A Race Fight Roils China

With Tibet in turmoil and the 2008 Olympics looming, Beijing is trying to repair its international image. The strategy is a familiar one: control the story. China's state-run Xinhua news agency has packaged official FAQs on the Tibet unrest, while its CCTV released a 15-minute video of "the [March 14] beating, smashing, looting and burning incident." Domestic media paint a graphic scene of Lhasa bloodshed—the blood of ethnic Chinese, that is. Rioters, they report, killed an 8-month-old baby, sliced off a woman's ear and fatally trapped five saleswomen inside a burning store. Chinese TV showed shopkeepers grieving for the dead. "[Tibetans] don't want to work," said one Chinese woman. "They just want to destroy our prosperity."

To justify its crackdown, which according to Tibetan rights groups has claimed some 140 lives altogether, China has portrayed the turmoil as a plot led by the exiled Dalai Lama to foment racist attacks against Han Chinese. This portrayal has triggered anti-Tibetan invective, as well as abusive phone calls and death threats, on the mainland and abroad. For days, Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign received offensive calls between 4 and 6 a.m. "They were highly abusive and anti-Tibetan," he says. "Things like 'F––– you! F––– you!' and making sexual innuendoes about the Dalai Lama."

The intensity of the racism is partly Beijing's own doing. Many Chinese youths know little about the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959, beyond his demonization as an "impudent" separatist. By censoring media, imprisoning cyber-dissidents and employing sophisticated Web policing, Chinese authorities have raised a generation unaccustomed to international criticism of Beijing. "A lot of people [in China] simply aren't aware of the complexities of the Tibet situation," says Rebecca MacKinnon, a Hong Kong-based expert on China's new media. "The backdrop here is rising nationalism."

Tibetans are becoming more aggressive, too. During a tightly managed international media tour of Lhasa last week, 30 distraught monks inside the Jokhang Temple hijacked a press briefing, shouting "Tibet is not free!" Police hustled them off, to an unknown fate, and reporters were forced to move on.

Such polarization jeopardizes the conflict's only solution: dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. While hotheaded Tibetan youths urge greater militancy, the exiled spiritual leader is saddened by rising anti-Chinese sentiment. Decades ago Tibetans used to refer to Chinese with an affectionate honorific. Now, the Dalai Lama told NEWSWEEK during a March 20 interview, they use the derogatory gyaro, meaning "Chinese corpse." For Beijing, the eruption of anti-Tibetan sentiment has at least drowned out any domestic suggestion of government weakness or policy miscalculation. The bad news is that, once unleashed, the rampaging genie of racism may prove impossible to tame—on either side.