Since the last big anti-Chinese riots in Tibet two decades ago, Beijing has sought to smother Tibetan separatism by sparking economic development and by inserting itself into the metaphysics of Tibetan Buddhism. But an influx of Han Chinese to Tibet, and a growing sense among Tibetans that China is irreparably altering their way of life, produced a backlash when Communist Party leaders most needed stability there, analysts say.
“Why did the unrest take off?” asked Liu Junning, a liberal political scientist in Beijing. “I think it has something to do with the long-term policy failure of the central authorities. They failed to earn the respect of the people there.”
Tibetans staged anti-Chinese protests in several parts of China on Monday before a midnight deadline to surrender or face harsh consequences. Even in Beijing, Tibetan students held a sit-in to support demonstrators in Lhasa. Around the world there were sympathy protests outside Chinese diplomatic missions.
The unrest is a blow to President Hu Jintao, who personally directed a crackdown on Tibetan protests in 1989 and who has considered the Tibetan region part of his core political base within the Communist Party since then. It will fall to Mr. Hu to figure out how to restore order in Tibet without undermining the Olympics coming-out party that China has meticulously planned for years.
For now, Beijing’s line on Tibet is likely to harden. Military police officers are pouring in to stifle new protests. Nor are the demonstrations winning much public sympathy in a nation where Tibetans are a tiny minority. The state media has tightly controlled its coverage to focus on Tibetans burning Chinese businesses or attacking and killing Chinese merchants. No mention is made of Tibetan grievances or reports that 80 or more Tibetans have died.
Less than five months before the opening of the Olympics, Beijing is acutely worried about an international reaction and is arguing that its response to the protests has been reasonable. Qiangba Puncog, the taciturn chairman of Tibet’s government, said during a hurriedly convened news conference on Monday that the military police and other officers were not carrying lethal weapons and had not fired a single shot — despite multiple witnesses reporting gunshots.
“What democratic country in the world could tolerate this violent behavior?” Mr. Puncog asked, framing the crisis as a law-and-order issue.
Yet even if the protests are extinguished soon, China’s leaders will be left with a shattered Tibet. One foreigner who witnessed the violence in Lhasa said Tibetans were covering the streets in white toilet paper. Traditionally, Tibetans offer white silk scarves to welcome guests. But the toilet paper was intended to symbolize that the Chinese were no longer welcome — even though there was little possibility they would leave.
Beginning in 2002, China tried to soften its image on Tibet by holding reconciliation talks with emissaries of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, in turn, has explicitly stated that he is interested only in greater autonomy for Tibet within China, not independence.
But some analysts say Mr. Hu ruled out any compromise that would allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, which he fled after a failed uprising in 1959. Instead, China appeared to want to keep talking until the Dalai Lama, who is 72, died and left Beijing more firmly in control. Beijing has also infuriated many Tibetans by trying to monopolize the most sacred rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Communist Party, atheistic by doctrine, has insisted that it has the sole authority to approve incarnations — the divine process by which a “living Buddha” is chosen in boyhood. Beijing had already selected a boy as its own Panchen Lama, the second ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and reportedly jailed a boy chosen by the Dalai Lama.
Last November, the Dalai Lama countered with his own surprise. He proposed that instead of waiting for senior religious figures to search out his incarnation following his death, he might choose his own reincarnation — a possibility that has enraged Beijing. The Dalai Lama proposed a referendum among Tibetan Buddhists on whether to change the current reincarnation practice, in a way that could allow him influence in picking his own successor.
Meanwhile, Beijing has steadily been taking a tougher line on religious practices and cultural expressions of Tibetan pride. In November 2005, Zhang Qingli was appointed Communist Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Mr. Zhang came from the Communist Youth League organization, part of the political stronghold of Mr. Hu. Mr. Zhang has made no attempt to disguise his paternal attitude toward his charges.
“The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need,” Mr. Zhang said last year. He later added: “The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans.”
Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, said Mr. Zhang had taken a tough line. Tibetan government employees faced periodic requirements to write denunciations of the Dalai Lama. Mr. Zhang reintroduced a policy that forbade Tibetan students and government workers from visiting monasteries or participating in religious ceremonies or festivals.
By 2006, Mr. Zhang had revived an “anti-Dalai” campaign and intensified “patriotic education” at Buddhist monasteries. Monks are now required to attend long sessions listening to recitations of China’s interpretation of Tibetan history and also denounce the Dalai Lama.
“The party must surely know these monks are not going to change their minds” about the Dalai Lama, said Tsering Wangdu Shakya, a Tibet expert at the University of British Columbia. “So the whole point of the meetings is to intimidate the monks.”
Mr. Shakya said Chinese leaders must be stunned by the Lhasa riots because Tibet, under Mr. Zhang’s firm hand, had been thought to be pacified. In 2006, China opened the world’s highest railway, which cost $4.1 billion and traverses the Tibetan plateau to connect isolated Lhasa with the rest of the country. Beijing described the railway as a vital tool in developing the Tibetan economy, the poorest in China.
But many Tibetans regard the railroad as a threat. China has poured money into Tibet in hopes that economic development and higher incomes would win over a younger generation. For many Tibetan families, life has improved. But China has also encouraged huge numbers of Chinese migrants, whose presence has diluted the Tibetan majority.
“That is one of the biggest sources of resentment,” Mr. Shakya said of the Chinese migration. He said Tibetans believed Chinese were given more opportunities for jobs, and Tibetan unemployment is high. Beijing surely noticed that the younger generation it hoped to entice was rampaging on the streets of Lhasa.
Economic development also has brought environmental exploitation. The railway is regarded as a critical spur for China to extract and transport the rich deposits of copper, iron, lead and other minerals in the large unspoiled Tibetan highlands.
Last year, Tibetans in Ganzi Prefecture in Sichuan Province held angry protests to stop a mining company that was shearing off a mountain considered sacred by Buddhists. Eleven days ago, just before the Lhasa riots, about 100 monks and other Tibetans attacked Chinese cars and shops and clashed with the police there.
Several analysts say China cannot win the hearts of Tibetans if it continues to demonize the Dalai Lama. But China’s rhetoric about a sinister “Dalai clique” orchestrating the protests from behind the scenes suggests that its attitude is hardening. Mr. Shakya said restricting the flow of Chinese migrants would be a major concession. But few analysts believe Beijing is in any mood to make concessions.
For now, Lhasa will remain in the grip of the military police and soldiers. And, by one account, covered in white toilet paper.