'Chinese Pro-Democracy Movement And Tibet'
by Lhasang Tsering (June 9, 1995)


Rape of Peking: Hope for Tibet?

During and in the months ensuing the Tiananmen Square massacre when the Chinese pro-democracy movement received widespread international attention, there was much talk within the Tibetan exile community that the Chinese in favor of democracy for China would be more responsive to the Tibetan people and that the Tibetan people should support the Chinese pro-democracy movement. Some even favor of Tibetan freedom. Even the most conservative view was that democracy in China would enhance the possibility for Tibetan freedom and that it would certainly enable the Tibetans to talk to the Chinese.

Of course, much of this kind of talk was within the Tibetan exile-government circles and, as usual, it trickled down to the public and gradually assumed the status of a dogma. And, because of the movement in China was good for Tibet was directly linked to the idea of seeking dialogue with China, any suggestion. This is not to say that there were official orders forbidding such views. As in well known, such is not the Tibetan way. But the general atmosphere was such that there was little, if any, support for alternative views and certainly no opportunity, let alone any incentive and encouragement for a free and fair discussion.

For the next few years the Tibetan exile government expended much time, effort and money to meet with members of the Chinese democracy movement. Especially sought after were the so-called 'dissident' Chinese who were sprouting overnight like mushrooms in all the capitals and major cities of the developed western countries. Never mind that none of them were known to have previously stood up for democracy and that many of them had been studying on privileged scholarships from the Chinese government or party officials. To say this is not to belittle the Chinese government democracy movement in any way nor to question the earnestness and dedication of the many courageous individuals who sacrificed so much for democracy in China. My remarks apply only to a section of the Chinese students in the west since the Tibetan government contact was primarily limited to them. Another interesting and important fact about the vast majority of these students was that they were not intending to return to China. In fact, it would be true to say that many of them were turning into ardent democrats overnight for no other reason that any connection with the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square was the best, perhaps the only guarantee of being able to stay back in the West.

One wonders how far individuals not prepared to return to one's own country and seeking only to stay in the affluent west can influence the course of events back home, one cannot also help having some doubts about the cause they claim to espouse. But the Tibetan exile government, or at least the select group of officials responsible for conducting these meetings, appears not to have noticed these facts. Here it could be pertinent to mention that these meetings with the Chinese 'dissidents' or 'democrats' if you will, were taking place in Europe and America- far removed from the ground realities in Tibet. One or two of them were invited to Dharamsala. But since they were treated like dignitaries and had little or no contact with ordinary people it is doubtful they will have obtained a realistic picture of the problems of exile, the extent of the suffering all Tibetans have had to endure because of China's invasion and occupation of Tibet and the intensity of the resentment Tibetans feel towards the Chinese and the strength of their desire for freedom.

While on the subject of Chinese students in the West, I wish to relate a brief anedote which will help to illustrate the point I am trying to make. In 1992, as president of Tibetan Youth Congress, I visited Australia at the invitation of the Australia Tibet Committee (ATC). Among other things, in Sydney a special programme was arranged so that I could meet with a group of Chinese students, inform them about Tibet and the Tibetan freedom struggle and to discuss with them the Chinese democracy movement and related matters. I have had a number of meetings with individuals and groups of Chinese students, academics and real dissidents across Europe and North America and found the meeting in Sydney one of the most interesting - from the number who attended, the cross-section they represented in terms of background (not only children of officials) and area (there being a number of students from Eastern Turkistan - though, as usual, none from Tibet).

The meeting went on longer than planned, everyone- organisers, participants and even a group of observers, which included members of the media - felt the meeting had been a success and it was suggested that we take some group photos. Someone suggested that the Tibatan National Flag, with which ATC had decorated the conference room, be brought out for the group photos. I pointed out that it might not be a good idea as it may cause problems for the Chinese students. To my surprise, with a few exceptions, it was the Chinese students who were most enthusiastic about the idea and insisted that a photograph with a well known Tibetan 'splitist' and with the banned Tibetan flag could serve as a good reason for seeking political asylum. I don't know if any of those students managed to use that photo with me and the Tibetan National Flag to persuade the Australian government to let them stay back. But the incident did serve as a telling example and as a constant reminder that not all Chinese - be they 'dissidents' or 'democrats' - espouse the Tibetan cause for purely altruistic reasons.

As with all things, here also there are exceptions. There have always been and there will be individual Chinese who will support the rights of the Tibetan people - even for independence. Some of those I met at that and other meetings still seem to be supporting the Tibetan cause. An outstanding example is the late Col Chang Ho Thae, an artillery officer in the PLA who came with the Chinese invasion force to Tibet. Realising the injustice of the mission he was involved in, he defected to the side of the Tibetan resistance at great risk to his life - not only from the PLA as a defector but also from the Tibetan resistance on suspicions of being a spy. After proving his loyalty to the Tibetan cause he fought with distinction with the Tibetans resistance throughout the late 1950s. He later escaped with the Tibetans and spent the rest of his life in the Tibetan settlement camp at Bylakkuppe.

Even today, among the many Chinese who have had contact with the Tibetan people, there are bound to be some who can rise above racial and rational loyalties and support the Tibetan freedom struggle from a sense of truth and justice. I am aware that for many Chinese the Tianenmen Square massacre was a turning point in their perception on Tibet and the Tibetan people. The students had never expected such brutal force to stop their movement and some of those I was able to meet later told me that for the first time they were prepared to believe that there might be some truth in the Tibetans were saying. The thought that stuck many of them was: 'if the Party can do this to us, what more could they not have done to Tibet, shielded from international attention and against and against a people viewed for centuries as barbarians'. But to believe that all Chinese would become instant supporters of Tibetan independence if only we could inform them of the 'true facts' is, in my view, yet another exercise in wishful thinking and self-deception. On the same lines, the idea that democracy in China means freedom for Tibet - or at the very least increase the chance for Tibetan freedom - seems equally far-fetched.

First of all, there is no logical grounds to believe that as soon as democracy is introduced in China the Chinese people will suddenly attain some kind of political enlightenment and that their age-old belief in China being the Middle Kingdom, and everything that springs from this belief, will disappear like mere shadow in the face of light. We also have no logical grounds to believe that China's leaders will suddenly lose all personal, political and territorial ambitions with the introduction of democracy. What we do know for a fact is that the introduction of democracy. What we do know for a fact is that the introduction of Communism in China only increased and intensified the old-age imperial ambitions. By this I am in no way suggesting that democracy and Communism are the same in every respect. I consider myself to be a democrat and at least in the Tibetan context made significant personal sacrifices for the sake of democracy. The point I am making here is that when Communism - an ideology radically opposed to imperialism - had no impact whatsoever in changing China's imperialist ambitions and policies, there is no reason to believe that democracy - a much gentler ideology - would suddenly set everything right in China.

Democracy is a wonderful idea, in fact one of the best and most important ideas humanity has come up with. At the very least, it is today the best form of government that we have. But one must not endow democracy with super-natural powers. It is not and it can share the hope that China will be able to make a peaceful and successful transition to a democratic form of government. I also share the hope that the benefits of a democratic system will accrue to the Chinese people at large and not just to a privileged few. But I do not expect or hope that democracy can or will change the essential character of China's national history, culture or polity. In any struggle or endeavor - be it individual, national or global - there is bound to be an element of hope. I for me, take care not to ignore the basic ground realities. I also try to base my hopes on actual facts.

Speaking of which, in the haste to join the international Chinese pro-democracy band wagon or else the need to believe that a democratic China would favor freedom for Tibet or whatever other compulsions or compunctions were driving us at the time, we seemed to have overlooked or failed to see that at no time during the seven weeks of the pro-democracy protects and hunger strikes at the Tianenmen Square from April 15 to June 4, 1989 was there a single mention of China's violation and suppression of the rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people or any of the other countries and peoples under China's occupation and oppression.

The same is true of all the speeches and writings emanating from the pro-democracy movement. I believe this fact to be of utmost importance. It must be absolutely clear in our minds that the Chinese pro-democracy movement was directed at reforming the existing system so as to bring about a more liberal and open government which would be more responsive to the changing socio-political aspirations of the people. They made it clear during and after the movement was so brutally suppresses that they were not seeking to bring down the Communist government. This fact of paramount importance. We all know that democracy is a much abused word. Every government - from the smallest one-man dictatorships in Africa and Latin America to Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China - have claimed that to be democracies. Some, like the former Soviet Union and present-day China, even go so far as to claim that they are the most democratic. Is it not possible that the Chinese pro-democracy movement was in the end a struggle between two opposing perceptions of democracy? Even more to the point, could it be that teh so-called pro-democracy movement was nothing but another veil for a sinister power struggle just as the so-called Hundred Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution were all covers for bloody power struggles?

Since the beginning of our present predicament, or to put it simply, since China's military invasion of our country in 1949, all our policies and actions have one unifying feature - that of HOPE.

When Amdo was being invaded, Kham waited and watched - hoping that it would not happen to them. When Kham was being invaded the rest of Tibet waited and watched - hoping that it would not happen to them. Even after PLA troops had occupied Lhasa we waited and hoped that somehow things would change or at least that they would not get worse. After 1959 when all was lost, we waited and hoped that India, or the United States or the United Nations would do something and that all would be alright again.

Twenty years later, with all else having failed, we turned our hope to China once again. To justify doing this, we told ourselves that this time it was different, that it was a new, pragmatic leadership in China under Deng who was prepared to 'seek truth from facts'. In so doing we either forgot, overlooked or perhaps even did not know another equally famous but every sinister saying of Deng, that 'it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it kills mice'.

Ten years later, when in 1989 Deng showed his true colours, we decided to place our hope in the 'democratic' Chinese. Again with no clear idea as to who these 'democratic' Chinese were and with no clear and systematic analysis and understanding of their background, their interests and connections, and what their own game plan might be. I am not condemning or rejecting the idea of hope per se. After all, who am I to do such a thing? As I have mentioned earlier, like most average, ordinary people I too indulge in hope - at times of the wildest and most fanciful kind. But there is huge difference the simple optimism of the simple folk and the manner in which governments frame their policies and strategies. In any case, there must be some limit on how far government policy and strategy can be based solely on hope and goodwill.

At some point we need to stop, sit back, review and seriously and open mindedly rethink our policies. To do so we need to make a thorough re-assessment of our past decisions and future options. Many questions come to mind. What evidence do we have to believe that democracy in China would mean freedom for Tibet? Or, to put it in another form - what grounds do we have to believe that those expressing support for democracy and even recognising the rights of the Tibetan people to freedom will not change their position when (if ever) they gain control of the government in China. After all, even Mao recognised the right of different nationalities to break away from the rest of China before he got into power. Are we sure that we are not transferring our own perceptions of how we want a 'democratic' government in China to function on the Chinese democracy movement?

When discussing the Chinese democracy movement I believe it is important to remember that they are not a united, cohesive movement with a single leadership making policy and the rest following obediently. While they may all agree that some changes are needed in the present government - there is no indication that they agree on what these changes should be. What we know for sure is that the movement is made up of numerous groups and even more factions and alliances within each group. Most important of all, we must not forget that whatever they may say or however well intentioned such statements may be - the people making these statements are not in power. While many may be seeking only to bring about positive changes, there are bound to be those who are primarily seeking positions of power.

From the very outset I could not believe that people working for democracy in China would or even can support Tibetan independence. I also had my suspicions that democracy in China could in any way be good for Tibet. Call them radical and extremist views or simple hard-headedness or what you will, these were my gut reactions. Later I was to find both reasons and evidence to support my views.

It is common knowledge that ours is not this only struggle for independence. Someone calculated that about one third of mankind are involved in some form of struggle for self-determination. The struggles range from tiny tribes seeking only to survive to those seeking various degrees of autonomy to independence. But not all these struggles attract international support. In my view, struggles which do not or cannot international support are those which are taking place in essentially democratic countries. Take for example the case of Quebec seeking independence from the rest of Canada. Even though our resources are nothing compared to those of Quebec the Tibetan cause has attracted far greater international attention and support. Also, while it may not be enough, yet there is considerable international condemnation of China's rule in Tibet. But we do not hear of any international censure of the Canadian government. I attribute this to the fact that Canada is essentially a democratic process available to any group not happy with the existing state of affairs there is little, if any possibility for any kind of international intervention. After all, every country has their own problems and there are limits to how far one country can intervene in the affairs of another.

The fact that we are up against a totalitarian communist regime, I believe, has played no small role in our being able to attract a wide range of international support. Already the economic liberalisation in China has greatly complicated the situation. Firstly because of the huge market China represents but more so as a result of China's increasing participation in the international market which binds the business and economic interests of most major countries to China's economy. This more or less rules out any possibility for the kind of massive economic sanctions needed to make China even rethink its policy on Tibet. Even otherwise, I believe the economic liberalisation in China can be perceived and has been described as an indication of China's willingness to change politically and therefore reason not to censure China. What would be the position of these and other governments once China makes the political transition to a democracy - even if only in outward appearance?

Will the situation be different if the transition to 'democracy' were to come from outside the government - say from some section of the pro-democracy movement? It would be beyond the scope of this article to try to analyse the Chinese democracy movement or the many groups and factions which divide the movement. What is relevant to us is the question of whether the Chinese democracy movement will or even can support Tibetan freedom. Among other things, one important factor which keeps the Chinese Communist Party in power is their repeated claim and general public perception that it is only the Party which has and can protect the unity of the Great Motherland. Any perception that democracy would or could entail the break up of the Motherland will spell the end of any public support for democracy. I have reason to believe that the leaders of the democracy movement are keenly aware of this. While they did not say so in so many words, this fact was brought home to me at a meeting with the top leadership of the Federation for a Democratic China (FDC) in Paris in 1990.

Added to this is the fact that the Communist Party has, in recent years, managed to achieve for China the fastest economic growth in the world. Granted that the economic development has not benefited all sections of the society equally and that it has generated growth in the world. Granted that the economic development has not benefited all sections of the society equally and that it has generated a great deal of corruption and resentment. But enough people, specially among the most influential sections of the society, have benefited to make it in their interest to maintain the present situation. It is also difficult to believe that even the poorest would wish to return to a situation resembling the poverty stricken and bloody days of the Cultural Revolution. The stark lessons for the events in the former Yugoslavia cannot be totally lost on the Chinese people.

I am not in any way being ungrateful to the expressions of support from individual Chinese people nor am I dismissing the importance of the democracy movement for China. But in the end I cannot see how it can be in the interest of the democracy movement to seriously support the idea Tibetan independence. For the same reasons I do not see the possibility of their granting us our freedom once they attain to power in China - whatever that might be.


Lhasang Tsering was twice the president of Tibetan Youth Congress and one of the founding directors of the Amnye Machen Institute. He was also a member of the CIA-trained Tibetan Resistance Force operated from Mustang, Nepal

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