Anyone in Seoul last April knows that Mainland Chinese are very sensitive about Tibet. So it should come as no surprise that Beijing would want to put the kibosh on any plans to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape into exile.
Last year there were violent anti-China protests, with Beijing saying eighteen were killed and rights groups and activists saying the number was some ten times higher. China does not want a repeat and so they're closing the region to foreign visitors until the end of March.
I am deeply troubled by Beijing's heavy-handed tactics toward Tibetans (and Uighurs, North Korean refugees, etc.) but at the same time I do wonder if some of the people supposedly working for the benefit of these groups are sometimes doing more harm than good.
I recall one trip to Mainland China in which I took an overnight ferry from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (literally, a slow boat to China — ha!). Immigration and customs on the Mainland Chinese side were even slower than usual — the line snaked around and around, stretching all the way back to the boat. Part of the holdup, it turns out, was that some American guy decided to bring along a recently published biography of the Dalai Lama, which the Chinese authorities confiscated.
They wanted to know what he was up to. What he was up to, as he explained to one of my ephemeral companions, was that he wanted to pull out that book and show it to any Chinese who could understand him and "tell them the truth" about the Dalai Lama.
This was back in the 1990s, but paranoia about Tibetan separatism was high even then. This guy embodied the fear that Chinese officialdom had: foreigners were trying to tear their territory asunder. Whether that is true or not is another question. Is the goal for Tibetans to get true autonomy and just be left the hell alone without Beijing trying to flood the region with more and more Han Chinese who dilute and erode Tibetan culture? Or is the aim to get independence from Beijing, re-creating a free Tibetan state?
That latter scares the sh¡t out of China. If Tibet goes, Uighurs will up their efforts to free Xinjiang from distant Chinese rule. And then the recidivists in northeastern China's Korean-dominated autonomous region might try to wrest control of their lands and rejoin a unified Korea. The half of Mongolia inside the PRC might try to join the half that's an independent country. All this would embolden Taiwan's recent moves for actual independence.
[left: a detail of the linguistic map provided by Sunbin. The dark green patches and areas abutting North Korea are places where the ethnic Koreans — many of them established for centuries in this formerly Korean territory — are such a large percentage of the population that Korean is widely spoken there. There are some indications that China fears efforts by local Koreans to try to rejoin a newly reunified Korea, when that day comes. Ethnic Koreans were once a sizable group in the adjoining areas of Russia, including Vladivostok. This site gives some idea how Stalin dealt with these "Koryŏ saram."]
The trouble for Beijing is that half of the territory of the People's Republic of China is areas in which Han Chinese are not the indigenous people. To get an idea of what I'm talking about, take a look at Sunbin's linguistic map of China. They, like Russia, have a bit of a problem keeping far-flung lands glued to the main body, and Tibet is the tipping point.
Which is why some of my school mates from Mainland China sport shirts like this (below) as they head off to verbally drown out a much smaller pro-Tibet rally at a downtown Honolulu park. This mobilization, where they planted themselves right next to the pro-Tibet demonstrators, was organized by PRC handlers here in Honolulu.
Her shirt reads "Tibet in China; Torch in Heart." As the Mainland Chinese students in Hawaii bemoaned that the rest of the world had made the 2008 Beijing Olympics political, they themselves were — at the behest of their own leadership — injecting political poison into the issue.
The m.o. seems to be using force of numbers or noise to gain ideological obedience. One male Chinese student came into our dorm kitchen and began yelling at a Taiwanese student, demanding, "Why don't Taiwanese want to be part of China?!" He couldn't see that he himself provided the answer.
I wish I could say these fellow students were horrible ogres, but for the most part it's not true. They're quite nice people as individuals, but they are sometimes forced into a collective that has the propensity for verbal intimidation or even physical violence against those who dare to disagree.
I try to imagine a parallel with Korea or the United States. Certainly most South Koreans do not take kindly to the notion that Japan should be the rightful owner of Tokto/Takeshima (Liancourt Rocks), but that is not an issue where South Korea's claims are trampling the rights and well-being of another people.
I suppose it would be like demanding that Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, or Puerto Rico be given independence. No, wait, even better: demanding that Hawaii be given back its independence and the native monarchy restored. How would Americans react to that? I don't think most would gang up on the advocates of Hawaiian independence, but some might. And would Washington be within its rights to bar those people from entering the United States?
Perhaps that is what China should do. Change tactics. Let the rest of the world bitch and moan about Tibetan independence. Let Bjork make her speeches at awards ceremonies. But every time something like that happens, do something of equal weight toward Hawaiian independence. Give money to these guys.
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