April 8, 2008
Modern China Strikes Ancient TibetBy Jeffrey Schmidt
No one knows for certain how many Tibetans were killed in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, by Chinese troops in mid-March. The Chinese claim twenty-odd Tibetans were killed. Other reports, second and third hand, claim the death toll was as high as one hundred and forty. Scores of others were injured. Hundreds were rounded up by the Chinese and imprisoned.
The Tibetans, with Buddhist monks in the vanguard, were protesting Chinese rule and oppression near the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. The Chinese claim that the protests had turned violent. Other reports suggest that the protests were peaceful with only scattered violence after Chinese police and paramilitary forces attacked protesters.
In subsequent days, the protests have spread throughout Tibet and, recently, to the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in neighboring Sichuan province.
Reports are sketchy because the Chinese have banned international journalists and human rights groups from Tibet. China's official Xinhua News Agency is furnishing the news, and that news has an unsurprising government bias.
It appears that China, despite all its ballyhooed modernization, isn't so modern when it comes to Tibet -- or to its own people. For the Chinese, modernization means allowing enough economic liberty to create the prosperity necessary to keep its citizens quiet and to build its military. Wealth and military power allows China to assert its prerogatives, first in Asia, and then globally.
Today, China is less a communist nation than an authoritarian regime that pays lip service to Mao and the Glorious Revolution. Modern China, by any measure, has nothing to do with the rule of law and democracy. Tiananmen Square proved that point. Chinese leaders want their nation to be the preeminent power in the world. By their thinking, this goal won't be achieved overnight; but say by the middle of the century. Yet patience is a hallmark of the Asian mind. Mao proved that a Long March can have quite a handsome payoff.
Some experts argue that somewhere along in this new long march, the Chinese will transform themselves, or be transformed by new realities. Much of the prosperity that is building China comes from export and overseas investment. With an ever-growing stake in global commerce, the Chinese will opt for international stability and good relations, or so goes the argument. Chinese competition and leadership are welcome, as long as they transpire within the framework established by the community of civilized nations. That means those nations, east and west, which are democratic and law-abiding.
That may well come to pass. But from where we stand now, and by what China is, and what China is preparing itself to be, it's no given that a prosperous China will be integrated peacefully into the global community. It may well be the same authoritarian regime a generation from now, only with a world class military. And the will to use it.
The Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II was thoroughly integrated economically into Europe in the opening years of the twentieth century. Its dynamic economy was making it a leader. But that most definitely didn't stop the First World War.
Nationalism, as we learned in the twentieth century, and are learning again now, is a force far greater than the utopian and universalist balderdash espoused by Marx and Engels and their apostles. Nationalism is resurgent in China. Westerners who believe that the Chinese can be incentivized and coaxed into good change, or that their own rational self-interest will lead them there, may be disappointed.
The nationalist impulse is bound up with a lot of different factors. It has precious little to do with reason. Among other things, it results from culture, ethnicity, history, grievance, chauvinism, perception of place and narrow self-interest. It doesn't lend itself much to bonhomie and brotherhood. Nationalism is A Type personality writ large. And as we all know, most A Type personalities want what they want when they want it. Don't dare stand in their way.
Where is China today? It is embarked on a dramatic military modernization and buildup. Washington watches carefully, if not a little nervously. The Pentagon is planning and preparing for the future. It has been quietly forward-basing at Guam. Diplomatically, the United States is talking to its Asia-Pacific allies, as well as entering dialogues with an erstwhile enemy, the communist Vietnamese.
On the international stage, the Chinese are working in concert with the Russians to block American and allied efforts to apply economic and diplomatic pressure to Iran. Oil and American angst are of greater value to the Chinese than shutting down a rogue state's capacity to produce nuclear fissionable material. Despite a United Nations embargo, China has been accused by the United States of selling arms to the Sudanese, who are using the weapons in the slaughter of innocents in Darfur.
North Korea, whose people suffer profoundly, and whose unstable and evil leader, Kim Jong-il, poses a great threat through the sale of nuclear technology and materials to rogue states and terrorists, is abetted by the Chinese, who find advantages in locking down the United States on the Korean peninsula, and who fear an influx of millions of starving North Koreans across the Yalu River, should the regime implode.
But it is the matter of Taiwan where China gets to display bellicose nationalism. In making its claim to Taiwan, it rattles its sword ominously. The Chinese on Taiwan are separated from their mainland kin by more than a waterway. They are separated by more than a century of history. Some Taiwanese want to declare independence. Most don't. But, in any event, why would the Taiwanese want reunification with the mainlanders, whose government asserts its right to dispose of Taiwan's democratic government as it wills and abolish civil liberties, quelling assembly, dissent and protest?
Modern China is deceiving, especially to American eyes. Consumerism and commercialism isn't the stuff typically associated with communist or authoritarian societies. Something good must be happening in China, in the big cities, at least, where glitzy billboards advertise BMWs and Coca-Cola. Young Chinese eagerly snatch up Calvin Klein jeans or facsimiles. MacDonald's restaurants are sprouting up on street corners.
Providing its citizens with choices in the marketplace is a slight freedom. Chinese officials are vigilant in policing anything that may enter the marketplace that appears to threaten their authority. Music, movies, literature and internet content that might, in the most obscure ways, be interpreted as anti-government, are censored. No large gatherings are permitted that are not sanctioned by the state. The Chinese people simply don't enjoy freedoms that Americans take for granted. A choice of perfume is no substitute for the right to petition. Hamburgers are poor compensation for prohibitions on free speech and free assembly.
Whatever China eventually becomes, in the meanwhile, it oppresses Tibetans. It vilifies the Dalai Lama and Buddhism. It persecutes Buddhist priests and nuns. It colonizes Tibet with Han Chinese, and built a railroad to move the Han into Tibet more rapidly. And, according to Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign, based in London, it is attempting to force "patriotic education" on monks. The effort is ideological indoctrination that "demands that monks denounce the Dalai Lama."
The cliché goes that not all that glitters is gold. However golden the veneer of Chinese modernity, underneath is the old and familiar copper of thuggish authoritarianism.