Pent-up hatred unleashed in shocking Lhasa riots

Riot police in Kangding
REUTERS/David Gray
A Tibetan walks past Chinese soldiers today in Kangding’s main square.

Apparently it was news to many white Americans that some black preachers use their pulpits to vilify the United States, to spread outrageous conspiracies and to perpetuate feelings of victimization in African-American communities. But in much of the world, ethnic and racial bitterness is right out in the open for everyone to see.

Take the China-Tibet conflict. Last week’s extraordinary spasm of violence in the Tibetan city of Lhasa stripped bare the hatred and resentment that ethnic Tibetans feel toward their Han Chinese neighbors, and vice versa. Tibetan rioters systematically skipped over Tibetan-owned shops to attack, loot and burn businesses owned by Han Chinese and others.

Four news reports offer vivid insights into the situation, which threatens to embarrass Beijing as it prepares for the Olympics this summer. Howard W. French’s dispatch in the New York Times describes plainly the animosities on both sides. CNN’s interview with Economist writer James Miles, the only Western reporter in Lhasa to witness the violence firsthand, paints the best picture yet on exactly what happened. The BBC’s report on the influence of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries shines more light on the conflict. And Reuters’ analysis by Adrian Croft tells about the West’s reluctance to criticize China for fear of upsetting important financial arrangements.

A symbol: of progress or disregard?
Let’s take French’s report first. The Times correspondent visited China’s Far West to ask pointed questions of ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese, who have moved into the region in great numbers in recent years as a part of China’s dual emphasis on industrializing the area and blunting Tibet’s cultural and political influence in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. French opened with a provocative image: an aluminum smelter in Qinghai that belches smoke and smudges the walls of the Tibetan Buddhist temple next door. To the Han, the smelter signifies progress. To the Tibetans it’s a daily reminder of Chinese disregard.

“There is no legalized ethnic discrimination in China, but privilege and power are overwhelmingly the preserve of the Han, while Tibetans live largely confined to segregated urban ghettos and poor villages in their own ancestral lands,” French wrote.

He asked one Han merchant, whose store was destroyed, about Tibetans. They are lazy and ungrateful, he said, and the government has “wasted our money in helping those white-eyed wolves.”

A Han taxi driver told French that Tibetans “are lazy and they hate us for, as they say, taking away what belongs to them. In their mind showering once or twice in their life is sacred, but to Han it is filthy and unacceptable. We believe in working hard and making money to support one’s family, but they might think we’re greedy and have no faith.”

Tibetans were less forthcoming, fearing reprisal from authorities. “I really don’t want to talk about politics, saying whether or not Tibet is part of China,” a Tibetan student told French. “The reality is that we are controlled by Chinese, by the Han people. We don’t have any say, so in my family we don’t even talk about it.”

‘Calculated, targeted violence’

Now let’s consider CNN’s interview with the Economist’s Miles, an eyewitness to last week’s violence in Lhasa, Tibet’s traditional capital.

“What I saw was calculated, targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa. … Those two groups were singled out by ethnic Tibetans.

“They marked those businesses that they knew to be Tibetan owned with white traditional scarves. Those businesses were left intact. Almost every single other across a wide swathe of the city, not only in the old Tibetan quarter, but also beyond it in areas dominated by the ethnic Han Chinese — almost every other business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch, which surprised some Tibetans watching it. So they themselves were taken aback at the extent of what they saw.

“And it was not just targeted against property either. Of course many ethnic Han Chinese and Huis fled as soon as this broke out. But those who were caught in the early stages of it were themselves targeted. Stones thrown at them. At one point, I saw them throwing stones at a boy of maybe around 10 years old perhaps, cycling along the street. I in fact walked out in front of them and said stop. It was a remarkable explosion of simmering ethnic grievances.”

Footage of the riots have been rolling continuously on Chinese TV, with the government claiming 13 dead and Tibetan nationalists estimating 100. Official Chinese reports blame Tibetan monks for the violence; the Tibetan government in exile blames Chinese agents and Tibetan miscreants.

China, meanwhile, dispatched thousands of troops into Tibetan areas yesterday, turning much of western China into an armed encampment. The government warned foreign journalists and visitors to stay away. In an attempt at peace, the Dalai Lama offered to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and others, insisting that he was not seeking Tibetan independence.

China has repeatedly ignored calls for such talks, claiming that the exiled leader wants to generate bad blood during China’s Olympic moment.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, meanwhile, saying, “The situation in Tibet is a challenge to the conscience of the world.”

Monasteries: objects of Chinese worry

The BBC yesterday began a series on Tibet with a report about Buddhist monasteries. They are “among the few institutions in China which have the potential to organize resistance and opposition to the government — so the Chinese Communist Party constantly worries about them.

“Are some monks secret supporters of the Dalai Lama? Could they be working towards Tibetan independence? Beijing’s fear is so great that being found with just a photograph of the Dalai Lama in your possession could land you in jail,” according to the BBC report.

Finally let’s explore Croft’s analysis in Reuters. China has too much economic clout for Europe and America to criticize loudly, he wrote. Croft printed an especially straightforward response from Frances’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

“Economically, we depend much more on China than they do on us” he told France’s BFM television. “It is an essential partner for pretty much every country in the world. When you conduct foreign relations with countries as important as China, obviously when you take economic decisions, sometimes it’s at the expense of human rights.”

Croft continued: “Analysts argue that Tibet, which Chinese troops marched into in 1950, has never enjoyed much international support even when it launched a failed uprising in 1959, prompting the flight of its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. … Although Tibet’s ancient Buddhist culture won sympathy from many individuals in the West, its remoteness and poverty gave it no international clout. But a traditional Western ‘hands off’ approach to Tibet has been underscored this time around by the increasing economic interdependence between the United States and China.”

He points out that China has $1.5 trillion in foreign currency exchange reserves, and its bolstering of the dollar is vital to the strength of a troubled U.S. economy. Indeed, China’s new investment fund pumped $5 billion into Morgan Stanley in December after the investment firm disclosed $9.4 billion of losses in subprime mortgages and other assets.

Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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