March 21, 2008


By Uli Schmetzer

                  No one seems to remember that less then twenty years ago the Chinese Communist Party crushed freedom-
clamoring students with similar brute force it has mobilized against Tibetans demonstrating for ‘freedom’ this month.
The formula of the Chinese has remained unchanged:
                â€˜Blanket the trouble spots with the Peoples Liberation Army. Shoot dead a few dissidents (labeled â
€˜splittists’ and ‘criminals’) to scare the rest. Arrest as many as you can. Sentence those arrested at
impromptu military tribunals to long spells in prison or re-education camps and without recourse to appeals.
What has changed is the reaction across the world.
               After Tiananmen Square in 1989 western leaders fell over each other to denounce the Chinese communists.
We imposed boycotts, sanctions, recalled our emissaries, froze investments and scrapped joint ventures. Western
countries opened wide their doors to tens of thousands of runaway Chinese ‘fighters for democracy,’ even though
the majority were economic opportunists jumping on the asylum bandwagon rolling West.
This indignant reaction and penalization is unthinkable today because China, still denounced as a â
€˜red’ scourge in 1989, has metamorphosed into a major player in the world’s economy. Nearly every
country runs vast trade deficits with China and has vast commercial interest in China. Chinese military might
is now probably only second to that of the U.S.
               More significant: Twenty years ago the investment boycott proved costly for western economic interests
because the vacuum created by the freeze on western investments in China was swiftly filled by Asian investors, among
them Japan, and the formidable Chinese Diaspora in South East Asia, the Bamboo Network. The overseas Chinese,
including the Taiwanese and Hong Kongese, had financed the student uprising but when it failed they quickly realized the
communist apparatus would guarantee stability for their funds, if necessary by brute force. In turn the communist
Chinese, desperate to keep the economic growth rate turning over after the western freeze-out, offered lucrative land
concessions and tax exemptions to investors after the 1989 blood-letting.
               So the Diaspora switched sides. While the West sulked the overseas Chinese shoveled into China more then
80 per cent of the investment funds that have created the industrial powerhouse now flooding the globe with Chinese
products and components. It took years before western nations managed to regain a slice of the market.
               No one is talking today about an economic boycott over Tibet. Our hypocritical moralists are advocating a
boycott of the Beijing Olympics later this year because the Chinese have violated the human rights of the Tibetans, a
people who want to return to their status of independence before China invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950.
               If invasion and keeping your invaded territory by force is the criteria for an Olympic boycott or a ban to
participate then the number of culprits escalates: What about banning the United States for its invasion of Iraq or Israel
for its colonization of the Palestinians, or Russia for its brute aggressions in Chechnya, or Kenya and the Sudan for their
ethnic and religious slaughters?
              Let’s be honest: An Olympic boycott would only hurt China’s prestige but not its booming economy.
If our moralists want to do something more effective then stopping a few athletes from doing their
thing in Beijing why have they not called for a boycott of Chinese goods?
                Now that effect could hurt a government which survives on the promise of continued economic growth which
offers its citizen a better materialistic life. This bait is obviously preferable to ‘democratic freedoms’ - whatever that
means in our world today.
But a boycott of Chinese goods would dramatically reduce the products available in our own stores,
interrupt our ‘globalized’ manufacturing chains - anything from automobiles to golf clubs - and so slash
the profit margins of our merchants, our octopus-like corporations and their overpaid executives.
              By the way this is not the first time the Olympic movement was confronted by bloodshed on the eve of the
              Ten days before the Mexico City Games in 1968 Mexican troops shot dead hundreds of people at Tlatelolco, the
Square of the Three Culture, during a student rally calling for an end to the autocratic rule of the government party. The
brutal massacre of unarmed civilians, which I personally witnessed, did not prevent the International Olympic Committee
from voting to continue with the Games.             
             But that was Mexico, a next-door neighbor and ally of the United States. Today it is China, a rival of the United
States. If there is an Olympic boycott China’s image can be tarnished, as it already is by troops shown on western TV
beating or shooting demonstrating Buddhist monks.
              But this time, unlike Tiananmen when all communications channels were surprisingly kept open for the western
media, the Chinese have fire-walled news on the Internet, closed Tibet to the foreign media and embarked on their own
propaganda campaign. Chinese Television now shows Tibetan monks attacking Chinese security forces with stones and
sticks, a violation of the venerated Buddhist doctrine of peaceful resistance.
            While the monks may have changed tactics, hitting back instead of turning the other cheek, the Chinese
government’s ‘anti-protest’ recipe dates back to imperial days and was dished up last time in public on June 3,
1989 on Tiananmen Square. This recipe has to work because China’s totalitarian system cannot accommodate
dissent. Therefore, and logically, revolt must be crushed, its roots extirpated if the system is to survive.   
             So what can be the future of Tibet and its Dalai Lama theocracy, a kind of Buddhist fundamentalism in which the
monks and ‘lamas’ are the aristocracy and the law while the rest of the populace remains their devoted servants,
something like the clergy in medieval Catholicism or the mullahs in today’s Islam.
           China has never allowed the veneration of icons others then those of communism. Veneration of religious leaders
like the Dalai Lama or the Pope in Rome is prohibited. And China views the Himalayan province as a strategic region
controlling the vast water and mineral resources of the Himalayas.
                Mao Tsetung sent millions of Han (Chinese) settlers into Tibet after the annexation. These settlers received
preferential treatment by the Chinese authorities in Tibet.  Soon the settlers outnumbered the natives and this is the root
grievance for the current protests. Tibetans are angry because their daily life and their economic opportunities are
monopolized by the Han. The natives of Tibet are marginalized. The protest of the natives is not for the return of the Dalai
Lama, as the West would like to portray it, but for a bigger part in the economic boom. Tibet’s religious leader, in self-
exile since 1959, serves as a figurehead for the monks who, naturally, would like to see a renaissance of the theocracy
that made them a superior caste, a tradition the Chinese abolished.
              Perhaps the only hope, if there is any hope, for the Tibetans to regain some of their culture and religious rights
is the suggestion, aired this month by former British Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to persuade the government
in Beijing to grant Tibet the kind of autonomy now enjoyed by Hong Kong and Macau, an autonomy dangled also in front
of Taiwan.
             This could mean the return of the Dalai Lama, the revival of Tibetan culture while foreign affairs and defense
would remain in the hands of Beijing. The Chinese government would also keep a governor and the right of veto. And it
certainly would not withdraw any of its Han settlers who are now at the core of the problem, the reason why the
demonstrators this month smashed and looted Chinese shops and businesses.
             For years Chinese delegates and representatives of the Dalai Lama have been engaged in this kind of ‘peace
talks.’ But just like the periodic negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians these talks have failed to
produce any headway because the stronger of the negotiating parties is not under domestic or outside pressure to make
            So why make them?

(Uli Schmetzer was the Chicago Tribune’s staff correspondent in China between 1988 and 1996)