From the Los Angeles Times
Tibetan unrest puts China in a tight spot
Its classic tactics -- restricting the press and blaming the Dalai Lama -- sit poorly with the outside world and a more informed citizenry.
By Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 6, 2008
BEIJING — As unrest has spread among China's ethnic Tibetan population, Beijing has found itself caught between its desire to appear reasonable to the outside world and its tendency to come down hard when feeling threatened.
In recent days, the government's propaganda has grown shriller and its security tighter: The London-based Free Tibet Campaign, an activist group, reported late Friday that police in Sichuan province had fired on hundreds of Buddhist monks and residents, resulting in eight deaths. The Chinese government acknowledged unrest in the area and said police had fired warning shots, but reported no deaths.
Yet too much has changed for the emerging world power and soon-to-be Olympic host to completely revert to the Communist Party playbook of old, analysts say.
"China is facing some traditional challenges and new types of conditions," said Shen Dingli, professor at Shanghai's Fudan University. "This is forcing it to deal with this mixture and adapt."
On the propaganda front, the crisis sparked by riots on March 14 in Lhasa that spread rapidly to the nearby provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces has spawned rhetoric reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s.
In apportioning blame, the government has largely ignored the Tibetan people's underlying economic, religious and cultural grievances. Instead it has fallen back on a handful of timeworn narratives: that the vast majority of Tibetans were led astray by a few foreign agents; that the West is biased; that outsiders are trying to keep China down; and that the "splittist" Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, is intent on wrecking the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"There's been such vitriol," said Michael Curtis Davis, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "They've accused the Dalai Lama of everything on Earth."
This is a harder sell than in bygone days, when Beijing could demand that the masses adhere to the party line and didn't have to worry much about the outside world. Pressure is building for some at least symbolic concession. Some world leaders are threatening to boycott the opening ceremony for the Aug. 8-24 Games.
China also faces an increasingly informed and skeptical citizenry.
"China really hasn't allowed much reporting on the underlying causes of all the unrest, so it's a bit hard to tell what's going on," said Wu Lisheng, 40, a Beijing salesman. "There are surely some bad people involved, but I really can't be sure if it's the Dalai Lama's fault."
A document released Wednesday by Beijing purportedly proving that the unrest was "organized, premeditated, masterminded and instigated by the Dalai clique" amounts to little more than a schedule of international meetings by foreign Tibet activists -- what would pass for normal political activity in most countries.
The next day, in the latest of a series of media briefings, Xiao Youcai, an official of an autonomous region in Sichuan province, said evidence of the Dalai Lama's involvement "will be produced in due time."
The leadership's sense of crisis has intensified amid reports that civil unrest has broken out in another restive area, the far western region of Xinjiang, which is home to the minority Uighur ethnic group. Exile groups reported last week that 70 Uighurs were arrested amid government fears that there could be trouble when the Olympic torch passes through the area. The reports could not be confirmed.
Since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, China has reorganized its forces to keep the army out of domestic riot work whenever possible, a task delegated to the police and paramilitary.
Officials have said that units have used "maximum restraint" in putting down the riots, with Chinese officials putting the death toll at 22 and Tibetan exile groups pegging it at closer to 140 people. Authorities also say more than 1,000 people have surrendered or been arrested in the Tibetan capital.
Yet China's penchant for military secrecy has weakened its case, some analysts said. By working to hide the identification of units involved in restoring order, by covering over signs and removing license plates, it has fanned suspicion of army involvement. And rather than allow outsiders to observe its police and paramilitary in action, it expelled foreign media, tourists and businessmen from the affected area.
"Part of the problem is that outsiders have not been able to observe whether really bad stuff is occurring," said Dennis Blasko, a former U.S. military attache in Beijing and author of "The Chinese Army Today."
Although part of the leadership has been shutting out the rest of the world, other parts have been under pressure to convey at least the appearance of openness, a recognition that China increasingly needs the outside world for economic growth, diplomatic acceptance and even domestic political support.
The government hosted a trip to Lhasa for a select group of foreign reporters within two weeks of the riots -- a quick response for China's often-lumbering government -- followed shortly by a trip for diplomats.
"The fact they organized these trips means they still care about the global reputation of China," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "China still needs the world more than the world needs China."
However, 30 monks burst forth to protest Chinese policies while two dozen journalists toured Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet's holiest shrines. "Tibet is not free," yelled one. "They want us to crush the Dalai Lama and that is not right," said another.
Whereas a quick-thinking government minder might have argued that this showed China's growing democracy and willingness to tolerate alternate views, the monks were hustled away. Follow-up requests by reporters and diplomats to produce the monks and demonstrate that they were not punished have been turned down.
"China no longer has such ability to manipulate information so easily," said Fudan University's Shen. "There's a tremendous opportunity here to improve and make itself more welcome internationally."