Saturday, March 22, 2008

On the uprising

After the uprising in Lhasa, protests have spread to what China calls the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan and Tibetans view as greater Tibet. Horsemen have galloped, waiving the banned Tibetan flag at lines of riot police.  Forty protesting middle-schoolers have been arrested. Students at the National Minorities University in Beijing held a silent vigil with candles.  Tibetan blogger Woeser, under house arrest in Beijing, is posting information on a still-expanding circle of unrest.

And images have surfaced of bodies wrapped in white against a wall in Sichuan Province with a crowd gathered around them dumbfounded.  Eight bodies have been brought to a Sichuan monastery.  A middle-schooler was reported shot dead in Ngaba.  Reports by Tibetan exile groups put the Lhasa death count at 80-100 Tibetans.  The Chinese government has highlighted the deaths of over a dozen Han Chinese at the hands of mobs early in the protests, though it has now also conceded that four people were “wounded” by gunfire from police in Sichuan (after first saying that they were “killed” and then hastily changing the story). Footage by foreign journalists shows endless military convoys climbing mountain roads onto the Tibetan plateau.

What is the best way to understand all this? 

Western political leaders have implied that the Tibetan uprising springs from a lack of respect for the Tibetan religion on the Chinese government’s part and from Beijing’s lack of dialogue with the Tibetan government in exile. Both of these assertions—I wrote they were “implied” because they can only be read backward from leaders’ tepid calls for “respect” and “dialogue”—are, of course true.  But if Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and the Party Secretary of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, just showed more “respect” for Buddhism (by, say, building a slew of temples, like those built recently around China) and continued their on-again off-again talks with Dharamsala… well, we’d be where we are right now.  It doesn’t touch the fundamentals.

Blogger Chunzhu uses Amy Chua’s concept of “market dominant minorities” to explain the anger and violence exhibited by Lhasa protesters toward Han and Hui residents.  “Market dominant minorities,” according to Amy Chua, are groups—she uses Indians in Africa, Jews in Russia and Chinese in Southeast Asia as examples—that enjoy a privileged place in a given society, benefiting from market reforms, receiving political protection, and arousing the anger of the ethnic majority, especially as the majority transitions to democracy.  Minus the democracy part, the analogy works well for the Tibetan situation.  But, as Chunzhu acknowledges, it only really applies to one aspect of the uprising—the violence against Han Chinese, the "market dominant minority" of Tibet.

In an excellent op-ed in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Andrew Fischer gives a more expansive economic explanation. He writes, "Beijing has been trying to convince us that the marginally improved material conditions of the average Tibetan somehow absolve all previous sins.  Yet superficial incantations of statistical indicators tell us little about people's ability to control their lives within the context of the dramatic social and economic changes that lie behind such statistics."  Fischer then lists several mistakes of Beijing’s “western development” strategy. They are worth quoting at length:

The first and most fundamental [mistake] has been Beijing's fast track strategy to "develop" Tibet through the force of massive amounts of subsidies and subsidized investments, the newly constructed railway being one such example. These strategies have resulted in rapidly rising inequalities, to a level much higher than that observed anywhere else in China, where rising inequality is already a source of great concern.

The second oft-noted trend is a corollary of the first; the in-migration of non-Tibetans (most Han Chinese) from elsewhere in China. The railway has increased the number of these migrants, although this is primarily due to subsidies, not the existence of the railway infrastructure itself.

The third trend has been the abandonment of most previously-existing mechanisms to protect local labor in the context of such out-of-province migrant inflows. This trend is particularly important because it affects the upward aspirations of many relatively well educated urban Tibetan youths. For instance, the government recently ended its policy of guaranteeing employment for local high school and university graduates. As elsewhere in China, the old system has been replaced with competitive exams for the coveted posts of state-sector employment, although the exams, as elsewhere in China, are in the Chinese language. As a result, even relatively well educated Tibetans are easily out-competed by Han Chinese migrants, even Han Chinese migrants from Chinese rural area.

The fourth trend has been the tightening of political control by the government in response to rising tensions.

All that Fischer says rings true.  But the deeper, more cutting and---I think---the best explanation of what is happening is a rather old-fashioned explanation: colonialism.  No, not, perhaps, colonialism like that seen in the first wave of imperial expansion, the one led by Britain, France, the Netherlands and the U.S.  But like the second wave, if you want to call it that, the one China shared with Indonesia, India, Pakistan and plenty of others, all post-colonial states themselves.  

These nations came away from humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism (and a particularly brutal Japanese imperialism, too, in China’s case) with a desire to reconstitute their past, to reconstitute not just their culture but the full swath of land that they could conceivably have ever claimed as their own culturally or politically (East Timor and West Papua for Indonesia; Kashmir and the princely states for India; Balochistan and what is now the Northwest Frontier Province for Pakistan; Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet for China)—whether the residents of those lands shared the same dreams or not.

Tibet is ruled by the military, PAP and police.  The central government decides to relocate Tibetan nomads into cement towns and it just does it---with even less openness to dissent or even discussion than in the Han countryside, where violent, forced relocations are also common. It has never had a Tibetan Party Secretary (to my knowledge).   Zhang Qingli, the current Secretary is quoted as saying, "The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need.  The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans."  A British colonialist couldn't have said something nastier.

A violent response by Tibetans---and, to be clear, the response so far has not been as violent as it might have been in just about anywhere else in the world---is natural.

Frantz Fanon, the Algerian freedom fighter and psychiatrist wrote, “The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence." More specifically, "By its very nature, colonialism is separatist and regionalist.... Violence is in action all-inclusive and rational."  And, "At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force.  It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect."

Mahmood Mamdani writes in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim:

Fanon has come to be regarded as a prophet of violence.... [but Fanon's writing] was a description of the violence of the colonial system, of the fact that violence was central to producing and sustaining the relationship between settler and the native.  It was a claim that anticolonial violence is not an irrational manifestation but belongs to the script of modernity and progress, that it is indeed the midwife of history.  And last and most important, it was a warning…”

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