IN AN ANNUAL ritual, hardy groups of activists gathered outside Chinese embassies around the world to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10th. They protested about many Chinese abuses: the encroachment on the freedoms promised Hong Kong; the persecution of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang; and the repression of religious and political freedom in Tibet.
For Tibetans, this year marks an important and poignant anniversary: 30 years to the day since their exiled spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, was in Oslo to receive the Nobel peace prize. It is also an occasion to reflect on how little their cause has advanced since then. If the successful suppression of almost all dissent counts as winning, then China seems to have won in Tibet. And it appears to think it can replicate the success in the neighbouring region that has also seen unrest in recent years, Xinjiang. So it is worth pondering how that “victory” has been achieved.
In 1989 Tibet was a big international issue. That year the violent repression of protests and the imposition of martial law in the capital, Lhasa, had drawn attention to Tibetans’ grievances. A few months later, the massacre that ended demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing reinforced to the world the Chinese government’s image as a brutal dictatorship. The Dalai Lama, a man of peace, dignity and good humour, who counted among his friends and admirers leading politicians and Hollywood stars, furnished an appealing figurehead.
Thirty years on, Tibetans enjoy no more freedom than they did then. Nothing suggests that the reverence most feel for the Dalai Lama has diminished. But his return remains impossible and his image and writings banned. Tibetans continue to complain of restrictions on their religious freedoms and even of discrimination against their own language. But few mass protests have been reported since a vicious outbreak of anti-Chinese violence in Lhasa in 2008. Instead, dissent has been manifested in the sad stories of Tibetans—often Buddhist monks or nuns—setting themselves on fire. Last month the 166th Tibetan (including ten in India or Nepal) to self-immolate since 2008, and the first this year, died in a part of historical Tibet now in China’s Sichuan province.
But, abroad, both repression and unrest in Tibet tend these days largely to be overlooked. Rather, attention has focused on Xinjiang, as news of an internal-security repression of almost unimaginable proportions has slowly leaked out. Hundreds of thousands have been interned in “vocational-training” centres that look very much like prison camps. This week China’s officials claimed that all the detainees there had “graduated” and, since then, “have achieved stable employment, improved their quality of life and have been living a happy life.” It seems unlikely that this means, as some foreign outlets have reported, that they have all been freed. But Tibet has shown that it is possible to subdue a resentful local population without mass incarceration (though active malcontents will surely remain locked up in both places); indeed, many of the techniques from Tibet have already been adopted, and extended, in Xinjiang.
The “Tibet model” of repression relies on four elements: deflect any international pressure; limit foreign contact, monitoring and interference; swamp the territory’s native majority with both economic development and migrants from elsewhere in China; blanket it with surveillance mechanisms and personnel.
In Tibet, the first of these, cutting off international support, was not easy, such was the prestige and personal charm of the Dalai Lama. But China has managed it. That is partly because, at 84, the Dalai Lama is not the tireless globe-trotter he once was. But it is also because of China’s persistence in browbeating and even imposing sanctions on any country that accords him anything resembling an official status.
Unlike his predecessors (Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama), President Donald Trump has not met the Dalai Lama—and has shown no interest in doing so. It is not just politicians who risk China’s wrath. Lady Gaga, a singer very popular in China, has been banned there since meeting the Dalai Lama in Indianapolis in 2016.
Meanwhile, Tibet remains cut off. Individual foreign tourists—never mind journalists or human-rights investigators—are banned (though group tourism from elsewhere in China is booming). The stream of exiles who used to escape through Nepal to India has slowed to a trickle as China guards its border more tightly and bullies Nepal to be less welcoming. Earlier this year Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, a monitoring group, said that working on Tibet was becoming like working on North Korea.
Thanks to tourism and investment in infrastructure, Tibet’s economy last year grew at 9%, faster than all but one Chinese province. The growth brings both jobs, and an influx of Han Chinese, whose presence sparked the resentment that exploded in 2008.
Last, China has in Tibet honed many of the internal-security techniques used in Xinjiang to monitor and forestall protests: stationing work teams in villages and sensitive spots such as monasteries; expanding police presence; and making people sit through hours of political indoctrination. Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief in Tibet until August 2016, has since held the same post in Xinjiang. He has brought his skills in containing unrest with him, bolstered by the rapid improvements in the technology of surveillance, through facial-recognition software and the like.
In Hong Kong, six months of protest have made front pages around the world. The threats people there face seem distant and almost trivial compared with the hardships seen in Tibet and Xinjiang. When protesters have scrawled graffiti reading “Today’s Xinjiang, tomorrow’s Hong Kong” it has seemed an overwrought evocation of an impossibly dystopian future. But they have had a point. What has happened in Xinjiang has shown how far Beijing will go to make sure it faces no serious resistance to its authority.
Tibet had taught the same lesson earlier. But China’s rule and Mr Chen’s legacy have yet to pass one difficult test: the death of the current Dalai Lama, and his reincarnation. The 14th has said he might be reincarnated outside China. The Chinese Communist Party, bizarrely, arrogates to itself the right to approve his successor. So it may be that two rival candidates vie for Tibetans’ affections. Perhaps more important, this Dalai Lama, who renounced Tibet’s claim to independence in favour of genuine autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, has been a consistent advocate of dialogue and peace. Without his restraining influence, more Tibetans may be radicalised. Having long hoped that the Dalai Lama’s passing might solve its Tibetan problem, China ought now to be hoping he lives for many December 10ths to come.