Friday, August 25, 2006

HHDL Still Has the Power to Unsettle China

As reported in The Age (Melbourne, Australia); August 24, 2006

WHEN the first cracks appeared in the concrete base and bridges of the Qinghai Tibet railway, just weeks after the carefully staged, triumphal opening on July 1 (the 85th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party), they were not the only sign that all is not well with China's policies in Tibet.

The cracks seem to be the result of the unstable geology of the Tibetan plateau.

Equally worrying to Beijing, shifts in Tibetan political geology have caused cracks in the official Chinese narrative of unity and harmony between Tibet and China.

There had been sporadic unrest for several months.

In November last year, the monks of Drepung monastery, in central Tibet, staged a sit-down demonstration against "patriotic education" -- the Government's enforced propaganda campaign. The demonstration was echoed in other important monasteries in the region.

Then, in January, in a religious address delivered in India, the exiled Dalai Lama called on Tibetans to stop wearing wildlife skins, to save animals from extinction. The results were dramatic: from Lhasa to Gansu, Tibetans gathered for public fur burnings.

Confronted with this evidence of his continuing influence, the Government accused the Dalai Lama of promoting "social disorder" and responded, bizarrely, with a pro-fur campaign in which TV presenters were ordered to wear fur on air.

At the end of May, the arrival in Lhasa of a new, hardline party secretary, Zhang Qingli, signalled a renewed campaign against the Dalai Lama's influence, with a tightening control of religious practice.

Zhang announced that the Communist Party was engaged in a "fight-to-the-death struggle" against the Dalai Lama.

In Lhasa the campaign took on a renewed virulence as the opening day of the railway approached. But in mid-July, in the great monastery of Kumbum in Qinghai, people began to gather spontaneously, in unusual numbers.

They had come, they explained, to wait for the Dalai Lama. A rumour of his imminent arrival had swept the province with an extraordinary and, for the Government, dismaying effect. The Chinese authorities are engaged in a slow-motion exchange of views with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, but they do not anticipate his return any time soon.

And from their point of view, they are right to be cautious. If merely the rumour of the return of a spiritual leader who left Tibet in 1959 can still cause thousands of devotees to gather, then decades of Chinese propaganda have failed to extirpate his influence.