What the global diaspora of Tibetans seldom manage to do is to look at Tibet thru Chinese eyes, not only in Beijing’s eyes but also from the perspective of Lanzhou, Chengdu, Xining and Lhasa. Things look very different if these provincial capitals are the starting point. Lhasa is showered with central money, whatever provincial leaders ask for they get, the whole world is looking. The security state flourishes. Tibet Autonomous Region cadres are adept at stoking Beijing’s conspiratorial mindset, eliciting ever more money for the grid management system that intensively monitors all human activity, ready to intervene when anything unusual happens.
For Xining the Tibetans are far too big to ignore, yet are also seen as a minority dragging on Qinghai’s progress. Tibetans are less than 20% of provincial population, yet occupy 95% of Qinghai’s area, in counties and prefectures legally designated as areas of Tibetan governance. Tibetan (and Mongolian) areas, include the mineral and energy rich Tsaidam Basin and the great Chinese river sources. Amdo/Qinghai has a coherent Tibetan intellectual class capable of holding their own, of leveraging their necessary role as teachers, translators, editors, reporters, tv show hosts, film makers into cultural capital, an uneasy modus vivendi based on a long history of living together.
For Lanzhou Tibetans are a nuisance, only one of many difficulties
For Kunming it’s the success of rebranding one remote corner Shangri-la, the hill station for display of new wealth, plus intensive mining, all that’s needed is the infrastructure of extraction, which is rapidly arriving.
Arguably, in all these four provinces -TAR, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan- there is a tacit understanding, despite the palpable tensions, that prevents situations from boiling over. The exception, among the five Chinese provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau is split, is Sichuan. Overwhelmingly, the Tibetan protest suicides, the security state’s extremes of repression, even mass shootings, have been concentrated in the Tibetan portion of Sichuan.
Why are senior cadres in Chengdu so quick to resort to violence? What is different about Sichuan (and nearby Chongqing) that leads to such intolerance, mistrust, refusal to listen to the evident pain of the Tibetans? Why is the view from Chengdu and Chongqing so different to the stance taken by the leaders in Lhasa, Xining, Lanzhou and Kunming? This is an exploratory attempt at suggesting answers, which tell us not only about frustrated expectations in Chengdu, but also about why China’s new leaders are singling out Chongqing and Chengdu as the epicentres of a rottenness that threatens the legitimacy of party rule right across China.
The Tibetan areas annexed to Sichuan are 42 per cent of the total area of Sichuan, comprising one Amdo prefecture, Ngawa; and one Kham prefecture, Kandze. For the entire 64 years of CCP rule, these areas have seemed tantalisingly close, and promising, yet the outcome has always been frustration and disappointment. For Chengdu that 42% is the next frontier, yet stubbornly resistant to incorporation. Now at last, due to massive central subventions, a railway, hydrodams, all weather highways and major mines are in sight, maybe even earthquake engineering sufficient to populate the plateau foothills with Han. But right now it’s all a tantalising dream yet to be fulfilled, a revolution of rising but frustrated expectations. The barrier remains the Tibetans, far too many to ignore, truculent, with a long history of dogged resistance. The answer has been to invoke the full apparatus of repression, but urban grid management as in Lhasa just doesn’t work in the rugged hills of the most densely populated yet diffused part of Tibet. Step by step the security state installed itself, as township cadres proved incapable of controlling protest, or even knowing the minds of their subjects, because they don’t speak Tibetan. So higher levels took over, shaming the local cadres for their failure, determined to teach both the humiliated cadres and the Tibetans a lesson. That too literally inflamed a highly flammable situation. It became a provincial priority, paralleling Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai’s “smash the black” campaign, lumping Tibetans as a criminal class. The only appropriate response was to strike hard.
Yet in reality, in many parts of Sichuan Tibet, there is tacit agreement in many areas to keep everything peaceable. Local lamas skilfully get things done, communities prosper, cadres are happy, their quotas are met, they get promoted, everyone realises it is in the interests of all to keep the peace. It’s not as if all of Tibet, or all of western Sichuan is in flames. There is still a model of how to get along.
What will happen? In the inflamed areas nothing works, not even the maximal security state that mobilises every Han to stand on street corners, doing their patriotic duty to maintain China’s face by dousing the faces of the immolators. It’s hard to imagine how this could be further intensified, even with grid management.
HARD MEN, HARD TIMES
While Sichuan’s leaders mobilise extreme security state fundamentalism in Kandze and Ngawa, they themselves are under increasing scrutiny by Beijing, led by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping.
What sort of emperor is Xi Jinping? He is clearly not the liberal reformer, proto-democrat, neo-liberaliser that so many in the west prayed for. Nor is he just a stolid do-nothing like Hu Jintao. He just may be a Bismarck: out to realise China’s emergence as a superpower, willing to do what it takes to fulfil China’s rise. Bismarck invented the welfare state, not because he passionately believed in the human dignity of labour and the rights of workers, but because a well fed, housed and healthy working class was essential to building national strength, if Germany was to catch up with UK and France. Maybe the political scientists are right to call up the ghost of Bismarck and Wilhelmine Germany, not only as a metaphor of China’s emergence as a regional power challenging US dominance, but also in domestic management.
Sichuan is not the only fault line rending China. The party-state may be a distinctively Chinese hybrid, but party and state do have separate interests, even contradictions. If there is a high-level advocate for neoliberal privatisation of the entrenched SOEs, at least partially, it is Premier Li Keqiang, who endorsed a proposal jointly issued by the State Council’s Development Reform Commission, and the World Bank, which urged privatisation lest China sclerose into anti-competitive oligopolies able to shut out new market entrants. But, like the ineffective Premier Wen Jiabao before him, such proposals may come to nothing, in the face of entrenched interests with insider access to the highest levels of the party. It is no accident that these reform proposals come from institutions of state, of regularised power operating under standardised rules that affect everyone equally. And it is no accident that the highest state position, of Premier, is routinely outranked by the General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping, who, incidentally, is also China’s president.
While Xi, with his Don’t Speaks, has disappointed western wishful thinkers, does that mean he is bad for Tibet and the prospects for a modus vivendi? He is out to break the Sichuan-Chongqing model of crony capitalism married to Maoist populism. He has more power than Hu ever did, or Jiang Zemin, maybe only Mao had more. And he is clearly a party infighter, determined to further consolidate power and above all ensure the CCP hegemony persists. He is as much an economic reformer as Zhu Rongji, but probably not in the direction of privatising, since ownership matters less than control, and control is what he is about.
He is smart enough to realise the Sichuan security state is ruining the governmentality of Tibet everywhere, and that an alternative approach is needed, for the thoroughly conservative, anti-democratic purpose of buying time, a superficial peace and stability; to get on, uninterrupted, with the rise of China, led by its SOE national champions, whose bosses he appoints. It is now increasingly common to appoint a successful SOE boss to run a troubled province; they are comparable enterprises, requiring comparable managerial fixes, a willingness to do what it takes to restore peace and production.
A Chinese Bismarck would realise the security state barkers surrounding him are wrong in insisting the only way to deal with Tibetans is force. He wouldn’t have to look far beyond Ngawa and Kandze towns to find what he is looking for, that tacit social contract between skilful lamas and prudent cadres: you leave us space to get on with our lives, and there will be no trouble. It’s that simple. Not only is that the deal at a local level, it is all Tibetans, at the global level, have ever asked for, ever since the Dalai Lama made it clear 25 years ago that cultural autonomy is the key requirement. A Chinese Bismarck might realise China can live with this, it is doable, and achieves exactly what Xi needs. All Tibetans are asking for is room to get on with their lives without obnoxious intrusions of a security state obsessed with extracting from every educated Tibetan a statement of gratitude to the CCP, and denunciation of the Dalai Lama.
Xi is smart enough to recognise that the current strategy is not working, powerful enough to change course, ruthless enough to get rid of the entrenched security state, pragmatic enough to do the deal and get China off the hook. You don’t always need a democrat.
But what would drive him to tackle a reset, overriding and outmanoeuvring the strong vested interests of the deep security state? He has enough on his plate already, and the mass line, more than ever, is Don’t Speak of Tibet, don’t let Tibetans speak for themselves, if we can maintain a great silence in the public sphere we can maintain the fiction that that’s all that is needed.
What may provide the push is China’s slide into a lower rate of growth, at a time of higher expectations that the comfort and prosperity Deng promised to all over 30 years ago has failed to materialise. China faces the prospect of a property bubble collapse, a blow out in bad loans, a limit on further state finance to stimulate growth through a cash splash on infrastructure, a shift of manufacturing jobs to even cheaper labour countries, and many other challenges. There is much talk of China sliding into the doldrums, akin to Japan’s “lost decades” since 1990, decades of little growth. That may be no bad thing. Japan was and is prosperous. A lower growth rate may at least slow major Chinese mining projects in Tibet. But the CCP rightly fears such a scenario, not only because it limits wealth accumulation for the rich, but limits opportunities for the not-so-rich who are increasingly frustrated at the monopolisation of wealth by the new rich and the well-connected. China is now the second most extremely unequal country in the world, only by South Africa is more extreme.
China’s leaders have adroitly averted similar dangers before, such as a banking system in the 1990s so laden with bad debt it should have collapsed. Over many years, those failing banks were recapitalised, only to be ordered, in 2009 and 2010, to again make huge, rash, unrepayable loans to greedy SOEs that took public finance in through the front door and out the back door as private equity in property speculation, which may yet burst as badly as did the Tokyo bubble of 25 years ago.
Xi Jinping may have several crises on his hands, including widespread popular expectations that wealth be shared more equitably, and the new consumer class be given greater say. He will also find, if he has any inclination to rein in the SOE national champions, that they are now far more powerful than when the last serious reformer, Zhu Rongji, took on major economic reform.
The likeliest scenario for Tibet to regain a bit of breathing space is that, in the midst of juggling myriad problems and crises, the iron fist is recognised for what it is: counter-productive and self-defeating.
The perceptive Francois Godemont notes that Xi Jinping has set aside the convention that party leaders speak only of “we”. Xi is entirely comfortable of speaking in the first person singular, thus speaking to and for China, enunciating the new “mass line”. Godemont says: “This is a strong leader who has an absolute sense of his individual, genealogical, and ideological legitimacy.” Xi Jinping may be China’s Bismarck. Hard men can do hard things that softer, well-intentioned men struggle to achieve. Xi Jinping has vowed to liquidate the tigers and the flies of corruption, and shows every sign of doing so, not because corruption is evil but because the basic social contract, the minimal trust necessary between the ruled and the ruling party, depends on effective action that catches not only flies but a few tigers too. A hard headed decision to haul away the attack dogs rampant in Sichuan Tibet could widen that tacit modus vivendi that already exists, even close to the most inflamed areas. A weak leader will be criticised for such a move, pandering to China’s enemies. A hard man can do it. Xi Jinping’s top target seems to be the security apparatus boss who was at the forefront of the hardline in Tibet, Zhou Yongkang, a man likened to J Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney, the hardest of hard men.
The rottenness rampant in Chongqing and Chengdu may have poisoned relations between Tibetans and Han Chinese in upper Sichuan, and ruined the reputation of the CCP across China. Xi Jinping’s ruthless determination to bring down the architects of the security state and Sichuan’s corrupt cronyism might yet clear the way for a restart. Xi Jinping may yet realise that he, and China, can live with cultural autonomy for Tibetans, and get off his back a great weight. And he’s tough enough to cut through the entrenched resistance, within his ranks, to any fresh approach to the deeply unhappy Tibetans.