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China: Analysis From Washington--Freedom For Tibet

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Chinese government has responded to recent Western criticism of its rule in Tibet by denouncing its critics and by launching an even harsher crackdown on that troubled land.

But as has been the case with other imperial governments, Beijing's actions appear likely to increase rather than silence demands that Tibet be granted wide autonomy or even independence.

During the last month, Beijing has been subject to a steady barrage of criticism from the West for its policies in Tibet. And in each case, the Chinese government has dealt with criticism by attacking the critics rather than responding to their charges.

Following a visit to Tibet August 9-13, U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) said that China was maintaining a "death grip" on Tibet. He added that Beijing seemed bent on destroying Tibetan culture by its promotion of ethnic Chinese migration to that Himalayan country.

And Wolf demanded that U.S. President Bill Clinton use his upcoming meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to press for the release of 700 Tibetan "prisoners of conscience."

In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang said that Wolf had "wantonly slandered China" and had ignored "the enormous progress that has been made in Tibet in various fields." Tang said that his government was especially upset because Wolf had visited the region unofficially.

In addition, Beijing orchestrated criticism of Wolf from local officials in Tibet and aired a documentary on Monday that purported to show that life in Tibet under the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet now in exile, had been far worse than it is under communism.

Then on Monday, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization released a report in Geneva sharply criticizing China for continued domination of Tibet, a region the group said was the world's largest remaining colonial possession.

Prepared by a team led by Cees Flinterman, formerly head of the Dutch delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the report found that "Tibetans have little or no decision-making power in the administration of Tibet."

It said that "restrictions imposed on the rights and freedoms of individual Tibetans are inspired by Beijing's attempts to stifle and root our Tibetan nationalism."

The report concluded that "China's rule over Tibet since 1951 has all the characteristics of colonialism in the real sense of the word."

And it urged that foreign corporations should stay out of Tibet unless they can provide convincing evidence that their involvement is benefiting the local population and not the Chinese authorities.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese mission to the United Nations in Geneva reacted quickly and angrily. In a statement released the same day, it denounced the report as an "out-and-out lie," "malicious" and an "outrageous distortion of history."

And the mission said that China had been "exercising sovereignty over Tibet since the 13th century," invoking a passage in the diaries of the medieval Italian explorer Marco Polo in support of the mission's claims.

At the same time, the Chinese authorities have stepped up their attacks on Tibetan activists. According to the Tibet Information Network, a court in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on August 8 sentenced two local activists to long terms in prison for "espionage."

And on August 18, an editorial in the Tibetan daily newspaper outlined a new Chinese strategy to combat the influence of the Dalai Lama, a man the paper denounced as the "head of the separatists" and "an instrument of the West." The new strategy calls for stepping up attacks on the Dalai Lama among party officials, in the monasteries, among the peasants and shepherds, and among young people."

That includes virtually the entire population of Tibet. And as such, this campaign represents an implicit acknowledgment by the Chinese government of the breadth and depth of the Dalai Lama's influence on his people.

And in yet another indication of Chinese nervousness about the Dalai Lama, Beijing on Monday blocked a broadcast of a documentary about his life even though the Chinese government had produced it in order to brand him a traitor to both Tibet and China.

But the Chinese reactions to such outside criticism are unlikely to have the effect that Beijing wants. Instead, they seem certain to generate yet more support for the rights of the Tibetan people.

These Chinese actions already have had that effect in the U.S. Congress. And American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has agreed to name by November 1 a special coordinator for Tibetan affairs at the State Department.

To the extent that ever more peoples and governments follow the American example, the Chinese government is likely to discover that its efforts to block the self-determination of the Tibetan people will instead have the effect of promoting it.