When the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s enterprising Beijing correspondent, Stephen McDonnell, hopped over the wall of the elite Beijing Minority Nationalities Institute he and his camera glimpsed a sight we should long treasure.
There, on a bitterly cold night, out in the open, were two rows of Tibetan students, their faces lit only by candles, deep in prayer and meditation, as the yanda - strike hard - hour approached. Their vigil was for all Tibetans facing the wrath of a state equipped with every conceivable technology of surveillance, control and punishment, and a vast coercive, carceral apparatus. Silently, they went inwards, gathering strength for the coming storm, which will almost certainly sweep away what, till that moment, promised to be their brilliant careers.
These were not just any Tibetan kids, but the handpicked young of the highest Tibetan Communist Party officials in Tibet; the handful who have mastered the verbal and body language of the Chinese master race, and were, till their candle lit prayers, being groomed to return to Tibet, to implement China’s will.
Now, just by silent prayer, they have shown the jumpy leaders of the Party that no Tibetan is to be trusted, not even the new elite taken from their families, educated like a stolen generation in Chinese schools far from Tibet, carefully selected through their parent’s credentials as Party members.
The Tibetan students in Beijing found by the ABC cameras will, at best, now be required to undergo thought reform under close supervision by professional Party “thought workers”, to use a direct translation of the Chinese term. The students have shamed their Chinese teachers, who could be seen on camera pleading with them to go indoors, lest everyone lose face. Now the professors have lost face, as the students remained silent, in two rows facing each other, just as monks do each morning and evening as they sing the praises of the protector deities.
This is deeply shameful, since the world now sees it. Perhaps many of this new Tibetan generation, schooled so far from home, family and the land of Tibet, actually know little of Buddhism, just as Australia’s Aboriginal stolen generation had access to very little traditional knowledge, yet their body language, their candles, silence and prayers all mimed the lamas.
If even the new generation of Tibetan Party bureaucrats sides, in a crunch, with their fellow Tibetans, then China’s battle for the hearts and minds of Tibetans is lost. Yet again. China’s strategy of building and staffing highly academic schools for Tibetans, not in Tibet, but in distant provinces, has failed again.
What is especially shocking is how often the same cycle repeats, how often the Party believes its own propaganda, that all Tibetans love the Chinese motherland and, through coercive mass campaigns, embrace the current Party line. Then it becomes painfully apparent that coercion is counter productive, there is a fresh clamp down, a hunt to root out and liquidate the enemy within, and the cycle of fear, alienation and mistrust cranks up again.
The Tibetans revolted 20 years ago and 50 years ago. The issues have remained much the same. When I first met and interviewed Tibetans, for an ABC radio documentary series 30 years ago, the issues were so similar to today that the 1979 series Paths to Shangrila could be rebroadcast and only an expert would notice this is a doco from 1979 and not 2008.
China has changed so dramatically in almost every other facet of economy and society, yet remains in a Marxist timewarp over Tibet, endlessly repeating the same mistakes. The Party wants to be loved by the six million Tibetans whose physical areas designated as counties of Tibetan governance cover one quarter of China, in five Chinese provinces. Party hostility to Buddhism runs deep, and we are now hearing the harshest paranoid language from Zhang Qingli, the hardline Party boss of Tibet “Autonomous” Region, as he launches what he calls a people’s war to exterminate dissent.
But, for Party bosses on the rise, this is a standard way to the top. The last time Tibetans revolted - 20 years ago - Hu Jintao was the Party boss, as Zhang Qingli is today, and now Hu is China’s President. Hu imposed martial law; hundreds of Tibetans were imprisoned, tortured and given long sentences on the basis of confessing to anything prosecutors extracted. Being tough on Tibetans is always a good move for a man on the make, inside the Party leadership circles. Being soft on Tibetans is like being soft on crime, a tag that does nothing for a political career.
That’s one reason the Party never learns how to win over the Tibetans by showing a bit of respect.