The Blog

Fragile China

Beijing struggles with unrest in Tibet.

12:00 AM, Apr 10, 2008 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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Free-running Tibetans exposed another fundamental flaw in Beijing's governance. The Communist party's inflexible top-down political system is especially ill-suited to respond to fast-moving events. As a senior police officer in Lhasa told a Han businessman whose properties were damaged in the rioting, "We could not act without orders from above." Although the Chinese state is massive, its size is as much a disadvantage as a strength, as we saw last month--and in every crisis in China this decade.

While Chinese officials deliberated during the breakdown of order in Tibet, the protests spread fast throughout Tibetan areas in southwest China. Within a day of the initial outbreak on Monday, similar demonstrations had taken place in Qinghai and Gansu provinces. By Sunday, the 16th, Tibetans in Sichuan province burned down a police station and engaged in other disruptive acts. Neighboring Yunnan province was also scarred by Tibetan unrest.

And now ethnic protests have jumped from Buddhist Tibetan lands, in China's southwest, to Muslim Uighur areas, in the country's northwest. Although authorities in the so-called Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have taken extraordinary precautions in recent weeks, such as banning weddings, they were not able to prevent the bombing of a bus in the capital city of Urumqi on March 18. Since then, there have been scattered incidents, most notably a demonstration, beginning on March 23 in the city of Hotan, of nearly 600 Uighurs. At the end of last week, authorities in the northwestern part of Xinjiang, also known as the "other Tibet," reportedly found bombs and made arrests. Fu Chao, an official there, said that Uighur protesters "want to echo the things in Lhasa."

Beijing has employed the same harsh--and abhorrent--tactics to repress both its Uighur and Tibetan populations. The forceful Chinese methods have stopped the worst rioting, but they have not been entirely successful. Some demonstrations continue even in the presence of hundreds of troops. In the past week, despite repeated government pronouncements of victory, sporadic disturbances continue to occur.

And at this time, it appears that the government's increased reliance on force is itself creating even more public dissent. Fresh violence, for instance, occurred in Sichuan province on April 3 when almost 800 monks and other Tibetans marched to seek the release of a monk and a monastery worker who had been incarcerated for possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama. The pictures were seized when 3,000 paramilitary troops invaded a remote monastery. Police opened fire on the protestors, killing as many as 15 and wounding dozens. Others have been reported missing. The incident is bound to fuel even more resentment and ultimately unrest. As Nicholas Kristof noted last week, China's repressive policies in Tibet have "catastrophically failed."