Mar 19th 2008
From The Economist print edition
GEORGE ORWELL would have understood Chinese attitudes to Tibet. In “1984” he coined the term “doublethink”, or the ability to believe contradictory things. Thus Chinese leaders profess to believe both that traditional Tibetan culture is repugnant, full of superstition and cruelty, and that Tibet is an “inalienable part of China”. They also claim that the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, is becoming irrelevant, yet insist he managed to foment the latest outpouring of anti-Chinese resentment seen in Tibet (see article).
The Dalai Lama is a constant irritant in China's efforts to achieve full international respectability. His stature and access to world leaders keep the issue of Tibet alive, though no country recognises his government-in-exile. And, as Chinese leaders must grudgingly acknowledge, he retains the loyalty of many Tibetans. In 2005 conservationists, alarmed at the threat to endangered wildlife posed by a Tibetan fad for wearing tiger and other skins, asked the Dalai Lama to denounce the practice. He did, and Tibetans lit bonfires of the pelts.
The fury, arson, vandalism and bloodshed seen in Lhasa in recent days were not instigated by the Dalai Lama. They erupted in spite of his frequent calls for restraint, and were in part a consequence of China's refusal to engage in more than desultory talks with his representatives. It could be far worse: to their great credit, Tibetan nationalists have hardly ever resorted to terrorist tactics, though exiled activists point out that the railway that opened in 2006 linking Tibet and China offers an obvious target.
Serious talks with the Dalai Lama, and the possibility of his returning home for the first time since fleeing to exile in India after an uprising in 1959, might help assuage Tibetan anger. It would also help vindicate those who argued that the staging of the Olympic games in Beijing would make China less repressive. It would give China the chance, belatedly, to honour the promise of autonomy it gave Tibet in 1951, in an agreement foisted on the young Dalai Lama. It would boost its image around the world, and even in Taiwan, which might become less averse to the idea of Chinese sovereignty.
Yet China shows no sign of being swayed by these arguments. Rather it seems intent on using the Olympics to flaunt its control of Tibet, as the flame is paraded in Lhasa. As elsewhere in China, it hopes that economic advance will soften calls for political freedom. And as in other areas where ethnic minorities have been restive—Inner Mongolia and, especially, Xinjiang—it hopes immigration by the majority Han Chinese will swamp nationalist sentiment. Unless and until that happens, there is always sheer force. That has been used this time with more discretion than in the past. But it is nevertheless the means China seems to have chosen to rule Tibet. As in Orwell's dystopia, its picture of the future seems to be of a boot stamping on a human face, for ever. It need not be that way.