Commentary Magazine


“Close the Door and Beat the Dog”

The apposite Chinese saying with respect to the unrest in Tibet is bimen dagou: “close the door and beat the dog.” And with news coverage halted over a vast area of Western China, and endless columns of military vehicles heading in, who can doubt that the dog will be well and thoroughly beaten?

Certainly no one in the official west. The officially-expressed lack of condemnation of the latest installment in China’s decades-long destruction of Tibet is proof that the smart money figures the fix is in. Beijing will crush things without any outsiders having a chance to watch; no one will dare ask tough questions or criticize; things will then get back to “normal,” where China stories are all about trade and the Olympics.

But suppose that quick resolution doesn’t occur? Suppose the dog proves tougher than expected? Suppose stomach-turning video of the beating somehow reaches the outside world? Suppose the problem goes unfixed for days or weeks more, or spreads? Suppose the Chinese leadership itself begins to disagree about what to do? What then? A real crisis may arise, a crisis for which no one is prepared.

That possibility was confirmed on Thursday 20 March, as word came from official Chinese news services that Tibet was not yet under control and that unrest was spreading. Canadian journalists managed to get striking footage of new demonstration through the formidable Chinese news firewall.

Spring has a strange resonance in Chinese history: many trains of events culminating in major shifts have begun in this season. In 1989, it was the death, on April 15, of the former prime minister Hu Yaobang and public dissatisfaction at the Party’s failure to honor him that started the movement victimized in the Tiananmen bloodbath less than three months later. (The date gave the movement its name). June 4 1989  took its place with May 4 1919 (the nationalist demonstrations against the Treaty of Versailles) and May 30 1925 (major pro-labor, anti-Empire protest) among the milestones of regime-shaking popular unrest in China.

Something similar could happen this year. Unless the Chinese government succeeds in crushing the Tibetans cleanly and without publicity, we are likely to see a multiplication of grievances being aired–by ordinary Chinese as well as by subject peoples like the Tibetans and the Muslims of East Turkestan. Workers are already out on strike in Guangdong in the southeast. Plenty of anger is out there: over corruption, injustice, poverty, pollution, dictatorship–more than enough for a conflagration.

Washington is not even considering such a possibility. Instead Secretary Rice is urging the Chinese to “show restraint“, which I take to mean restraint in the numbers killed and brutality employed as order is restored. But suppose order is not restored, and things get worse? Now is not too early to start thinking about whom we support then–and what values we should, as a democracy, espouse.