A Chinese think tank investigates the roots of the March 2008 violence

In May, the Open Constitution Initiative, a Chinese think tank based in Beijing, also known simply as Gongmeng, published a investigative report detailing their view of the causes underlying the violence in Lhasa in March of 2008. The International Campaign for Tibet recently put an English translation of the report up on their site.

The overall tone of the report is encouraging. As the ICT’s introduction puts it, the report “challenges the official position that the Dalai Lama ‘incited’ the protests that broke out in Tibet in March 2008, and outlines key failings in the policy of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Tibet”. Whether the report’s specifics are as good is a bit of an open question. I found large sections of the body of the text to be almost unreadable, a consequence of the authors’ slushy scholastic tone, showing an obvious Marxist influence. Moreover, we can assume that there’s a limit to what the Open Constitution Initiative can say publicly about Tibet, even though they are pushing some envelopes here. They can criticise the government’s policies, but they completely avoid saying anything that would directly undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese presence in Tibet. I don’t know if the authors would have been interested in bringing issues like colonialism and nationalism into the discussion, but I think it’s safe to assume that they would have excercised self-censorship anyway. They also appear to have included a few lines here and there to reassure the reader about the conventional (pro-government) view of history. For example, in what seems like an unnecessary historical aside, they state that in the late 1950s, “there were prominent changes made to society in Tibetan areas, and the ruling positions, traditional privileges and benefits of the old aristocracy and upper echelons of the religious personages came under attack. Among these, a small number of people took the risk of starting a rebellion in 1958 [sic] to oppose the historic and great changes in nationality areas.” This reads as the authors wanted to avoid any suspicion in the mind of the reader that they might sympathise with the rebels by uttering the orthodox tenet that only a small number of nobles (not even a majority of the upper class!) took part in the resistance. (I can’t help but wonder if the error of the year—the uprising in central Tibet was, of course, in 1959—could perhaps be an intentional clue not to trust their historical pronouncements, blinking out “SOS” to the savvy reader. Probably not, but you never know …)

It’s similarly hard to know what to make of the report’s recommendations. To summarise, the authors suggest that the central government should:

1: “Earnestly listen to the voices of ordinary Tibetans” in order to develop suitable and popular policies for Tibet.

2: Nurture local economic activity that will benefit the local Tibetan people and narrow the income gap between people in the city and those in the countryside.

3: Increase central government supervision of local governments in Tibetan areas, end tolerance of bad officials (especially those who blame unrelated problems on alleged separatist or foreign influence), and speed up democratisation.

4: “Pay close attention to the living situation of young Tibetans” and solve problems with education, in particular encouraging all Tibetans to participate in nine-year universal education and training more Tibetans for highly-skilled employment.

5: “Fully respect and protect the Tibetan people’s freedom of religious belief”.

6: Think flexibly in order to solve problems and implement “bottom up” solutions.

7: “Promote rule of law in governance processes in Tibetan areas.”

8: Focus propaganda efforts on the successes of the current regime, rather than on the hell-on-earth that supposedly was old, feudal Tibet; admit the existence of social problems in Tibet; but also, “be vigilant against the dark racist waves of secession and ethnic revenge.”

9: Put the central government in the position of an arbiter of local conflicts in order keep the central government separate in the public mind from the misbehaviour of local officials.

A number of obvious questions come up. What if they earnestly listen to Tibetans and discover that what Tibetans want is at odds with their personal interests or China’s national interests? When we talk about speeding up democratisation in Tibetan areas, is what the CCP calls “democratisation” at all the same as what normal people would call “democracy”? Isn’t “fully respect and protect the Tibetan people’s freedom of religious belief” exactly what the government claims it is already doing? If so, how can that be the basis of a policy change unless something more specific is suggested?

Except for the last two (which are really propaganda strategies rather than public policy proposals), all of the report’s conclusions strike me as platitudes. It’s hard to imagine that nobody thought of “listen to the Tibetan people” or “adopt positive and wise thinking” before. If the government wanted to do these things and were politically capable of doing them, they would be doing them already. Hu Yaobang’s proposals in 1980, hardly a detailed policy manifesto, had more meat to them than this. Obviously, things have been moving backwards in Beijing’s discourse about Tibet since the early 80s.

That said, I still think the existence of this report, and the fact that it is available to curious parties now, is a very encouraging development, not because of its specific content, but because of its tone and perspective. The core argument of the Open Constitution Initiative report is that the causes of the March 14 riots are not primarily foreign splittist elements, as the government would like you to believe, or some kind of particular badness of the Tibetan people. Although the authors of the report focus more on economic rather than political discontent, I have to give them credit for consistently describing economic problems in terms of problems which need to be solved rather than simply saying, “Tibetans just need to suck it up and get with the program”. The bottom line is that, if somebody from Gongmeng were the president of China, there would be somebody for Tibetans to negotiate with. They could start talking about actually getting something done.

Does this have anything to do with actual Chinese politics? In the long run, maybe. In the short term? Of course not. Hu Jintao could read the Open Constitution Initiative report or not and is presumably not going to change his goals or his strategy either way. The current regime in Beijing is waiting for the 14th Dalai Lama to die. That’s their strategy. However, the joke could end up being on them them (the passage of time has a way of doing that to everybody, the arrogant especially). After all, the Dalai Lama is still only 73 —it’s not as if we’re talking about a man on his deathbed—and he might just be around to see a whole different group of people come to power in the CCP. If not the current Dalai Lama himself, then certainly the other Tibetans who will be there to pick up the standard after him. Will a future CCP leadership be better or worse on Tibet? I wouldn’t expect a really radical change in any direction, and it’s easy to feel pessimistic looking at the incumbents’ current protegés. But we really don’t know that much about who’s going to be in charge in Beijing after 2012, even, and, by 2020, we basically have no idea (remember that Hu Jintao was tapped as president-to-be by Deng Xiaoping back in 1992—future transitions might not go as smoothly). The fact that ideas like those expressed by the Open Constitution Initiative are floating around in the educated circles of Beijing—a minority view, I’m sure, but at least a break from the monotony of the hardliners—makes it possible that they could end up influencing a future political leader. That’s what’s reassuring about all this.

I recommend the ICT’s excellent introduction to their translation of the report. The Fool’s Mountain blog has discussion threads about it here and here. Rebecca Novick of the Tibet Connection covers the report at the Huffington Post.

2 thoughts on “A Chinese think tank investigates the roots of the March 2008 violence

  1. “When the land you’re 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.”

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