China’s new central leaders: a new start?

INTRODUCING A NEW SERIES OF REPORTS ON TODAY’S CHINA & IMPACTS ON TIBET

CHINA’S NEW LEADERS: CAN THERE BE A RESTART ON TIBET?

China has new leaders. A new generation has replaced the engineers who believed all problems have an engineering solution, including human engineering on a large scale, shifting entire populations away from ancestral lands redesignated as hydro dam sites, or unproductive pastures better used as watershed protection zones.
With the transition to a new generation of central leaders comes the opportunity for a fresh approach to chronic problems which previous leaders were unable to resolve. Among these is Tibet, where nothing fresh has been done for a long time, despite evidence that the Tibetans are deeply unhappy, so unhappy with China’s governance that in 2012 alone, over 60 Tibetans burned their own bodies in protest. Even this sacrifice failed to stimulate a rethink of central policies that, for decades, have insisted on security crackdowns and massive investment in infrastructure as the twin solutions. “Development is the answer to all Tibetan problems” has been the core slogan of central leaders, as if criminalising free speech and other basic rights somehow goes together with rapid development of cities, mines, dams, highways and railways in Tibet, all attracting nonTibetan immigrants.

A basic and obvious fact that China’s leaders stubbornly fail to acknowledge is that it is not just a few Tibetans who feel that the price of development with Chinese characteristics has been too high, the losses of Tibetan culture, identity and language too great. Nearly all Tibetans are deeply troubled by the imposition of statist agendas from above, backed up by the coercive powers of a state that spends more on the capacity to quell its own citizens than it spends on defence. Nearly all Tibetans grieve at the suffocating incursion of Chinese characteristics into every sphere, leaving no room for Tibetans to be themselves. This is what social scientists call social suffering, because it pervades society.

In the minds of central leaders, Tibet policy has been consistent and coherent, emphasising striking hard against Tibetans who speak up for wildlife and sacred sites, against damming, mining, and religious repression; while injecting massive subsidies to build the infrastructure of industrial modernity.

It may seem blindingly obvious, to Tibetans and observers worldwide, that the Tibetans are unhappy, yet it is the obvious that central leaders have been utterly determined to deny, resorting instead to conspiracy theories. What will it take for them to open their eyes?

The omens are not good. The new leaders seem to be preoccupied with internal party jostlings, manoeuvrings and protection of privileged insiders. The China model seems unlikely to change, unless change comes from below, which is not as uncommon in China as people suppose. The new leaders appear cautious, fearful of change, going to extraordinary lengths to suppress dissent. Even pigeons were banned from flying during the leadership change, for fear they might carry unauthorised messages.

Yet Tibetans remain hopeful, always hopeful that the inevitable change will come sooner rather than later. The current situation is not only fragile, but also sclerotic, phobic towards any significant reform. There are too many vested interests, too many entrenched princelings, for the “advanced forces” to stay ahead of the wave of popular mistrust that must bring real change.

If the Tibetans, despite all immediate evidence to the contrary, are right to remain hopeful, reminding us that everything must and will change, we could ask: in what direction will those changes move China? Is a more egalitarian, less plutocratic China possible? Is a more relaxed and confident China, long foretold by the Dalai Lama, possibly on the horizon? Or is the change going to unleash the hordes of angry, unpropertied and unmarriable young men, to create a fiercely nationalistic and paranoid regime bent on provoking neighbours, and cracking down ever harder on the ungrateful Tibetans? All of these are possible future directions, once the dynamics of change become unstoppable.
If we are to suggest answers, we must find them by first understanding the current “China model.” What drives China now? In the leadership changeover, many Chinese and outside observers pointed out that China lacks a paramount leader able to singly command the masses; and it lacks the democratic process that legitimates regimes.

China is neither totalitarian nor democratic. But what is it? Analysts find this hard to define. There is much dissection of the relations between party and state, capitalism and state ownership, power and economics, as if these are fixed, natural categories that are always distinguishable. But in China today, the party-state has fused economic and political power, has blended capitalism and state ownership to the point where it no longer matters much who technically owns a wealth-generating enterprise. All that matters is who controls it, and in whose interests those in control operate.

China has over one million dollar millionaires, and has become one of the most unequal societies on earth. Those in control, for all their talk of market socialism or harmonious society or scientific development or socialism with Chinese characteristics, rule for themselves, for their private enrichment. Their evident public insecurity extends to their private realm as well, sending as much wealth abroad as possible, in advance of any changes that might curtail their opulence. The business of China is business, with Chinese characteristics of monopolies guaranteed by state power, privileged access to capital, and entrenched barriers to entry that shut out potential competitors. The business of China fuses the party-state and the big state owned corporations in a conglomerate of mutual aid. The state spends massively on infrastructure, which finances the corporate giants that dominate most industries. The national champion corporations get massive subsidies, cheap money, preferential loans, favoured contracts, artificially cheap inputs, and a state apparatus of repression to quell local dissent when land is grabbed, resources are robbed or a polluting factory is constructed. There are too many accumulating too much wealth for there to be any incentive, at the top, for significant reform. Change from above seems highly unlikely.

Does this matter for Tibet? As recently as the turn of this century, one could argue that Tibet’s problem was purely political, not economic. The blindness of the party to the needs, values and purposes of Tibetan civilisation were the problem. Economically, Tibet remained largely unconnected to lowland China. The Tibetan Plateau, unlike Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang, was not swamped by millions of immigrant Han peasant farmers ploughing the grasslands. The climate was just too cold for Chinese agriculture. The economic linkages were weak. Upland Tibet and lowland China might be under one central government, but were hardly one economy.

That has now changed. The campaign to open the resources of western China to exploitation (xibu da kaifa), the railway to Lhasa, the arrival each year of 12 to 15 million Han tourists in Lhasa, the intensification of mining in large-scale, high-impact copper/gold mines, and the hydrodamming of Tibetans rivers are rapidly transforming Tibet, integrating it into the Chinese economy as never before.

This series of blogs on China’s plans for Tibet looks closely at Tibet’s role in the wealth generating elite machine of contemporary China.

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