NEW YORK – China has survived the 50th anniversary of the failed uprising by Tibetans against Chinese rule in 1959 without major protests. But, to keep Tibetans off the streets, China’s government had to saturate the entire Tibetan plateau with troops and secretly detain in unmarked jails hundreds of people for “legal education.” Those moves suggest that Tibet has become an increasingly serious concern for China’s rulers, one that they have not yet found ways to handle without damaging their standing in Tibet and around the world.
A year ago, Chinese and Western intellectuals competed in dismissing popular interest in Tibet as a childlike confusion with the imaginary Shangri-la of the 1937 film Lost Horizon. But after more than 150 protests in Tibet against Chinese rule over the past 12 months, concerns about the area seem anything but fanciful. Indeed, Tibet could soon replace Taiwan as a factor in regional stability and an important issue in international relations. The areas populated by Tibetans cover a quarter of China; to have such a large part of the country’s territory under military control and cut off from the outside world weakens the Communist Party’s claims to legitimacy and world power status.
Last year’s protests were the largest and most widespread in Tibet for decades. Participants included nomads, farmers, and students, who in theory should have been the most grateful to China for modernizing Tibet’s economy. Many carried the forbidden Tibetan national flag, suggesting that they think of Tibet as a separate country in the past, and in about 20 incidents government offices were burned down. In one case, there were even attacks on Chinese migrants, leading to 18 deaths. It is hard not to see these events as a challenge to China’s rule.
The government’s reaction was to blame the problem on outside instigation. It sent in more troops, hid details of protestors’ deaths, gave a life sentence to an AIDS educator who had copied illegal CDs from India, and for months banned foreigners and journalists from the Tibetan plateau. In November, Chinese officials, live on national TV, ridiculed Tibetan exiles’ proposals for negotiation. They canceled a European summit because of a meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama, and regularly imply that Tibetans are terrorists.