Questioning Authority: Calvin Chen on China's Crackdown on Tibet

Questioning Authority caught up with Calvin Chen to get his thoughts on China's recent crackdown on Tibet. Chen, Luce Assistant Professor of Politics, specializes in Chinese, East Asian, and comparative politics. He also teaches The Politics of Work and Post-Communist Transitions.

QA: In his April 3 New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof wrote that China's crackdown in Tibet rather than being the "unpopular action of a dictatorial government" was the "popular action of a dictatorial government, and many ordinary Chinese think the government acted too wimpishly, showing far too much restraint toward 'thugs' and 'rioters'. " Why are "ordinary" Chinese so angry?

CC: I think much of the anger is due to an amalgam of frustration, misunderstanding, and nationalism. We have to first remember that China is a large country with more than 50 different ethnic groups and that the overwhelming majority of the population (approximately 92 percent), the “ordinary Chinese” that Nicholas Kristof refers to in his article, is Han Chinese. The remaining 8 percent of the population is made up of ethnic minorities like the Tibetans, who live largely in or near China’s border areas. Although relations between the Han and the Tibetans have been tense since 1951 when Tibet was officially incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, they have especially so in the last two decades.

Many Han Chinese feel that despite the government’s attempts to accelerate economic and social transformation in Tibet, the Tibetans just do not, cannot, and will never appreciate such efforts. Such perceptions lead to and perpetuate cultural misunderstandings, stereotyping, and indeed, animosity. Thus, when Chinese state media replayed footage of rioters in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, Han Chinese were, not surprisingly, incensed. The resurgence of Chinese nationalism in recent years has hardened attitudes even more. The Chinese public has been particularly sensitive to foreign criticism, seeing it as unwarranted interference in China’s internal affairs and reminiscent of the “century of humiliation,” the 100-plus years from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century where foreign powers reduced China to semi-colonial status.

Despite these developments, it is important to note that not all Han Chinese subscribe to such views. For example, in the aftermath of the recent uprisings, 30 Chinese intellectuals courageously put forth a petition calling for the government to stop “fanning ethnic hatred” and, following the Dalai Lama, to work toward a solution based on goodwill, peace, and nonviolence. Slowly, other citizens too are beginning to recognize the need to think more deeply and thoughtfully about the Tibet situation.

QA: How might the Tibet upheavals affect the Olympics, which will be held in Beijing this summer?

CC: The immediate impact of the upheavals on the upcoming Olympic Games has been limited. Some heads of state, most notably French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have raised the possibility of a boycott of the opening ceremony, but little support for such a move has materialized. In fact, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rejected this proposal and has instead called for greater restraint and dialogue between the Chinese and the Tibetans. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has met with the Dalai Lama in a show of solidarity, others in the international community have been reluctant to take any actions that might anger the Chinese government and make matters worse. Still, it is clear that this is hurting China’s image around the world and that protests will most likely continue in the run-up to the Games.

QA: What role has the Dalai Lama played in the current China-Tibet situation? What role might he play?

CC: Although the Chinese government insists that the Dalai Lama is the main instigator of the recent upheavals, it has not presented any credible evidence to substantiate this claim. In fact, the Dalai Lama has consistently pushed for a nonviolent resolution of Tibet’s status through negotiations with Chinese authorities. To the disappointment of many advocates for a free Tibet, he has not pushed for political independence but rather religious and cultural autonomy for his people. Given his status and legitimacy, he could really help bring about a lasting resolution to the tensions but Chinese leaders would also need to sit down and negotiate. So far, they have not demonstrated any willingness to do so.

QA: What advice would you give to the Chinese government in regard to its role in Tibet?

CC: While recognizing that the situation in Tibet is extraordinarily complicated, the first thing I would appeal for is calm--from both the Chinese government and Tibet advocates. I think everyone recognizes that citizens, Han Chinese and Tibetans alike, should be protected from physical harm, that destruction and repression do not advance the cause of peace. But if the Chinese government is to achieve stability and a more enduring breakthrough in Tibet, I think cutting out the incendiary rhetoric and then rethinking its long-term objectives is in order. These are not revolutionary recommendations; Chinese authorities are well aware that their Tibet policy is imperfect and others within the government have previously pushed for similar action, but unfortunately, to no avail. The problem is that the top leaders fear that any major change will make the regime appear weak and undermine its legitimacy.

QA: Given that things are already tense between the United States and China, what does the future holds for Chinese-American relations?

CC: There is no denying that there are major disagreements between China and the United States on a host of issues, including Tibet. However, it is also true that both countries can and have worked together successfully on a range of thorny issues, most recently on the North Korean nuclear standoff. I strongly disagree with those who think that China is or will become our next enemy. Despite the suspicions Chinese and American leaders harbor against each other, recent surveys show that the majority of citizens in both countries hold favorable impressions of each other and their respective cultures. The Chinese, for example, are not only passionate about Yao Ming, but basketball, especially the NBA! There really is so much that Americans and Chinese have in common; our understandings of each other are deepening through greater dialogue and interaction. That is why I’m hopeful that the future of Chinese-American relations will be bright.

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