Karl Marx famously observed that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. But when it comes to the periodic clashes between Tibetan protesters and China’s authorities, tragedy is all one can see.
As in 1959 and 1989 a familiar story is now unfolding in Lhasa. Once again, crowds of Tibetans angered by limits on their autonomy and fearful of the destruction of their culture took to the streets. Once again, after a wave of protests, a harsh crackdown has begun. Each time, the drama has started in March–no mystery, really, since the 1989 and 2008 protests were triggered in part by the arrival of the anniversary of the 1959 unrest, which swelled into a full-fledged uprising.
History never really repeats itself exactly in any setting. This time, there is the added drama of the Olympics, which take place in Beijing in August, preceded by the spectacle of the Olympic torch making its way across Asia. In early May relay runners are expected to carry the flame through the Himalayas, all the way to Mount Everest.
The Games have focused international attention on nearly every aspect of the People’s Republic of China, including the regime’s flawed human rights record. There has also been hope among activists that the Chinese leadership will this time feel more constrained in its use of force against protesters. It is an open question as to how different the strategy used against the Tibetan demonstrations and riots would have been if the Games weren’t on the horizon.
It is indisputable, though, that the Olympics have influenced the official Chinese response to events in Tibet. One tangible Games-related result is that Beijing has pressured Nepal’s government to close off access to Everest from that country’s side of the mountain. This should ensure that no pesky “Free Tibet” banners are unfurled when the torch is at its highest point this spring, since plans to beef up security on Everest’s Chinese side have been in place for some time.
But it remains doubtful that the regime will be able to keep tourists or spectators in Beijing from voicing support for the Dalai Lama or making eye-catching pro-Tibet gestures while the Games are actually taking place in August.
Communication is another issue. Beijing has made more use than ever before of video footage that shows Tibetans engaging in acts of violence. The regime’s “Net Nanny,” as the cyber-censorship system is sometimes called, has been working overtime, trying to sweep the Web free of all postings that present the protesters in a positive light. And the blogosphere has been filled with comments on Tibet that spin off in many directions, with many nationalistic young Chinese expressing harsh criticism of the Lhasa protesters, while human rights groups stress the injustice of the crackdown in stepped up calls for a boycott.
It may be some time until we know just what happened last week in Lhasa, who did what to whom and when. The city has been sealed off from most foreign observers, yet there have been excellent reports by The Economist‘s James Miles and some scattered messages from international tourists as well as on-the-spot commentaries from outsiders. It remains to be seen how high the toll of violence was when frustrated Tibetan youths lashed out against locals of other ethnicities (both Han Chinese and members of the Hui Muslim minority). Nor do we know how many protesters were beaten, killed or arrested when paramilitary forces moved in to quell the unrest.
Still, it seems likely that as more specifics come to light, what will emerge is a pattern that, despite its distinctively 21st-century features, is easily recognizable to those who have followed the tense push and pull between Tibet and Beijing. The outlines of a tragic and painful dynamic that we have seen before are daily becoming more distinct.
Yet Marx’s suggestion that tragedy and farce are closely linked is not completely without relevance in a situation that pits Tibetan desires for independence (or at least cultural autonomy) against Beijing’s determination to maintain control (and prevent what it dubs an illegitimate separatist movement).
Tragedy gave way to farce in August 2007, when without any apparent irony, the Chinese authorities issued an injunction against unauthorized reincarnation. Concerned by various statements the Dalai Llama had made about how his succession might work, the officially atheist Beijing government laid down the law. To become a “living Buddha without governmental approval,” the edict read, “is illegal and invalid.
And just before the most recent round of protests began, Icelandic songstress Bjork performed in China’s biggest city. The dramatic high point of her show came when she sang “Declare Independence,” a song that includes exhortations like “Protect your language” and “Make your own Flag!” Though it was written with the Faroe Islands and Greenland in mind, and though the singer has sometimes dedicated renditions of it to Kosovo’s people, she gave it a new twist in Shanghai, saying “Tibet, Tibet” after finishing the number–a local gesture that gained global attention on YouTube.
The Chinese government’s response to this was annoyance, leading to a call for closer advance scrutiny of the playlists of foreign performers. One of the first to suffer was Harry Connick, Jr., who put on a show in Beijing just as the protests in Tibet began. According to Beijing-based blogger Jeremiah Jenne, who attended the concert, the audience went away disgruntled by the brevity of the show, the lack of encores, and the fact that the singer barely used his horn section. Afterward, Jenne notes, scattered wire reports and Web posts explained why Connick and his band couldn’t find their groove. Officials showed up right before the show and, working from one of the singer’s old playlists, demanded that he substitute some “safer” numbers for those he had planned to perform.
Even the most paranoid Beijing official has not suggested that there is a direct connection between what Bjork did in Shanghai and what the people of Lhasa did soon afterwards. Nor would I suggest, as new details emerge about the human rights abuses in Tibet, that official meddling with the song list of a foreign performer is a major issue.
Still, the tragic and farcical developments of recent weeks underscore the inherent conflict between China’s desire to place itself in the global spotlight and its hope that no one will focus on the nation’s flaws. They want internationally acclaimed artists to perform in cities like Shanghai without doing unexpected things–even if, like Bjork, part of their cachet is an ability to surprise an audience. But the Chinese leadership is no more capable of balancing these tensions than Don Quixote was of slaying windmills.
The theme song for the Olympics is “We Are Ready,” which points to the fact that Beijing now has world-class arenas in which to hold sporting events. But when it comes to having an Olympic year that follows a script it can control, the song that sums the situation up more effectively might be “The Impossible Dream.”