book "China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet." He's been to Tibet five times since 2002.

And welcome to you all, gentleman.

Professor Lopez, beginning with you, there have been, of course, tensions between China and Tibet ever since the early '50s when China rolled in and took over there. Why is it exploding in this way now?

DONALD LOPEZ, University of Michigan: Well, there are massive economic inequalities between Tibetans and Chinese; I think that's the primary reason.

Things have gotten worse over the past two years. And this past March 10th was the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese. In Lhasa, March 1959, when the populists of Lhasa surrounded the Dalai Lama's palace to prevent his rumored kidnapping by the People's Liberation Army.

So a group of monks demonstrated on this past March 10th against the arrest of some monks who had been celebrating the Dalai Lama's receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal back in October. That led to some more marches, and those remained nonviolent for five days, until things exploded on the 14th. And since then, we've seen events all over the Tibetan ethnic region.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jeffrey Bader, would you say that that was the spark, this anniversary, that then ignited some very deep tensions?

JEFFREY BADER, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution: The anniversary was the spark, but we need to understand that there are long-term resentments and unhappiness on the part of Tibetans about the way they are ruled by the Chinese. Those resentments are political; they are religious; and they are economic.

Political in that Tibetans traditionally ran Tibet until 1950, and now the man who runs Tibet is the party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, a Han Chinese.

Religious in that the key figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is in exile in India. That would be like the Roman Catholic Church without the pope.

And economic, because of the benefits of economic construction and modernization that have come to Tibet...

MARGARET WARNER: The Chinese have really brought there.

JEFFREY BADER: ... that the Chinese have benefited more than Tibetans.

Han, Tibetans still quite different

MARGARET WARNER: So, Abrahm Lustgarten, you've, of course, been there, as we said, many times in the last six years. What have you seen on the ground that helps explain the fury, really, of these protests against the Chinese on the part of Tibetans in Tibet?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN, Fortune Magazine: Well, the physical transformation of Lhasa and central Tibet over the last five or six years has been phenomenal.

The first time that I traveled there, there was definitely an emerging Chinese presence. Of course, it had been there for decades at that point, but the city still had an overall Tibetan feel. Tibetan culture dominated the oldest part of the city. The Barkhor area was just that, it was the core of the city, and it was dominated by ethnic Tibetans.

And as the years passed, both the physical infrastructure was replaced and many of the old, historical buildings have been torn down. The Barkhor itself, the cobblestone streets have been torn up and replaced with more modern structures.

And then the outlying parts of the city have just sprawled and been built up with modern, patently Chinese buildings and Chinese architecture. And then they've been populated with the migrating Han Chinese at the same time.

And what you had is, when the railway started, when the railway opened two years ago, you had great promises that offset many of the Tibetans' concerns about this growing transformation. They looked forward to some degree of economic development and the benefits they would reap of lower prices, increased job opportunities, and so forth, but they just haven't seen those opportunities materialize.

MARGARET WARNER: And this was a railway from China, from the heart of China, all the way into Tibet?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: It is. It's the first hard rail connection of any sort connecting Tibet to Beijing ultimately, to the end of China's line in the Qinghai province.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Lopez, just briefly, some terminology, everyone talks about the Han Chinese. What do they mean by that term?

And then what is the essential difference between Chinese and Tibetans? Are they different ethnic groups? Obviously, clearly different religion. Just give us a brief primer on this.

DONALD LOPEZ: They're different in almost every way. They have a different language. They have a different religion. They have different food. They have a different social structure. They're two different cultures.

Tibetans have never considered themselves to be Chinese. And the Chinese have not considered the Tibetans to be Han people. But since 1951, Chinese troops have occupied Tibet, and now Tibet is part of the PRC. But over this period, Tibetans have never thought of themselves as Chinese in any way.

The important thing I think to note about this particular round of demonstrations and events over the past couple of weeks is that the events of '87, '89, there were riots in Lhasa. But the events of the past weeks have occurred not only in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, but in ethnically Tibetan regions of Sichuan, of Hunan, of Qinghai, and of Gansu province to indicate that there's a very strong Tibetan ethnic identity across this region, beyond the Tibet Autonomous Region.

China wavered on crackdown

MARGARET WARNER: And how would you characterize, Mr. Bader, China's response here? We talk about a Chinese crackdown. It's actually very hard to tell, because there's so little news coming out of there, but there were stories the first day or two suggesting the police, Chinese police were actually almost paralyzed.

JEFFREY BADER: Well, there was only one foreign correspondent in Lhasa at the time, the Economist's foreign correspondent. He is the source of most of our independent knowledge, aside from Chinese sources.

The basic reporting indicates that on March 10th, when the initial peaceful marches by the monks occurred, the Chinese reacted fairly passively. There were some arrests made, but there was no substantial use of force.


JEFFREY BADER: I think that the orders came from Beijing that they did not want the embarrassment of -- the international cost of a confrontation and bloodshed and loss of life in this, an Olympic year.

So for several days, the Chinese were fairly relaxed in their responses. And then suddenly you had the riots, the ethnic riots on March 14th, where the Chinese police seem to have been caught flat-footed.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Lopez, now, the Chinese, as we ran in this piece, accuse the Dalai Lama generating this. One, I know no one really knows, but do you think there's any credibility to that? And, two, what is it that Tibet really wants here?

DONALD LOPEZ: Well, I don't think there's any evidence whatsoever that the Dalai Lama was behind any of this. The Chinese have a kind of tired rhetoric about the Dalai clique and him being a splittist.

It's not the case that he would behind any of these events, and I think he's tried very hard, in fact, to prevent violence. And he has expressed his own dismay, his fear that these things will escalate even further. So I see no evidence whatsoever of his involvement.

What the Tibetans want is another question. Of course, there are many Tibetans who would like to have their country back as an independent state. The Dalai Lama himself is not calling for that. He's calling for more autonomy for the Tibetan region, the Tibetan ethnic region, something like the special administrative region that Hong Kong and Macau enjoy.

So there's a range of views both within Tibet and the exile community as to what Tibetans want, but I think all Tibetans want better jobs, better lives, freedom of religion, freedom of speech.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Abrahm Lustgarten, from your time there, what is your sense of what Tibetans in Tibet want?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Well, I would have to agree. I think that there's a general acknowledgment, at least among many Tibetans, that they're increasingly related to and dependent in many ways on China.

And there's also a widespread and growing sentiment of the potential for benefit, for better jobs, for a share of the increasing wealth that they see and modernization that's flowing into Tibet. And I think what they want, in addition to religious freedoms, which is a great concern, is a legitimate share of the economic progress that is reaching Tibet in many ways.

They want jobs in the government and bureaucratic administrations, which is the great vast majority of upper-class jobs in Lhasa and in Tibet. They want a fair shake in the opportunities to open businesses, to travel freely, to farm, and compete in the markets in Lhasa.

They just want the same benefits, I think, that the Han Chinese are expecting for themselves in Tibet.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jeffrey Bader, if that's the case, is this something, demands that China can satisfy? And what, in fact, is the attitude inside the Chinese government, as much as we can say?

JEFFREY BADER: What the Chinese want in Tibet above all else is stability. They don't want Tibet to be a source of unrest that threatens China's progress and China's modernization.

The argument that many of us outside of China, including the U.S. government, have been making to the Chinese is the way you get stability is by having a serious dialogue with the Dalai Lama that produces some form of meaningful and genuine autonomy.

If the Dalai Lama were able to return to Tibet, the chances are that most Tibetans, who revere him, would accept the status of Tibet as part of China. However, the Chinese, because of 49 years of antagonism, simply don't trust the Dalai Lama.

And so what we need is a process where the two sides work together to try to build step-by-step trust so that we can move towards, in my view, the return of the Dalai Lama, because I don't think -- I personally don't think anything sort of that is ultimately going to bring the stability to Tibet that the Chinese seek.

Boycott would alienate the Chinese

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Professor Lopez, do you think that -- there's talk in the international community, should the Western governments, say, boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, what's your view on how much influence the international community even has right now and how best to exercise it?

DONALD LOPEZ: Well, I think, if there's a boycott of the Olympics, the Chinese will be very embarrassed by that and I think the Tibetans in Tibet will suffer as a result.

I think if Hu Jintao would agree to meet with the Dalai Lama, some progress could be made. And if the Chinese would agree to stop the kind of demonization of the Dalai Lama, I think progress would be possible.

MARGARET WARNER: And your thought on that international community, any influence here?

JEFFREY BADER: I completely agree with what was just said. I think a boycott, frankly, would be catastrophic. It will just -- 1.3 billion Chinese people, if one can say anything about them, one can say that they overwhelmingly support the Olympics.

And the nationalist backlash from an international boycott would be felt in U.S. relations with China, international relations with China, and by the Tibetan people. So that is not the point of leverage.

MARGARET WARNER: And I'm sorry that we have to end it there, but thank you all three very much.

RAY SUAREZ: Two of Margaret's guests, Donald Lopez and Jeffrey Bader, will answer your questions about the uprising in Tibet on our Web site at