Liu: China Overreacts on Tibet

Once again riots have exploded, shots have rung out, and blood has flowed in the streets of Lhasa. And once again the Chinese authorities' habit of overreacting threatens to keep making things worse. As police battled against angry Tibetan protestors, shops were set on fire, vehicles (including at least one tourist bus) overturned, ethnic Chinese attacked and tear gas fired into crowds in the worst civil unrest in Tibet in nearly two decades. Although these reports are extremely difficult to confirm, death toll estimates cited by Western media ranged from two to as many as 20.

For those of us who wrote stories about Tibetan protests and the blood-tinged imposition of martial law in Lhasa in March 1989, it felt a bit like deja vu all over again. 1989 was the last time such violence has wracked the Tibet Autonomous Region, where Chinese soldiers marched into Lhasa in 1959 to enforce Beijing's heavy-handed sovereignty over the remote Himalayan region. Since then Tibetan militants have agitated for outright independence, while the exiled religious leader the Dalai Lama has criticized what he calls "cultural genocide" in Tibet and has lobbied for greater autonomy.

As in 1989, what began as relatively modest protests against Chinese rule in Tibet—in both cases, initiated by monks at Drepung monastery—escalated into wider unrest after authorities cracked down with detentions and brute force, triggering yet more protests. Once again, authorities are scrambling to keep foreign media out of Tibet; foreign correspondents are chafing under regulations requiring them to get prior permission before traveling to the roof of the world. Once again, government censors are busy trying to shape the news. As I write this, coverage of the Lhasa riots has been continually blacked out from television news reports on the BBC and CNN (including one that, just before the cut, showed the anchor saying, "we've heard that CNN's reporting on Tibet has been blacked out….")

Once again, a proximate cause of the turmoil was the March 10 anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, during which Tibet's religious leader the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India. There was even a similar eeriness when, at one point Friday, the police presence in Lhasa seemed to ebb—emboldening more and more protestors to pour into the streets. Monks from the Ramoche temple joined the unrest en masse, and crowds set about smashing and setting ablaze buildings "with real or perceived Chinese connections," reported Radio Free Asia. Targets included the popular Tashi Delek restaurant run by Tibetans seen to be pro-Beijing.

Then security personnel struck back with tear gas and live ammunition, their shots ringing out in the traditional Barkor area of ancient Lhasa. But this time, unlike 1989, the stakes are much higher. Although we didn't know it back then, the Tibetan turmoil was a precursor of the even more violent crackdown that unfolded several months later in Beijing, snuffing out the Tiananmen Square protests. One of the reasons those demonstrations managed to grow so large was because the government was deterred from cracking down, for a time, by the looming May 1989 state visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev whose VVIP arrival in Beijing was to mark the end of decades of Sino-Soviet hostility.

This time round, Beijing is slated to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in just five months' time. That means international scrutiny of China's human rights record—as well as nearly everything else, from pollution levels to traffic jams to the condition of Beijing's toilets—has been intensifying for months. It also means Chinese authorities need to be on their best behavior in the run-up to the Summer Olympics. Perhaps with the lesson of 1989 in mind, the government has made huge efforts to eliminate anything that might tarnish Beijing's image.

A recent spate of PR setbacks appears to have rattled Chinese authorities, and now the potential for over-reaction seems great. "They're simply just freaking out now," says one foreign analyst involved in monitoring Olympics preparations. One example cited by the analyst, who requested anonymity, was the recent live concert in shanghai by Icelandic singer Bjork, who hit a raw nerve in the Beijing regime when she exclaimed "Tibet! Tibet!" after singing her unauthorized song "Declaration of Independence".

That unexpected outburst prompted china's Ministry of Culture to declare that Bjork had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people". It later also declared that she'd broken Chinese law, and that the ministry would "further tighten controls on foreign artists performing in China in order to prevent similar cases from happening."

Since then officials have been frantically re-examining all sorts of cultural programs. One project that's now up in the air is the filming of "Mao's Last Dancer"—based on Li Cunxin's best-selling memoir of his life in the prestigious dance academy overseen by Mao Zedong's ruthless wife Jiang Qing—which was supposed to start Monday. In other words, it has no direct relationship to Tibet. Nonetheless, on Tuesday the production was told that they would not be able to start filming—despite having lined up a prestigious cast including Joan Chen and Kyle Maclachlan—and that, in the post-Bjork era, all cultural projects now have to be vetted by no less than the State Council, the equivalent of China's cabinet.

The traditional Olympic torch relay, meanwhile, has become even more controversial. Beijing plans to have runners bring the Olympic flame to the top of Mt. Everest in Tibet—using special technology to keep the fire burning at such high altitudes. That's been criticized by critics who contend that Tibetan culture and language have languished, and that Tibetans have become economically marginalized, under Beijing's governance.

To ensure there is no repeat of last year's protests at Everest base camp by pro-Tibet Western activists, Chinese officials have simply barred ordinary mountaineers from climbing the Tibetan side of Everest from now to May 10, provoking huge squawks from members of mountaineering expeditions. Now Chinese authorities are leaning on the government of Nepal to impose similar restrictions on mountaineering activities from the Nepalese side. The Kathmandu government has already said it will suspend the registration of any trekking company with a member who takes part in any anti-Chinese act, such as "raising the Tibetan flag on the summit of Everest." Which raises the question: if they have to lock down the entire country in order to hold a protest-free Olympics, will Chinese authorities declare success?

Liu: China Overreacts on Tibet | World