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Thursday, March 12, 2009

'Interesting' year for China


Large parts of the Tibetan plateau today have been turned into militarized zones and made off-limits to foreigners. De facto martial law prevails on much of the plateau after the largest troop deployment since the March 2008 Tibetan upheaval.

Yet the more ruthless China is, the more resilient (and innovative) the Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule becomes.

The latest Chinese clampdown began in response to a grassroots Tibetan campaign to boycott celebrations of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and to use the holiday period from Feb. 25 instead to mourn Tibetans who were killed by troops last March and express concern for those arrested or tortured. That a refusal to celebrate a joyous Tibetan event can become a tool of mass protest rattled the autocrats in Beijing, who responded by pouring in troops.

The security lockdown in Tibet also has been prompted by the 50th anniversaries this month of the Tibetan national uprising against the Chinese occupation and the Dalai Lama's consequent flight to India. On March 17, 1959, the then 24-year-old Dalai Lama escaped from the Chinese-guarded Norbulingka Palace in Lhasa. After a harrowing trek through inhospitable terrain, he arrived on March 30 in India, where he has lived in exile ever since.

It was the 49th anniversary of the March 10 revolt that became the trigger for last year's Tibetan protests — the largest in territorial scale since 1959. This year, thanks to a deliberate Chinese provocation, another anniversary threatens to incite Tibetan disturbances, thus necessitating continued Chinese military presence in full force across the Tibetan plateau.

Like waving a red rag at a bull, China has decided to mark March 28 — the 50th anniversary of its action dissolving the Tibetan government and declaring direct rule over Tibet — as "Serf Emancipation Day," as if China just realized it liberated Tibetans from serfdom 50 years ago.

That anniversary is now to be celebrated every year for bringing — believe it or not — "democratic reform" to Tibet. But what about bringing democratic reform to Han China? That issue will haunt the communist dictatorship in the runup to another anniversary this year — the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre of student-led, prodemocracy demonstrators.

China's leaders are devoted to celebrating anniversaries to help glorify communist actions. So besides the March 28 celebrations, they have planned a mammoth military parade — the largest ever — along with a repeat of some of the Beijing Olympics glitz at the 60th anniversary of the communist revolution on Oct. 1.

But anniversaries are also precious for the suppressed to catalyze grassroots action and inspire a popular awakening. Luckily for China's oppressed, it's raining anniversaries this year. For example, July 22 will mark 10 years since the communist rulers, perceiving a threat even from a nonviolent spiritual movement, banned Falun Gong and set out to arrest and torture thousands of its Han followers, with an undetermined number dying in police custody.

The Chinese Communist Party's visceral antagonism toward Falun Gong and the brutal official crackdown arose from the movement's attempt to offer Chinese a spiritual alternative to the state-dispensed religion: communism.

The communist fear of nonviolent ideas is also mirrored in Beijing's vile attacks against the Dalai Lama, as though he were China's enemy No. 1. For long, Beijing had denounced the Dalai Lama as a "splittist," as if China has an indisputable ownership over Tibet. But since last year, it has been hurling juicier epithets at him — "a wolf wrapped in monk's robes," "an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast," and a "serial liar."

Such foul language against the Tibetan god-king comes from a party and system responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the "Great Leap Forward," "Cultural Revolution" and other state-induced disasters. The greatest genocide in modern history was not the Holocaust but the Great Leap Forward, a misguided charge toward industrialization that left 36 million people dead, according to Tombstone, a recent book by longtime Chinese communist Yang Jisheng.

Nothing scares those wedded to violence more than ideas of peace, reconciliation and nonviolent dissent. Little surprise the party has been unnerved by Tibetans turning the Losar festival into a dirge to memorialize those killed by Chinese forces.

At a critical juncture, unfortunately, the United States, out of strategic compulsion, is willing to turn a blind eye to growing Chinese human-rights abuses. With U.S. President Barack Obama's stimulus package making America even more reliant on its banker, China, to finance a budget deficit now officially set to reach $1.75 trillion, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it easy for Chinese repression to continue by publicly demoting human rights.

While thanking China for underscoring the "intertwined" nature of the U.S. and Chinese economies through continued purchases of U.S. government debt, she went out of her way during her recent Beijing visit to demote human rights and emphasize economic, environmental and security relations. With Japan no longer buying U.S. Treasury bills, whose 10-year yield currently is just 2.84 percent, China has emerged as America's main creditor.

U.S. foreign policy indeed is veering to the view that Asian stability and China's own rise can best be managed by building a stronger cooperative relationship with Beijing and respecting Chinese sensitivities.

A more indulgent U.S. policy can help mitigate international pressures on Beijing. But China's internal challenges are set to grow. And 2009 is fraught with politically treacherous anniversaries for a nominally communist party that seeks to perpetuate its political monopoly in an explosively capitalist country.

Even the leadership's plan to re-enact Olympic-style celebrations at the Oct. 1 anniversary of the establishment of communist China threatens to renew some of the controversies that plagued the Beijing Games and stir up protests and security-related concerns. Such grand revelry risks provoking critics.

The 90th anniversary on May 4 of the 1919 student-led revolt against imperial rule is symbolically important, too, because it is a potent reminder to the present leadership that people can turn against their rulers when they become impervious to popular concerns. After all, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were modeled on the 1919 movement.

Add to the picture Beijing's attempt to incite Tibetans by observing as "Serf Emancipation Day" the date when Tibetans lost even the pretense of autonomy. By seeking to turn into a national celebration an anniversary that actually marks China's formal betrayal of its May 1951, postinvasion "17 Pacts" promising autonomy to Tibet, the leadership has sought to provoke Tibetans at a time when the wounds from last year's bloody events are still to heal.

This underlines the propensity of a power-drunk leadership to pursue counterproductive policies — the very predisposition that could unravel the world's oldest autocracy in Beijing.

After China's 2008 coming-out party, this year of anniversaries could prove a turning point in Chinese history, with even the state-run Outlook magazine warning of "a peak period for mass incidents." Little surprise a high-powered special committee constituted by President Hu Jintao to prevent disorder is known as Committee 6521, an order of numbers representing this year's 60th, 50th, 20th and 10th anniversaries of big events. The economic slowdown, rising unemployment and social tensions, and new signs of restiveness threaten to trigger events whose own anniversaries may become major occasions of observance.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."


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