The following is an email from my friend Dave Cook regarding China’s support of Sudan in the wake of the Darfur Genocide, the Tibetan riots, the international responses, and the Olympics. It is in response to the NY Times article: Pro-Tibet Activists Disrupt Olympic Flame Ceremony and a question of mine. Dave has traveled extensively in China and offers a reasoned discussion here, as you will see. I thought it might spark an interesting discussion about human rights, protests, the possibility of halting the genocide in Darfur, the media, etc. Enjoy.
The protest in Greece is the type of thing that the Chinese government has been having nightmares about since they won the bid for the Olympics. They’ve poured enormous resources into making the games a success; even when I was in Beijing two years ago there were massive construction projects underway (new airport terminal, huge expansion of the subway system, big stadiums etc) as well as public education ‘friendliness’ campaigns, programs to teach Beijingers to smile at foreigners while providing service. The television ads for those were pretty funny, as well as the TV promotions of the games themselves, which were over-the-top, unabashedly patriotic in a style you wouldn’t see in the US (or especially Europe) these days.
Beijing wants to put a good face on the Olympics for two big reasons: showing the world that they’re ready to be taken seriously as a powerhouse country, and to bolster national pride so the populace will be less likely to criticize the government. Tibetans rioting interferes with both those goals. The longer it goes on and the more public it is the more embarrassing it will be for Beijing, both domestically and abroad.
As far as Sudan goes, Beijing is obviously worried about disrupting their oil supply (Sudan provides it with about 10% of its total crude imports) and maybe arms deals as well. Another reason they’re hesitant to approve foreign interventions during human rights abuses is the precedent it sets for other similar operations in the future. If the UN gets to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur today to police a genocide, maybe ten years from now the UN will decide that China’s treatment of the Uighurs or the Tibetans warrants an international intervention as well. The Chinese don’t want to open that door.
Boycotting/protesting the games may actually be an effective way of changing the status quo in Tibet. It presents the most viable path to change that I can see at the moment. I don’t think that Tibet can become a completely independent country, however. You’ve probably heard of the fancy new rail line connecting Lhasa to the rest of China. Since it was completed it has tied Tibet much more closely to China (which was their intention in building it), and thousands of Han Chinese have poured into Tibet to set up shops and tourist agencies. If Tibet ever became politically independent, it would still be completely reliant on China for the lion’s share of its economic growth and ties to the outside world. The best that the Tibetans can hope for, in my view, is a Hong Kong style (or more likely a Shanghai style) semi-autonomy. China has a strange kind of tiered federal system at the moment, with parts of the country much more tightly controlled by Beijing than others. The Tibetans may be able to force concessions from China by stirring up international outrage to the point that Beijing thinks it would be worth it to grant a nominal ‘independence’ to Tibet. Which would be better than nothing. That would only happen if a significant number of countries decided to boycott the games, however. I can’t cay how likely that is, but its pretty much the best shot that Tibet has right now, and they know it so they’re doing their best to make things uncomfortable for Beijing.
The Tibetan riots (and other disturbances inside China proper) have had an effect on Taiwan as well. The Taiwanese just held their presidential elections last week, and the party favoring closer ties to China (and perhaps an eventual unification with the mainland in a Hong Kong-style arrangement) won out this time. The pro-independence party had controlled the presidency for the past eight years, and people were getting nervous about its aggressive rhetoric, so the opposition party was heavily favored to win. Once the Tibet thing hit the news, however, the elections were thrown into doubt because the Taiwanese were reminded of the heavy-handed way that China rules its provinces. The status of Taiwan is a VERY important topic for mainland Chinese and Taiwanese alike, and the implications for reunification with Taiwan inherent in a change in Tibet’s political status are probably more important to Beijing than the actual situation of the Tibetans.
As far as a defense of China’s actions in Tibet goes, the conventional wisdom among the Chinese people I talk to is that the colonization of Tibet is the best thing that could happen to the Tibetans because it will help pull them out of poverty and ignorance. Tibet really is quite underdeveloped (which may be just fine with most Tibetans, but that’s another debate I guess) and I remember seeing a news segment in China about a Tibetan girl that had succeeded in learning Chinese and been enrolled in a Chinese university. The program centered around how excited she was to leave the squalor in Tibet. They showed her family back home in absolutely filthy conditions, and emphasized the fact that they never washed their clothes and bathed only once a year, and how now as a student she has a shower and clean clothes. So that’s the type of thing the Chinese see and hear about Tibet.
Sudan is less defensible. My guess is that Beijing is hoping that people don’t quite realize whats going on until the whole thing blows over. It seems like they’ve officially condemned the genocide, but they’re they’re probably just blowing smoke since they’re still backing the Sudanese government.
Haha I hope you liked my lengthy essay! That was longer than I planned. Oh well it gave me a break from boring old science classes. Are you going to fly to Tibet and help them riot? There have to be some people hiking into Tibet right now from the Indian side to take photos and publicize things, and maybe rough it up with the Chinese army a little. You should consider going…