Old Europe, New China and those Tibetan terrorists

In the commodious grounds of the oldest of Dutch think tanks, the Clingendael Institute, the pastoral idyll abounds. Green meadows, clipped formal gardens, sheep grazing safely in their fields; and a  Japanese garden of trees artfully pruned, not for symmetry but a contorted beauty. Inside the old chateau, dark panels and paintings redolent of a lost golden age on the walls.

What better venue to discuss urgent matters of the day, such as China’s new anti-terror law, a portmanteau of illegality that can criminalise anyone, for anything? A gathering of Tibetans, Uighurs, policy specialists, security analysts, Falun Gong practitioners: nothing unusual for Clingendael, used to assessing and planning the oversized Dutch global footprint, for generations. Somehow the gravitas of the ancestors, the ghosts of the East India Company came full circle with the arrival of this gathering of the dispossessed and displaced, expelled by the Chinese empire.

If ever there was an incarnation in stone and wood of the European ideal, of prosperity with peace, of security within the calm of a natural setting, it is Clingendael. This baronial manor has trained thousands of diplomats, not only from the Netherlands but throughout the developing world. Amid a summer flush of Himalayan rhododendrons, Clingendael is all understatement, old money, old power, and utterly contemporary. Hosting the wretched of the earth is nothing new for Clingendael, nor is it new that Clingendael is fully engaged with the urgent influx of refugees to Europe, the dangers of terrorism and the necessarily vigilant security that lets in the refugees and keeps out the murderers.

What passes as sage advice in the West is never make China lose face, or the dragon will roar, and incinerate you. Nowhere has China lost more face, failed so utterly, than in Tibet. The dragon has roared, the anti-terror laws codify the roar, but the Tibetans, like the Monkey King, are irrepressible, and they choose by themselves when to incinerate, to remind each other to stay strong, and fear nothing.

Clingendael is near Delft, where Dutch potters hacked the secret of Chinese porcelain, with its translucent white glaze made of tin, and its bright blue, of Iranian cobalt. Iran is where blue and white porcelain orginates; having made it to China, it was a coup of intellectual property theft, and an early move towards globalisation, to make it available to the masses of Europe, from Delft.

Buddhism and much later Islam similarly travelled from central Asia to China, and ultimately to Europe. At much the same time, the last dynasty of Han Chinese emperors, the Ming, were also perfecting an absolutist state with the tightest control possible over the population, a premodern precursor of today’s anti-terrorist grid management.

It was the next dynasty, the nomadic warriors from Manchuria who named themselves the Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty, who gained much control over Tibet, creating an empire that to this day has not been successfully assimilated into China. While the Qing were busy conquering Tibet, they were losing control of the porcelain trade to Delft.

China today is still dealing with the consequences. These days the theft of intellectual property tends to be in reverse, as many European companies have found, to their shock, when their hi-tech suddenly becomes available from China.  While China may be adept at hacking European businesses –a skill they trialled 20 years back by hacking Tibetan exiles- they still struggle to cook the obstinately raw Tibetan barbarians, who remain foreign, perversely preferring their cold plateau to the comforts of a Chinese city life. So China has brought back the old Ming dynasty grid management of intensive policing, with neighbourhood surveillance teams on every block, alert to the slightest stirrings of dissent or discontent.

In the Ming period, all the enforcement of political correctness was in human hands, driven by block captains who knew every person they monitored, an up-close technique for quelling dissent as soon as it arises, even in a private mutter. These days such traditional methods (Americans call this humint, short for human intelligence gathering) is greatly supplemented by sigint, electronic surveillance signals intelligence. Today’s grid management, legitimated by China’s new anti-terror laws, combines restrictions on movement by Tibetans, intensive humint and sigint to clamp down immediately on any signs of unhappiness. In official eyes, this new humint/sigint grid management system works so well in Tibet, it has become the model for a China-wide rollout.

Since we all live, to some extent, in a security state that has given itself extraordinary powers to detain and interrogate people who have committed no crime other than thinking bad thoughts about the state, there may even be a danger that in the West, we too may be tempted to adopt this latest of Chinese exports: the grid management system. If we were to make the great mistake of stigmatising all Muslims as a threat, we too could be drawn to grid management in Molenbeek or the Islamic banlieux of Paris. And China would have a new export, of all that sigint surveillance equipment that, in Lhasa, has replaced the snipers visible on Tibetan rooftops. Let’s hope we don’t make that mistake.

The global trade in porcelain, in techniques of monitoring hearts and minds, in quelling the masses, in turning empires into nation-states, are global issues, in a time of mass refugee movements and terrorists in our midst. But in all the debates, Tibet is usually missing, regarded as a side issue, an also-ran, almost superfluous to the main story. Yet if we look more closely, the Tibetans are at the heart of today’s perplexity of how to deal effectively with China.

A full Tibetan analysis of the impact of China’s sweeping securitisation of Tibetan aspirations and objections to Han Chinese racism, was launched in Tokyo 15 November 2016.

On the podium was a global assortment of the displaced. A Chinese lawyer exiled to New York for frankly naming China’s existential anxiety at the prospect of state collapse because, in the holy fasting month of Ramadan, Uighurs close their restaurants by day. If you didn’t know that this is illegal, now you do. What is legal or illegal in China is entirely in the hands of the party-state: the law says exactly whatever they say it means. Having myself been deported from China for the crime of “pretending to be an official of the World Bank”, I would like to propose a competition to nominate the most bizarre definition of an actual conviction, in China, for a criminal offence.

Sharom Hom, of Human Rights in China had much to tell about this latest over-reach of the security state, its insistence that unhappy Uighurs or Tibetans are to be defined as criminal and subject to the full harshness, in the name of rule by law, of indefinite detention, disappearance, extorted confessions, 24/7 surveillance (both sigint and humint, as the Americans say, both electronic hacking and a human monitor on the block where you live, who knows you personally and knows all your moves).

Veteran Tibetan diplomat Kelsang Gyaltsen said Kissinger’s “wisdom” has long been that the West must never make China feel it has lost face. That hoary foolishness has been the consensus for so many decades, we are now reaping the result: a rapacious China that demands and demands, knowing if it sounds demanding enough it always gets its way. Now we all pay the price of endlessly accommodating China. Today’s authoritarianism is the result. The walls of Clingendael, witness to so much of the exercise of power, have heard this many times.

The question posed by our Tibetan hosts of this forum: whether  anti-terror laws protect or punish, is an old question, not so easy to answer when there are everywhere people in need of protection and a tiny number of violent terrorists who must be punished.

The irrepresssible Uighur leader Dolgun Isa, himself labelled a terrorist by China, thus unable to visit even usually accommodating India, made it clear punishment is now extended, within China and wherever China has reach, to entire populations, nationalities and peoples, a sweeping criminalisation that ultimately becomes self-fulfilling. This, he was too polite to say, now confronts every government inclined to categorise Muslims as threats. If the many to be protected are to be secure in the long term, the very few to be excluded must be few indeed, not whole peoples. The West too teeters on the verge of making China’s sweeping and self-defeating mistake.

The Tibetans have long been at the centre, even if we, on the peripheries of the one continent of Eurasia, have seldom noticed. The modern grid management of Xi Jinping’s reinvigorated absolutist party-state was trialled in the laboratory of Tibet, and in the penetration of computers of the exiled Tibetans.

China’s new anti-terror laws allow the party-state to designate anyone a terrorist, for any reason, that need not be made public, ever, on national security grounds. What is the origin of this relentless insistence on treating human unhappiness as criminal, even a threat to the very existence of China?

The security state is a world unto itself, following its own logic. It rules out, from the start, any effort to understand why citizens feel alienated from the state that demands their affections. Tibetans can tell us this is foolish, and counter-productive. It only heightens the distance between Han and Tibetans, Han and Uighur. To relentlessly punish not only behaviour but even thought, because it is deemed a priori to be “anti China”, is to deepen an already deep divide.

Tibetans understand China all too well. In a globalised world where we all need to understand China, there is much they can teach us. The Tibetans know China, without feeling drawn to become Chinese, something China  cannot understand.  But they do not hate China, either, they just want to be different.  The Tibetans have long experience of the imperial hauteur of the court in Beijing, and they have learned when to take it seriously, and when to ignore it. We could learn better not to have our buttons pressed so often by a deeply insecure, pushy, even arrogant China that believes we conspire against China’s rise,  while  they also crave our approval.

We could learn from Tibetans who have endured decades of accusations, criminalisation and grid management, how to deal with the paranoid style of the party-state. After so much repression, the torture and coerced confessions, the Tibetan public suicide protests redefined as the terrorist acts of the deranged, the Tibetans have lost their fear. Now China has lost its hold over them, and it is simply too late for the security state grid management to do more than delay the inevitable.

Tibetans can tell us that the anti-terror laws and the entire security state apparatus imposed on them originates in China’s paranoia about the dissolution of the USSR, lest China fail similarly. The party-state made its decisive turn around 15 years ago, after deciding that designating “autonomous regions” for “minority nationalities” was a grave mistake, borrowed from the Soviet model, that only led to heightened minority nationality nationalism, and distinctively separate identities. One can argue forever if that is what sundered the Soviet Union, but even if it did, China’s turn towards downplaying its own official territorialisation of nationalities, turning instead to the fiction of a single Chinese nationality embracing all 55 minorities, has simply come too late. Fifty years of “autonomy” have done their work, and did make Tibetans feel much more Tibetan, once they saw the extreme violence China can and did deploy. China created the nationalism of the Tibetans, and that cannot now be undone by assimilationism and anti-terror laws. As Kelsang Gyaltsen told us, “the spirit of resistance among Tibetans is stronger than ever.”

China now wants to wash those red-faced, uncouth Tibetans to an even yellow, but it ain’t gonna happen.

This is what Tibetans teach all of us: if you always accommodate China, you get more demands to accommodate more. If you quietly remain true to your own values, can endure the bluster, threats and racist arrogance, you do finally create your own space, which can never be taken away.

We are so used to seeing Tibetans as victims, we have failed to notice their strengths. One of many strengths is the insistence you find everywhere in Tibet on speaking pure Tibetan, not mixing it in with Chinese. Each to their own sphere. To make a mixture is to become ramalug, neither sheep nor goat. On the manicured grounds of old European Clingendael, the sheep and the goats are indeed kept separately, even if the ducks are everywhere. We do need those Tibetans, to tell us how to deal with China.


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