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Commentary: How China misjudged the mood in Tibet

Tibetan Buddhist believers pray at Ramoche Temple in Lhasa, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, May 7, 2016. Photo: Xinhua
In 1979, Beijing agreed to allow the Dalai Lama to send a series of small delegations to Tibet.

Compared with the situation under Mao Zedong's iron curtain, this relatively open attitude was received with admiration by the rest of the world. But it also shed light on Beijing's ignorance of the actual situation in Tibet.

Completely intoxicated after years of absorbing its own propaganda about the situation in Tibet and believing that the Tibetans had undergone earth-shattering political change, they thought that the Dalai Lama's delegation would be seriously impressed with what it saw.

The most ridiculous thing of all was that Tibetan officials in Tibet held meeting to urge organizations at all levels to persuade local people not to throw stones or spit on the Dalai Lama's delegation because of their hatred of the "old society."

In the event, Beijing was publicly humiliated. The leader of the first delegation to Tibet, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Lobsang Samten, was welcomed by tens of thousands of Tibetans wherever he went.

People gathered around his tour group, shedding tears of happiness, kneeling on the ground, and prostrating themselves. Many of them were crying in grief and pain in front of the delegation, telling them how they had suffered under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

The delegation saw the truth about Tibet: the total destruction of Tibetan religion and culture. They saw that the people lived in poverty and destitution, virtually in the dark ages, and that in some places conditions were even worse than during the reign of the Dalai Lama.
Beijing was stunned by what transpired. How did the party, which had always proclaimed itself the representative of the people, explain its distance from that people?

So the authorities adopted a series of measures to restrict the freedom of the delegation, hoping to avoid a repeat of the first incident. They also tightened control over the Tibetan people and cut off their contact with the visiting delegations when the next groups continued their visits to Tibet.

The delegation took various countermeasures to try to break the blockade, openly expressed its dissatisfaction, and exposed the government's behavior to the world via the Western media.

During this stage of the interactions, tensions continued to worsen, until Beijing ultimately accused the delegation of inciting Tibetans to rebel against China and stopped all subsequent visits.

Such were the thorny issues confronting the Chinese Communist Party as it opened up to the outside world. It wanted to open itself up to the rest of the world, and yet true openness was never a possibility.

This episode also explains why it is that China has received far more public condemnation over its Tibet policy since the Deng Xiaoping era [since 1979] than under Mao Zedong, when it was completely closed to the outside world.

Nobody could enter Tibet then, not Westerners, not the Dalai Lama, nobody. There was nothing to see.

There were no real-time news reports of hot spots to attract public attention, only our darkest imaginings of what Tibetans must be suffering. By the time Deng took power, foreigners were able to visit Tibet, which was progress of a sort.

Except that concrete and damning evidence of what the Communist Party did in Tibet was exposed, sparking widespread public condemnation.

Faced with such a situation, and accustomed to being able to control the media, the Communist Party reacted, as it always has, by imposing restrictions and releasing evidence intended to counter the criticism in the Western media.

There was much development in Tibetan society during the 1980s, but at the same time there was an increase in dissent and revolt. In September 1987, Lhasa saw its first public demonstration since 1959.

The communist regime sent in the police and the People's Liberation Army to crack down on a wave of protests, firing at the crowds and suppressing the protests, in an episode of bloodshed that shocked the world.

The government then imposed martial law on Lhasa that lasted 14 months until 1989, marking the failure of Deng's Tibet policy.

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