Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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China´s Greatest Test Since Tiananmen
Corriere della Sera - March 15th 2008

This could prove to be the biggest test of the Chinese government’s ruthlessness since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The riots this week by Buddhist monks and their lay supporters in Lhasa have been the worst the Tibetan capital has seen since that same year of 1989. There is no doubt that if the Chinese authorities want to suppress these protests brutally that they can and will succeed. The question, though, is whether they are willing to do so in this Olympic year.

            The best guess is that if necessary, they will use utmost force. It will damage their international reputation, but that reputation would be even more damaged if Tibetan protests were to continue until August when the Games will be held and if protests were to take place in Beijing itself. Moreover, although the Chinese Communist Party does care about the country’s international image, it cares even more about maintaining control of its country. Security and stability are more important, in its mind, than a few weeks of sporting events.

            This week’s riots in Tibet seem to have begun as a way to mark the 49th anniversary of the bloodiest uprising in that territory in its time under Communist rule, which took place in 1959. It was as a result of the suppression of that uprising that the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, fled from Tibet and took refuge in India. China had invaded Tibet in 1950, just a year after Mao Zedong seized power. Mao grabbed hold of Tibet in order to extend China’s frontier right up to the Himalayas, so that the world’s highest mountain range would ensure his country’s security against foreign invasion from the west.

            Chinese officials claim that this was not an invasion or colonisation: China was simply re-restablishing the control over Tibet that it had lost in 1911 when China’s imperial dynasty collapsed. It is true that Tibet originally became attached to China in the 13th century when Genghis Khan from Mongolia invaded both countries. But since then it had also had long periods of independence, albeit under strong Chinese influence.

            The cause of Tibetan independence attracts a lot of sympathy outside China, and is clearly deeply felt, especially by Tibetan Buddhists. The stakes for China, though, are also high. Failure to maintain control over Tibet now would risk encouraging separatist movements elsewhere in the country, especially in Xinjiang, the province in the far west that is heavily populated by Muslims. Only a week ago, the Chinese authorities announced that they had intercepted an attempted terrorist attack by separatists from Xinjiang.

Also, if China shows weakness now in dealing with Tibetan monks it would be likely to encourage even more trouble when the Dalai Lama eventually dies (he is 73). At that time, there is likely to be a dispute over who should be his successor, with China choosing one person and the monks preferring another. The danger posed by religious protests explains why China was careful not to criticise the military regime of neighbouring Myanmar when it used brutal means to suppress its own revolt by Buddhist monks last year. Sadly, the safest prediction is that if Tibet’s monks carry on with their protests, a great deal of blood will be spilt.


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