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Live From Lhasa

Shaky cell-phone videos from Tibet fore­tell doom for the Chi­nese empire.

by Anne Apple­baum
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Cell-phone pho­tographs and videos from Tibet, blur­ry and ama­teur, are cir­cu­lat­ing on the Inter­net. Some show clouds of tear gas; oth­ers burn­ing build­ings and shops; still oth­ers pur­ple-robed monks, riot police, and con­fu­sion. Watch­ing them, it is impos­si­ble not to remem­ber the cell-phone videos and pho­tographs sent out from burn­ing Ran­goon only six months ago. Last year Bur­ma, this year Tibet. Next year, will YouTube fea­ture shops burn­ing in Xin­jiang, home of Chi­na’s Uighur minor­i­ty? Or riot police round­ing up refugees along the Chi­nese-North Kore­an bor­der?

That covert cell phones have become the most impor­tant means of trans­mit­ting news from cer­tain parts of East Asia is no acci­dent. Lhasa, Ran­goon, Xin­jiang, and North Korea: All of these places are, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, dom­i­nat­ed by the same media-shy, pub­lic­i­ty-sen­si­tive Chi­nese regime. Though we don’t usu­al­ly think of it this way, Chi­na is, in fact, a vast, anachro­nis­tic, ter­ri­to­r­i­al empire, with­in which one dom­i­nant eth­nic group, the Han Chi­nese, rules over a host of reluc­tant “cap­tive nations.” To keep the peace, the Chi­nese use meth­ods not so dif­fer­ent from those once used by Aus­tro-Hun­gary or czarist Rus­sia: polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion, secret police repres­sion, and mil­i­tary force.

But, then, mod­ern Chi­na bears many sur­pris­ing resem­blances to the empires of the past in oth­er ways, too. Like its Sovi­et impe­r­i­al pre­de­ces­sor, for exam­ple, Chi­na encom­pass­es both an “inner” empire, of which Tibet and Xin­jiang are the most promi­nent com­po­nents, and an “out­er” empire, con­sist­ing most notably of its Burmese and North Kore­an clients. Like its French and British pre­de­ces­sors, the Chi­nese empire must wres­tle con­stant­ly with nations whose lan­guages, reli­gions, and cus­toms dif­fer sharply from its own and whose behav­ior is, there­fore, unpre­dictable. And like all its pre­de­ces­sors, the Chi­nese impe­r­i­al class cares deeply about the paci­fi­ca­tion of the impe­r­i­al periph­ery, more so than one might think.

For proof that this is so, look no fur­ther than the biog­ra­phy of Hu Jin­tao, the cur­rent Chi­nese president—and also the for­mer Com­mu­nist Par­ty boss of Tibet. In 1988 and 1989, at the time of the last major riots, Hu was respon­si­ble both for the bru­tal repres­sion of dis­si­dent Tibetan monks and dis­si­dents and for what the Dalai Lama has sub­se­quent­ly called Chi­na’s pol­i­cy of “cul­tur­al geno­cide”: the impor­ta­tion of thou­sands of eth­nic Han Chi­nese into Tibet’s cities in order to dilute and even­tu­al­ly out­breed the eth­nic Tibetan pop­u­la­tion.

Clear­ly, the repres­sion of Tibet mat­ters enor­mous­ly to the mem­bers of Chi­na’s rul­ing clique, or they would not have pro­mot­ed Hu, its mas­ter­mind, so far. The paci­fi­ca­tion of Tibet must also be con­sid­ered a major polit­i­cal and pro­pa­gan­da suc­cess, or it would not have been copied by the Chi­nese-backed Burmese regime last year and repeat­ed by the Chi­nese them­selves in Tibet last week. Tibet is to Chi­na what Alge­ria once was to France, what India once was to impe­r­i­al Britain, what Poland was to czarist Rus­sia: the most unre­li­able, the most intran­si­gent, and at the same time the most sym­bol­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant province of the empire.

Keep that in mind, over the next few days and months, as Chi­na tries once again to belit­tle Tibet, to explain away a nation­al­ist upris­ing as a bit of van­dal­ism. The last week’s riots began as a reli­gious protest: Tibet’s monks were demon­strat­ing against laws that, among oth­er things, require them to renounce the dalai lama. The monks’ march­es then esca­lat­ed into gen­er­al­ized, unplanned, anti-Chi­nese vio­lence, cul­mi­nat­ing in attacks on Han Chi­nese shops and busi­ness­es, among them—as you can see on the cell-phone videos—the Lhasa branch of the Bank of Chi­na.

How­ev­er the offi­cial ver­sion evolves, in oth­er words, make no mis­take about it: This was not mere­ly van­dal­ism, it could not have been sole­ly orga­nized by out­siders, it was not only about the Olympics, and it was not the work of a tiny minor­i­ty. It was a sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal event, proof that the Tibetans still iden­ti­fy them­selves as Tibetan, not Chi­nese. As such, it must have sig­nif­i­cant rever­ber­a­tions in Bei­jing. The war in Alge­ria brought down the French Fourth Repub­lic. The dis­si­dent move­ments on its periph­ery helped weak­en the Sovi­et Union. Right now, I’d wager that Hu Jin­tao’s Tibet pol­i­cy is caus­ing a lot of con­ster­na­tion among his col­leagues.

And if they aren’t wor­ried, they should be. After all, the his­to­ry of the last two cen­turies is filled with tales of strong, sta­ble empires brought down by their sub­jects, under­mined by their client states, over­whelmed by the nation­al aspi­ra­tions of small, sub­or­di­nate coun­tries. Why should the 21st cen­tu­ry be any dif­fer­ent? Watch­ing the tear gas roll over the streets of Lhasa yes­ter­day on a blur­ry, cell-phone video, I could­n’t help but won­der when—maybe not in this decade, this gen­er­a­tion, or even this century—Tibet and its monks will have their revenge.

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