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.