Sunday, March 16, 2008

No Calm Before Olympics Storm

I thought the coming Olympics would lead to relative peace inside of China through August. I was wrong.

Both Tibetan and Uyghur independence-seekers have taken the opportunity of the Olympics to try and re-invigorate their independence and religious freedom movements, but in different ways. Chinese religious freedoms in the past have certainly been poor, and recently, have not improved. But both the Uyghurs and Tibetans took risks that were too large in this highly sensitive pre-Olympic period, and the Chinese have chosen to use force--as quickly and as overwhelmingly as possible--to quell its restive west before any pro-independence momentum gains. The Olympics have not checked the hand of the PRC; it has only grown more stern.

Though Chinese officials or media organs have had very little to say on the subject, Uyghur separatists likely tried to blow up an airplane bound for Beijing by bringing gasoline on board. How they got the gasoline past security is beyond me, but the plane made an emergency landing and two Uyghur suspects were taken off. Soon afterwards, the Chinese cracked down on a Uyghur separatist office (killing 2 and arresting 15) that was allegedly planning to bomb the Olympics in August.

The Chinese government has a long history of trying to stop Uyghur separatism by attacking "terrorists" with police action; there is almost no transparency in PRC actions against the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang, and is prone to story-telling in official interpretations of Uyghur action. Regardless of what the Uyghur separatists actually tried, the Chinese government has given itself a mandate to act in keeping the region suppressed.

In Tibet, pro-independence nationalists and monks chose the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959 to stage protests, originally peaceful, in the capital of Lhasa. Exiled Tibetans in India joined them from afar, starting with vigils and prayers and moving on towards a months-long pilgrimage (which was stopped very short at the border).

The Chinese police (probably the People's Armed Police, a PLA para-military group) came to Lhasa to stop the protests, using tear gas and making an unknown number of arrests. The Chinese government called the situation "under control" Thursday, but the capital then exploded, with lay Tibetans attacking ethnic Han Chinese (sent to Tibet mostly by the Beijing government), burning cars and shops. The PRC responded by sending the PLA--now tanks patrol the streets of the city.

The protests have gone outside of Tibet, as well; protesters have been put down in central China, as well as Paris (around the Chinese Embassy).

China is, ultimately, becoming much more shaken-up than the government would prefer to admit, and these problems may continue to plague them into the Olympics. Students may be eyeing the Tibet situation to gague whether or not they can make any moves along the lines of the June 4th Movement... though students are much more loyal to the state now than they were in 1989.

As for the Tibetans, the independence movement is probably doomed. It cannot get the momentum it needs to make the costs of administration too high for the Chinese-- and they are unlikely to win any moral or normative wars of words against the government. These protests will continue, and they will continue to give the West legitimacy in attacking the Chinese government on human rights issues, but they will not change the status of Tibet.
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