Chinese leaders have blamed “splittists” led by the exiled Dalai Lama for spurring violent protests in Tibet and orchestrating a public relations sneak attack on the Communist Party as it gears up to host the Olympics Games this summer.
But to many Tibetans and their sympathizers, the weeklong uprising against Chinese rule in Lhasa reflects years of simmering resentment over Beijing’s interference in Buddhist religious rites, its tightened political control and the destruction of the environment across the Himalayan territory the Tibetans consider sacred. If there is a surprise, it may be that Beijing has managed to keep things stable for so long.
Since the last big anti-Chinese riots in Tibet two decades ago, Beijing has sought to smother Tibetan separatism by sparking economic development and by inserting itself into the metaphysics of Tibetan Buddhism. But an influx of Han Chinese migrants into Tibet, and a growing sense among Tibetans that China is irreparably altering their way of life, produced a backlash at the moment when Communist Party leaders most needed stability there, analysts say.
“Why did the unrest take off?” asked Liu Junning, a liberal political scientist in Beijing. “I think it has something to do with the long-term policy failure of the central authorities. They failed to earn the respect of the people there.”
Tibetans staged anti-Chinese protests in several parts of China on Monday ahead of a midnight deadline to surrender or face harsh consequences. Even in Beijing, Tibetan students held a sit-in to support demonstrators in Lhasa. Around the world there were sympathy protests outside Chinese diplomatic missions.
The unrest is a blow to President Hu Jintao, who personally directed a crackdown on Tibetan protests in 1989 and who has considered the Tibetan region part of his core political base within the Communist Party since then. It will fall to Hu to figure out how to restore order in Tibet without undermining the Olympics coming-out party that China has meticulously planned for years.
For now, Beijing’s line on Tibet is likely to harden. Military police officers are pouring in to stifle new protests. Nor are the demonstrations winning much public sympathy in a nation where Tibetans are a tiny minority. State media has tightly controlled its coverage to focus on Tibetans burning Chinese businesses or attacking and killing Chinese merchants.