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China: Analysis From Washington -- A New Threat To Old Cultures

Washington, 30 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ever more Tibetans fear that Western capitalism may complete the destruction of their culture that Chinese communism began. And their concerns have led some of them to shift the focus of their struggle to the boardrooms of Western companies and others to consider the possibility of using violence to defend their national interests.

For 50 years, Beijing has earned the opprobrium of most of the world for its use of force against the people of Tibet and most recently for its massive introduction of ethnic Chinese into that mountain region. Meanwhile, Tibetans have won support around the world for the program of non-violent resistance advanced by their spiritual leader, the exiled Dalai Lama.

But in the past few weeks, the terms of the struggle between the two have shifted, with the Chinese authorities opting for a method less likely to draw international criticism and the Tibetans forced to choose among approaches, any one of which could cost them some of their most devoted advocates.

This fall, the Beijing government has announced that it is willing to have foreign investors participate in the exploitation of what China calls its "Western treasure house" of natural resources. These resources include half the world's known deposits of lithium as well as significant chromium and copper supplies.

From the Chinese perspective, this opening of Tibet to the West has three obvious advantages: It further links Tibet with China economically and politically. Moreover, it does so without the use of force and with foreign involvement, thus limiting the kind of criticism China has received up to now. And it puts the Tibetans themselves in a political quandary, one in which most of their available choices entail political costs.

On the one hand, if the Tibetans agree to such Western investment, they almost certainly will see their culture further transformed both by the influx of more ethnic Chinese workers and by the increasing influence of outside groups.

But on the other hand, if the Tibetan leaders actively oppose such investment projects, they may lose support in Western countries where most people view economic development via the market as an unqualified good. At the very least, they risk being viewed as reactionaries who oppose a better life for their own people.

The Tibetan exile government at Dharamsala, India, last week tried to navigate its way between these risks. It said that it "supports projects which benefit the Tibetan people and opposes those which cause harm to them," including all the projects the Chinese government has invited Western firms to participate in. "These projects," the exile leaders said, "must be immediately stopped and redesigned or cancelled."

The Dharamsala government has called on the three large Western oil and gas firms involved -- BP Amoco, Agip, and Enron -- to withdraw and has sought to prevent international financial institutions from providing the kind of financing that would allow prospecting to go forward in Tibet.

It has done so, in the words of Lorne Stockman, a leader of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, because of a conviction that "when you try to develop areas based on resource extraction, it just turns them into colonies."

Because of China's decision to open Tibet to Western investment, Stockman continued, "the primary pressure point" for Tibetans and their supporters are Western corporations who must be forced by popular pressure to uphold "their commitments on the environment and human rights."

But despite the self-confidence of activists like Stockman that western NGOs can be successful in such a struggle with major industrial firms, many Tibetans have pointed to the often cozy relationship between these firms and the Chinese governments and are less certain that such an approach will work.

Among Tibetans themselves, ever more young people appear to be turning to the India-based Tibetan Youth Congress, which has rejected the cautious political approach of the Dalai Lama and argued that only violence can restrain the Chinese government and thereby protect Tibet and its people. And these Tibetans are reportedly seeking to link up with Western radicals like those who tried to disrupt the WTO talks in Seattle a year ago.

Such a turn to violence almost certainly would be counterproductive, not only depriving the Tibetans of their hitherto saintly image but also inviting a Chinese response that many Western leaders would find difficult to criticize especially if Western investments were at stake.

If that happens, the Tibetans, who have so often been the victims of Chinese communism, may soon find themselves to be victims of Western capitalism as well.