Dr Lezlee Brown Halper – Guest Editorial

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Guest Editorial – Dr Lezlee Brown Halper, Research Associate at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge Tibet scholar and co-author of Tibet – An Unfinished Story. LE Volume One 2014 (Photograph of Buddhist monk © Jill Gocher)

Shocking acts of terrorism have flooded the airwaves this year, but that should not distract us celebrating democracy’s determined progress in places from Burma to Tunisia, to Egypt and even….Hong Kong.

Setting aside decades of military rule, Burma will hold democratic elections near year. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and other political rivals have joined President Thein Sein to push for more transparent and representative government throughout the country and for a cessation of sectarian and religious violence. There is widespread speculation—both within and outside of Burma, that with modest constitutional changes over the coming year, Ms. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest could become the next president…something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. While democratization is a complex process, and ethnic tensions remain a challenge, the “freedom and democracy” Suu Kyi has dreamed of may soon be a reality for the Burmese people.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, democracy is also beginning to take hold. The region was convulsed on September 17, 2011 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit and vegetable seller, poured a can of petrol over himself and lit a match. Local protests became national protests amidst a harsh security crackdown and social media did the rest. It has taken three years for normality to return and only on October 24, 2014 were Parliamentary elections held. Particularly telling was the phone call made by the leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party to the opposition leader of Nidaa Tounes (Tunisian Call) to congratulate him on his Parliamentary success. Presidential elections are to follow.

There is hope that the lessons of Tunisia’s seedling democracy may inform Egypt’s difficult transition which has been racked by violence as the Muslim Brotherhood was replaced by the Al-Sisi secular government. But with conflict on the Gaza border and in the Sinai, and ISIL on the offensive in the region, Cairo’s way forward is not uncomplicated.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, however, is encouraging. It has shown remarkable courage and determination and offers what seems the first step in democratizing China. The protests are an astonishing sight given China’s blunt authoritarian governance which routinely quells democratic expressions in other parts of the country. In 2010 there were an estimated 180,000 protests and riots in China- about 500 a day- that figure is probably higher today – all of which have been met by police force. Hong Kong, now the center of global attention, is a different situation. Hong Kong’s movement, called the Occupy Central Generation, is largely comprised of young people, committed to confronting Beijing’s iron hand to force China to adhere to its commitment to allow full, fair and transparent elections for the city’s Chief Executive in 2017. It is Beijing attempt to rewrite the rules that has prompted the weeks-long protests that have brought this global financial center to a stand-still.

What are Beijing’s options? The continuing protests pose a serious conundrum for the government. If the protesters succeed, the precedent would challenge the regime and the Party’s power in every corner of China’s political space. If force is used to disband the protesters, a Tiananmen label would be applied to Mr. Xi Jinping leading to global estrangement. Regardless of what Beijing may have had in mind when the original agreement was made in 1997, it cannot now tolerate a humiliating public retreat. Likewise, as stalemate brings frustration and the Party’s ‘iron fist’ becomes more apparent in Hong Kong, the ‘cross-straits’ equation is being re-examined in Taipei.

A majority of Taiwanese now believe that Beijing will neither respect its commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ concept, nor will it allow Taiwan to further establish itself on the global stage.

Hong Kong has put the legitimacy of China’s soft power story in play. And in that sense, success for the protesters in Hong Kong could be catastrophic for Beijing domestically and internationally. A ‘ripple effect’ could easily stimulate support for the democracy activists and also animate separatist movements in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Mongolia. An independent-minded Hong Kong would be a beacon to democrats all over China, to say nothing of Southeast Asia. Democracy movements in Guangdong would be strengthened and Beijing is especially fearful that disputants in Xinjiang and Tibet could take heart that their appeals for autonomy might still be heard.

Like the fruit vendor in Tunisia, 133 Tibetans have self – immolated since 2009. This is an act of desperate by people without hope. In Lhasa, the People’s Liberation Army occupation grinds on, and the world watches as the PLA patrols the streets armed with fire extinguishers ready to douse self-immolators protesting Beijing’s rule.

This was not what Mao envisioned when he sent his People’s Liberation Army to invade Tibet in 1950. He knew the move posed a complex political and military challenge, but he hoped a quick success would secure the tiny nation for China before the West could rise to support any Tibetan resistance.

Beijing has poured billions of dollars of development money into Tibet in an attempt to shift attention from its systematic deconstruction of Tibetan culture. Though the Dalai Lama’s likeness cannot be displayed and other cultural expressions have been banned, roads and rail services have been improved. Hot water is now commonplace and housing and schools have been modernized in the larger cities where most of the Han Chinese live. Naturally, these rapid changes have introduced tensions within Tibetan society, as some seek to benefit from the ‘opportunities’ Beijing presents – business licenses, municipal jobs etc.– while others in villages and settlements across Tibet struggle to limit the erosion of their heritage.

Today, some six decades after the area was conquered, and after many years of efforts by Beijing to repopulate the area with ethnic Chinese, Tibet remains un-won. And China, usually so adroit at avoiding diplomatic reversals, has drawn global condemnation for its policies in Tibet, even while so little progress is made there. Tibetan resistance to the Beijing-sponsored Han culture has been paralleled over the past half century by a deep sympathy for traditional Tibet in the West. This has introduced a new and different dimension to China’s Tibet problem. Western infatuation with the Tibetan myth has enabled Tibetans to exercise a unique soft power – the power of moral condemnation – which Beijing can neither control nor ameliorate. It is a soft power that has raised profound questions about the values that inform Chinese society and governance. Most vexing for Beijing, it has slowed China’s progress on the world stage.

Speaking in Britain in 2012 The Dalai Lama said that: “China has to go along with world trends. That’s democracy, liberty, individual freedom. China sooner or later has to go that way. It cannot go backward.”

The flickering light in Tunis has become a beacon for the region offering direction even to Egypt in the midst of deeply troubling times. Hong Kong, now a festival of light, further illuminates the desperate trade-offs infusing authoritarian rule – how to balance public perception, authoritarian values and public security. China is moving slowly, inexorably, reluctantly – toward greater openness. We must hope this comes in time to preserve the unique Tibetan and Uighur cultures barely surviving under the PLA’s hob-nailed boot.

© Lezlee Brown Halper

Also read Dr Lezlee Brown Halper and Dr Stefan Halper authors of TIBET – An Unfinished Story (Hurst Publishers) in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas

Lezlee Brown Halper M.Phil (cantab.), PhD (cantab.) is a Research Associate at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. She is a Tibet scholar who has extensively travelled in and written about South Asia.  

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