Commentary Magazine


Tibet Aflame

Is Tibet burning? It is, literally and figuratively, especially in Lhasa, the capital of China’s so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. There, hundreds of monks and others fought with police today and have, according to the BBC, succeeded in taking control of the center of the city. Deaths have been reported. The Chinese government has effectively imposed martial law. Nonetheless, Tibetans continue to attack any symbol of the Chinese presence in what they consider their homeland. There are reports of disturbances in other Tibetan parts of China, such as Gansu province.

The Lhasa demonstrations began on Monday to mark the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. The disturbances are the biggest in the Tibetan capital since the pro-independence protests of 1989.

The American response has been uninspiring. “We believe Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto this morning at a press gaggle aboard Air Force One. “They need to respect multi-ethnicity in their society.” What the Chinese really need to do is immediately end their program of forced assimilation and political repression, what many have called a campaign of “cultural genocide.” Eventually, they need to leave traditional Tibetan lands. It is a tragedy that the Chinese misrule themselves; it is a crime they insist on ruining Tibet.

Predictably, Western governments have been calling on Beijing to have a “dialogue” with the Dalai Lama. Chinese leaders have not done that, despite His Holiness making significant concessions to pave the way for conversations. After years of Beijing’s intransigence on Tibet, the White House should have known that its words would have no effect on Chinese leaders.

Western nations cannot, as a practical matter, stop the Chinese from killing Tibetans in their capital. Yet Americans and others can show revulsion for Beijing’s goals and abhorrence of its tactics by downgrading their contacts with the modern Chinese state—preferably starting this afternoon. The White House should, among other things, cancel the President’s ill-advised trip to the Beijing Olympics this August. Our State Department should reverse Tuesday’s inexplicable decision to drop China from the list of the world’s ten worst human rights abusers. And if President Bush really means what he says about freedom and self-rule, it’s time for him to realize that this is where the rest of his legacy can be made or lost.