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Fragile China

Beijing struggles with unrest in Tibet.

12:00 AM, Apr 10, 2008 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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THREE WEEKS AFTER THE outbreak of violence in southwest China, Beijing's officials have apparently restored order. Before they were able to do so, they often spoke in grim terms. Tibet Communist party chief Zhang Qingli, for instance, stated that the country was locked in "a life or death struggle."

From the perspective of today, that assessment appears overwrought. Yet there was good reason for Chinese officialdom to be worried. Although the Tibetans clearly could not gain their independence or destroy the one-party state, their uprising exposed the fragility of the regime in Beijing.

Fragility? The global consensus is that China owns this century and will soon push the United States off center stage. Yet the violence instigated by Tibetans last month called into question the stability of Chinese governance. As an initial matter, the disturbances shattered not only the cultivated image of ethnic harmony but also the cherished notion that economic development was molding the nation together. China remains a multicultural empire of many ethnicities--Beijing officially counts 55 minority groups--and not all of them are content remaining inside the Chinese tent. Those who want their independence from Beijing's "Han" rule are indicating that the Communist party's formula for nation-building is deeply flawed. "The central government invests billions in Tibet each year hoping for stability in return," a Chinese source familiar with Beijing's thinking on Tibetan matters told Reuters. "But money cannot buy stability."

Largely as a result of this blind faith in modernization, officials in the horribly misnamed Tibet Autonomous Region and their bosses in Beijing believed their own propaganda on the benevolence of their minority policies and the righteousness of their actions. "The problem is that in the Party, they delude themselves by thinking that Tibetans don't have legitimate grievances," says Tsering Shakya of the University of British Colombia. Due to this perception, Chinese leaders were convinced that Tibetans should have been happy and that problems, when they occurred, were fomented from the outside. Therefore, Beijing quickly came to the conclusion that the recent unrest must have been orchestrated by the revered Dalai Lama, whom state media smeared as "a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast." Yet any casual visitor to Tibet could see that, even in the calmest of times, the Tibetans deeply resented Han rule. No independent observer endorses Beijing's charges that the Dalai Lama was behind this year's disturbances.

The self-delusion in this instance led to Chinese officials, both in Beijing and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, being taken by complete surprise when they should have been prepared. The protests started on an especially sensitive date-March 10, the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising in Tibet--and Tibetan lamas often take to the streets to commemorate the event. Moreover, the violence did not start until the fifth day of the disturbances, giving the state plenty of time to get ready. As a result of the almost complete paralysis of the government in Lhasa, the "scum of Buddhism"--Beijing's term for angry Tibetans--fought police and went on a rampage, attacking Hans and burning their property. They even managed to take control of the center of the capital city. "The whole day I didn't see a single police officer or soldier," said one American woman to the New York Times. "The Tibetans were just running free."