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Terrorism Reaches China

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 29th, 2009

Last week the overseas Chinese newspapers were full of violent stories, mostly about the killing of officials in several localities by angry people. Simple content analysis of the media makes clear that the level of reported violence is rising, which in turn almost certainly reflects a real increase in incidence. All forms of violence worry the regime, but none perhaps more than terrorism, particularly that by oppressed non-Chinese groups such as the Tibetans. Now that nightmare may be in the process of becoming real.

The message, according to Singapore’s Lianhezaoba 聯合早報 texted all over the great city of Chongqing [Chungking] in Sichuan was simple: "Tibetan ‘human flesh bombs’ [人肉炸彈--what we would call "suicide bombers" have already made their ways into Beijing, Shanghai,Chongqing and other major cities. Stay away from places where there are lots of people." In the wake of the recent and still-unsolved killing of a Chinese policeman in a Chongqing market, the message was chilling.

In fact, however, what else would one expect? China’s vicious treatment of Tibetans--in which one of the world’s great cultures is being ground gradually to bits and Beijing is attempting by some alehemy of repression and brain-washing to make Tibetans into Chinese--of course the Tibetans will resist. What is remarkable is how long his people have heeded the Gandhian message of non-violence tirelessly promoted by the Dalai Lama, refraining from violence. The Dalai Lama’s approach has not worked; his years of seeking compromise have brought nothing; he is old. The Chinese await his demise with the hope that somehow a puppet Dalai Lama will bring his people under their control. But the present Dalai Lama has pulled one final trick from his robe--promising that he will be reincarnated outside of Chinese occupied Tibetan regions. Which means division and, for China, a new kind of threat.

Tibetans are everywhere in the People’s Republic. Take me to a city there and I will find them for you, usually in the slum neighborhoods around the railway station, or on bridges or sidewalks or pedestrian tunnels, distinct in appearance to the Chinese, visibly poorer, evidently eking out a living by hawking handicrafts and other goods. No border exists between Tibet and China along which a Middle East style "fence" could be built. Quite the opposite: the PRC reduced the size of ethnic Tibet by lopping off large chunks and incorporating them into neighboring provinces--so the Tibetans are already there. Many speak perfect Chinese, so on a cold north China night, dressed in heavy clothes, they can easily pass for Chinese even if questioned. One suspects that if they have explosives, they have forged identity cards as well.

China’s current premier Hu Jintao cut his teeth on the Tibetans when he was boss of their "autonomous region." Hu’s actions have shown that he discounts grievances, whether Chinese or Tibetan or Muslim, reposing supreme confidence in the tools of repression. But these are difficult to use in China.

First consider the huge population. Tibetans alone are probably as numerous as Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East conflict zone. That is more people than one can easily keep track of. No choke points exist--no border crossings from Tibet to China, no gates to cities where everyone is frisked, security on aircraft and railroads that falls far short of even what we have in the United States. Good counter-terrorism is based in any case on intelligence. While some Tibetans do collaborate with the Chinese, it is probably fair to say that the government of the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India knows at least as much about what is happening in occupied Tibet as do the Chinese occupiers themselves.

In the 1950s the Tibetans accepted the idea of autonomy within a larger China. But in the interim, China has poured troops into the region, imprisoned and tortured thousands of Tibetans. Now they have a plan to rebuild Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, as marvelous in its own way as Peking was before it was bulldozed in the late 1950s and the run-up to the Olympics, to make way for the motley pastiche of bad modernism and worse construction now carefully called "Beijing."

So millions of Tibetans are already in China, able to pass for locals, some possessing weapons and explosives. What does that mean? Suicide bombings as in Israel, but with more casualties and with far less effective government response. That will bring panic to ordinary Chinese while exposing the government as impotent. It will likely turn, as the Nazis did when faced with resistance, to collective punishment and mass repression of anyone Tibetan.

China will also pressure the world community to call the Tibetan martyrs "terrorists" which, technically they are, for having been denied all legal and reasonable redress of their grievances and facing the destruction of their culture, they have taken up arms, and terror in particular. This we should resist. For the solution to the Tibetan issue is for China to make life tolerable, not even more intolerable, for the Tibetans.

Furthermore, any anti-Tibetan crackdown world wide would require Indian cooperation. China exerts endless pressure on New Delhi to restrict or expel the Dalai Lama and his hundred thousand or more followers. New Delhi has bent--His Holiness is a "religious leader", period. But India is unlikely, indeed unable, to control trans-Himalayan traffic. Only Tibetans know how to pass through in winter. Snow and ice storms, huge drifts, added to the worst terrain in the world, render all the wonders of electronic surveillance and helicopters problematical.

Furthermore, the issue of Tibet is, fundamentally, the most important in Sino-Indian relations, although this fact is not always recognized. Until the 1950s sparsely inhabited and unmilitary Tibet was an indispensable buffer between two emerging super-powers. China’s invasion of Tibet and subsequent emplacement of missiles, beginning at the end of the 1950s, however, changed that. To counterbalance deep seated Indian distrust, Beijing has tried to cement relations above all with Islamic Pakistan and to a lesser extent Burma. These, however, provide nothing like the benefits that China would derive from a genuinely cordial relationship with New Delhi. So India cannot be relied upon to crush the Tibetans, as China will undoubtedly request.

The result of all this? Most likely periodic bloody terrorist events, in which innocent people of Chinese ethnicity will be the primary victims. From them will come the demand for a harder line on Tibetans, but the fact is the gloves were taken off long ago, and short of actual physical imprisonment of the Tibetan population, little more exists for Beijing to do--except, of course, address their legitimate grievances, seeing whether time still remains, while the present Dalai Lama still lives, to create a real and enduring peace between the two countries.

This, however, is to address only the issue of Tibet. Other subject peoples have grievances against the Chinese government are arguably at least as angry as the Tibetans. Furthermore they are militarily more potent. Chief among these are the Turkestanis or Uighurs, part of the great Turkic ethnicity that extends from northeast Asia to beyond the Mediterranean. As Muslims, these people are already deeply dissatisfied with Chinese policies of atheism. As warriors, many Afghan veterans, and with a territory sharing a long, impossible to patrol border with similarly Turkic and Muslim Central Asia. They have already set off bombs and, reportedly, engaged Chinese troops.

Finally, perhaps, is the greatest threat of all: namely, dissatisfied Chinese people themselves. Just as the terrorist group "People’s Will" that assassinated the reforming Tsar Alexander II arose on Russian soil from Russian grievances, so we may expect violent anti-communist groups to arise on Chinese soil for Chinese reasons--rather as the Communists themselves did.

The People’s Republic has faced many problems in its sixty years in power: civil war to begin with, famine, internal rebellion, intraparty coups and counter-coups. But the terrorism whose advent is marked by the reported appearance of Tibetan suicide bombers will be something new, more contagious to the people at large, and at least as challenging.

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