Sometimes bravery comes in heroic cinematic moments. Sometimes it takes on a far more modest guise. A group of legal scholars from a Chinese think tank fall into the second category, putting their careers and reputations on the line by daring to try to shed some reasoned light on the "Tibet question" and the causes of last year's unrest in the region.
The overwhelmingly non-violent protests that spread rapidly from the Tibetan capital beginning in March through the late summer across the entire plateau have, in the minds of most Chinese, become neatly compacted into the violent events of a single day in Lhasa. The "3.14 incident" as it has come to be known has become enshrined as a date when the Chinese people became the innocent victims of savage knife-wielding Tibetans, who themselves had become the mindless pawns of foreign forces intent on dividing the Motherland. And most are happy to leave it at that. But four Chinese researchers have done something rare in the People's Republic. They have assumed there is something that they don't understand about the Tibet issue, and have published a report that dares to question basic assumptions about the effectiveness and wisdom of current party policy in Tibet.
The report challenges the official government position that the Dalai Lama "incited" the protests and criticizes the government's response. It finds that Tibetans are not benefiting from development and cannot compete with Han Chinese for private-sector jobs, and that State funds are lining the pockets of a new elite that systematically portrays community discontent as "separatism."
An investigative report into the social and economic causes of the 3.14 incident in Tibetan areas, recently translated into English by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), is the first independent investigation into last year's protests. ICT's Communications Director, Kate Saunders, calls the report, "a vital indication of progressive views on Tibet in China today."
The authors, Li Kun, Huang Li, Li Xiang and Wang Hongzhe, are from a non-profit group called Beijing Gongmeng Consulting Co., Ltd (Open Constitution Initiative). According to their website, this think tank established by Beijing University law professors, is "committed to building a modernized China and promoting human rights, democracy, and rule of law in China." The research team spent one month in Lhasa and Gannan province, interviewing Tibetan monks, nomads, farmers, scholars, migrants, artists, and businesspeople, to try to understand "the lives and thoughts of ordinary people."
The researchers cite "major errors in government policy," in the wake of the protests, including the "over-propagandizing of violence," that encouraged "racist sentiment" towards Tibetans. "The excessive response of governments all over Tibet was to regard every tree and blade of grass as a potential enemy soldier." This apparently left Tibetans feeling even more alienated and relations in Han/Tibetan communities more strained. "The fascination that Han citizens have expressed toward Tibetan culture changed to fear and hatred of the Tibetan masses, and Tibetans were rendered as a people incapable of gratitude."
Protesters Venting "Reasonable Demands"
The research panel concluded that the "3.14 incident" was caused by "the confluence of many factors...which cannot be simply reduced to splittist violence," the term "splittist" being a reference to those in the Tibetan freedom movement who want a completely independent Tibet. The Chinese government include the Dalai Lama in this category despite his repeated statements that he only wishes for Tibet's "genuine autonomy" within China. The authors don't completely rule out influence from Tibetan exile groups or the Dalai Lama, but do not support the Chinese government's claim that he orchestrated the protests, and conclude that the unrest "could not have been created solely by external factors."
When it comes to trying to understand the causes of violence that erupted in Tibet last March, the researchers pose the simple question that no one in the government seems to have thought to ask; "What could have made the youths in these Tibetan areas including monks become protagonists in these violent incidents? Was it, as the propaganda tells us, a set of violent political and religious demands, or was it a concentrated release of discontent with life in this society?"
The authors of the report seek to find the "social roots" of these incidents, and pointedly accuse the state media of increasing "mistrust" between Chinese and Tibetans. They conclude that the protests were a "reaction made under stress by a society and people to the various changes that have been taking place in their lives over the past few decades."
One line in the report holds the key to any serious analysis of last year's events in Tibet. "The notion that appears impossible to understand is the implication that reasonable demands were being vented, and this is precisely what we need to understand and reflect upon."
This idea that unreasonable actions may be linked to "reasonable demands" is an important one. Just as the violence that occasionally darkened the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa did not erase the justice of the cause, neither do isolated acts of violence by Tibetan protesters negate the presence of an underlying discontent that has legitimate and explainable reasons.
"We deeply sensed the popular discontent and anger behind the incidents," say the researchers.
The Rising Nationalism of Tibetan Youth
The report describes the "sense of powerlessness" of young Tibetans, stemming from a lack of economic and educational opportunities, the hegemony of Chinese over Tibetan language, and social exclusion.
"Many young Tibetans have been cast into a state of puzzlement and confusion," say the authors, noting that the main participants in the "3.14 incident" were Tibetans in their 20s and 30s. They found that this demographic are less inclined to use the language of the Party, and express a greater sense of national identity than their parents. However, regardless of age, the majority of Tibetans "lack a fundamental ideological identification with the State," a point that begs further analysis but which is left hanging. Occasionally, the language of the report suggests a certain naivete. "The research panel was amazed to discover that Tibetan ethnic awareness was actually inspired by the 3.14 incident," the report reads, when a tighter identification with one's own group, whether defined by ethnicity, common grievances or political persuasion, seems a logical by-product of any popular uprising.
The researchers suggest that the reason for the increase in "ethnic awareness" among Tibetans were the regulations imposed on them after the protests that emphasized ethnic differences. A Tibetan girl named Pema Jetsun describes her experience during the Olympics in Beijing where she was representing a Lhasa company in a training course by the Central Communist Youth League. "Because I was Tibetan not a single hotel let me stay. I got angry and argued, saying what they were doing was racist!"
The Faulty "Logic of Development"
The Tibetan issue, the report states, has been viewed trough the "logic of development"--with the idea that the modernization processes that have been effective in Mainland China will automatically bring the same results in Tibet. But the big difference is that in China the people are, on the whole, supportive of modern development, that is inextricably linked to patriotic duty and personal happiness. In Chinese society the equation of modernization and development equals stability and social harmony has taken on the verity of the law of gravity.
Although they don't explore it widely, the authors entertain the idea that the priorities of Tibetans may differ from the average Han Chinese. "As far as Tibetans are concerned, the sole standard for modernized lives and the various developments shouldn't just be the standard of prosperity." A Tibetan named Norbu is quoted as saying, "A Tibetan's prosperity is more about freedoms such as religious belief, a respect for people, a respect for life, the kind of prosperity you get from extending charity to others."
The researchers ask another question that sorely needs asking--why, when the State has given so much support and assistance to Tibetans, were they then "making trouble?" They discovered that this assistance and development "is often accompanied by forced change and conflicts, and the wishes of the Tibetan people themselves are not respected." The speed and direction of modernization "are not the result of choices made by Tibetans of their own volition." As a result, "ordinary Tibetans have a far keener and evident sense of deprivation than any sense of government help."
The research panel frankly concludes that modernization in Tibetan areas "has no vitality of its own, and cannot bring any benefit to ordinary Tibetan people." They discovered to the contrary, that economic policies have left Tibetans "increasingly marginalized."
In Lhasa, for example, the tourist industry is almost entirely operated by outsiders, notes the report. The taxi drivers are mostly Han Chinese, there are almost no Tibetan-run travel agencies, and tourist stalls selling Tibetan artifacts are mainly operated by Chinese Muslims from outlying areas.
The report reads: "When the land you are accustomed to living in, and the land of the culture you identify with, when the lifestyle and religiosity is suddenly changed into a modern city that you no longer recognize; when you can no longer find work in your own land, and feel the unfairness of lack of opportunity, and when you realize that your core value systems are under attack, then the Tibetan people's panic and sense of crisis is not difficult to understand."
Religious Traditions "Under Attack"
The report panel argues for the protection of religious freedom in Tibet and says that religious traditions "have come under attack" from modernization. It does not describe exactly how religious freedom has been denied but instead suggests how it should be restored, calling for "normal religious activities" to be respected and resumed.
"The poor understanding of the Tibetan people's religious sentiment led to errors in the way monks and monasteries were treated in the wake of the 3.14 incident," say the researchers. They point out the role that monks play as the traditionally revered intelligentsia in Tibetan society, but although they suggest that their treatment by local officials impacts "how religious believers regard the political authority of the State," the researchers do not explore local resentment of this treatment nor go into detail about it, except to say, "The panel happened to chance upon several rule of law propaganda activities, which had interrupted the normal activities of services and practice, and the monks were complaining."
This is a reference to the ideological campaign of Patriotic Re-education, now imposed in schools and colleges as well as in monasteries, that calls for Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party and the Motherland. Many Tibetans regularly cite Patriotic Re-education as one of the most disturbing policies imposed on them and one that causes the most psychological conflict. In its conclusion, the researchers call for Beijing to "fully protect and respect the Tibetans people's religious sentiment in propaganda activities," though it falls short of suggesting that these activities be terminated altogether.
Playing the Splittist Card
One observation in the report that has received a lot of attention is the emergence of "deep-rooted local power elite networks" in Tibetan areas that have formed what they describe as a "new aristocracy." Although loyal to the central government, their activities are plagued by corruption and self-interest.
Local cadres use funding from the central government "for career projects for the few, or for the personal wealth of the few." And for many of these officials, the fear of foreign interference and the Tibetan independence movement are used "as fig leaves to conceal their mistakes in governance and to repress social discontent." The authors cite the example of how, in one county, the local government went as far as to characterize a dispute between nomads and a local hydropower station as a struggle between "anti-splittism and upholding stability."
The report's authors do not directly petition the Central Government, but it's clear that this is the target audience for their recommendations "to fully recognize the citizen status of ordinary people in Tibetan areas" and ensure "the rights and interests of ordinary Tibetan people;" to "formulate development policies ...which accord with the wishes of the Tibetan people;" to "fully respect and protect the Tibetan people's freedom of religious belief;" to "protect the employment rights of Tibetan people;" and for a Tibet policy that "respects Tibetan social characteristics and motivations."
Ironically, this report will be read by more people in the free world than in China, where it will probably be restricted to a few plucky websites. The Beijing government has yet to respond. But its authors, in daring to put honest investigation above political ideology, should be remembered as some of the most believable voices when it comes to trying to find answers to "the Tibet question."
Rebecca Novick is the founding producer of The Tibet Connection radio program. She is currently based in Dharamsala, India.