By Elliot Sperling
It’s already been many years since anyone seriously asserted that continuing political liberalization would be the certain result of economic growth in post-Mao China. One might propose, however, that we are seeing something somewhat opposite: as economic indicators turn downward the post-1989 idea that if left to its authoritarian ways the CCP will continue to deliver economic progress and better lives is no longer taken for granted. In this environment, the lashing out at scapegoats and the tightening of the space available for dissident speech and action in the PRC is unquestioned. The indications are so numerous as to make any doubts risible: human rights lawyers arrested, Hong Kong booksellers abducted, and on, and on, and on.
If this sort of reaction is now familiar, it has long been evident in the way the most aggrieved of China’s “minority nationalities” (or, if one wishes to use the newer mandated terminology, “ethnic groups,” the status to which they’ve been rhetorically relegated, lest someone take the term “nationalities” too seriously) have been treated. The troublesome incorporation of Uyghurs and Tibetans into the PRC has been particularly fraught since the inception of the PRC, essentially as a result of the late-19th-early-20th centuries’ structuring of Chinese identity in such a way that Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongols have come to be viewed as indisputably Chinese (rather than subjects of China). Thus, their centrifugal impulses—real or perceived—invariably seem threatening to a regime for which the unification and of China has, since 1949, been infused with legitimating significance.
In this environment dissent and grievances from Uyghurs and Tibetans are not seen simply as expressions of discontents that might be redressed. They are, rather, threats to the stability of the regime and the nation. And these grievances are very substantive: demographic marginalisation; internal travel restrictions (for Tibetans); blatant discrimination in employment and other areas; harsh restrictions and monitoring of religious and social practices; and even (particularly with Uyghurs) restrictions on clothing and grooming. This is not to mention the particularly severe nature of political imprisonment visited on Uyghur and Tibetan dissidents. Given all this, it would be surprising if there weren’t widespread resentment of the Chinese state. But the official response is not to ask what policies and conditions are behind the discontents being expressed. It is to ask who is doing this to China; who is behind it all. It is to demand scapegoats. This ought to seem reasonably clear when recourse is made within China proper to the plotting of foreign anti-China forces. Uyghur and Tibetan protests and dissent are respectively and reflexively ascribed to Islamic terrorism and the machinations of the Dalai Lama and his clique. The former claim, regarding the Uyghurs, may yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For over two years one of the most prominent Uyghur intellectuals, Ilham Tohti, has been in prison (now under a life sentence) for voicing Uyghur grievances and publicising violations of their basic human rights. Almost uniquely moderate (he does not advocate independence), his persecution and imprisonment exemplifies how China feeds and bolsters extremism: by sweeping up moderates who work and speak openly, it leaves only extremists, who by necessity are below the radar, to speak to the grievances that afflict large numbers of Uyghurs.
Inside Tibet the use of the Dalai Lama as a scapegoat has a history of decades and has had no success (except, perhaps, in increasing veneration of and allegiance to him on the part of the Tibetan population). The greater visibility of the Tibet issue has generated a greater degree of attention to Tibet as an international issue impacting China’s image than has been the case with the Uyghurs and a greater amount of ink in official publications and pronouncements has been given over to vehemently asserting the correctness of China’s policies and actions in Tibet. But in spite of the repeated rhetoric about the Dalai Lama plotting to split China, his stand against Tibet’s independence is known to a number of those who deal with the Tibet issue inside Chinese officialdom. Similarly, Ilham Tohti’s rejection of independence for the Uyghurs is also not unknown.
The Uyghur opposition outside China has advocated self-determination as a goal (and it would be the height of political cynicism—as far as both Uyghurs and Tibetans are concerned—to assert that, given what has been done to them since 1949-1950, they should have no voice in their future), while the Tibetan exiles, whose political base is in Dharamsala, India, have been following a chimerical China, based on the Dalai Lama’s assessments, and offering compromise after compromise.
Expectations of any sort of Chinese accommodation with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community (whose discontents with China are shared with large segments of the Tibetan population inside Tibet) have been misplaced since the 1990s. The authorities in China are effectively counting on the Dalai Lama’s death to end the Tibet issue. They’re now confident that this end is near and remain certain that there is no further need to deal with him. The exile authorities (under the Dalai Lama’s tacit leadership; he has ostensibly relinquished political leadership, though his name is invoked by exile politicians with authority and none seem willing to treat him as less than infallible) have fecklessly made repeated concessions while China has retained its position. In the upcoming exile leadership elections, the two remaining candidates have been speaking disproportionately about welfare and other issues pertinent to exile life and have had few words for addressing the dead end into which their fantasy image of China has led them.
The various negotiations that have engaged Chinese representatives and exile delegates have come to a halt and there is little to indicate that this will change. Since the 1990s China used the talks as busywork for the Tibetan exiles: something to keep them otherwise diverted while China waited for the demise of the Dalai Lama. And the exile side accommodated this, periodically asserting that their chimera was real. Now, more powerful than ever, China sees no need to budge. Indeed, it constantly pushes back and now lobbies (with growing success) to prevent high-level visits and meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign leaders.Professor Elliot Sperling is an Associate Professor of Central Eurasian Studies and the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University.