Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is the Tibetan Freedom Movement Entering a New Phase?

Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama's March 10 statement on his decision to devolve political leadership of the Tibetan government-in-exile to a democratically elected leader, a major question has been circulating among Tibetans, Chinese, and their supporters: Will the Tibetan freedom movement enter a new phase?  Looking at recent events in Chinese-controlled Tibet and in exile, that question seems to be echoing much louder.

First, Tibetans in Chinese-controlled Tibet have taken unprecedented non-violent actions by self-immolating themselves to voice their anger against continued Chinese repression as well as restrictions including the religious freedom.  So far, eleven Tibetans have self-immolated and six of them died in doing so.  Recently, there were few self-immolation attempts by exile Tibetans in Kathmandu, Nepal and New Delhi, India.

The newly elected Tibetan leadership-in-exile does not encourage self-immolations or protests inside Tibet.  However, they have not issued any statement requesting Tibetans to stop the practice.

Second, Tibetans living in exile have resorted to desperate acts to seek international attention regarding the self-immolations such as the recent storming of the Chinese embassies in Vienna, Austria and Paris, France, during which the Chinese national flag was torn down.  What might these unprecedented actions mean to China as well as to Tibetans?

What do these actions say to China?

As repeatedly noted by Tibet experts, the acts provide a clear message to the Chinese government that its policy of repression in Tibet is not succeeding in making Tibetans happy.  Therefore, China may have to formulate new and more relaxed policies to meet the primary needs and aspirations of ethnic minorities in general, and of the Tibetan minority in particular.

The self-immolations within and outside Chinese-controlled Tibet may be a massive warning sign for China.  Until now, the acts have remained non-violent. However, they also indicate the potential for violent activities from Tibetans who may be willing to sacrifice their lives.

Further, these acts indicate that the Tibetan freedom struggle will continue far beyond the life of the present Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government may have to reassess their stand and policies on resolving the Tibet issue while the Dalai Lama is still alive.  Though His Holiness may no longer be a political leader, he could still provide the leverage that could benefit both China and Tibet in peacefully resolving the situation.

What do these acts say to Tibetans?

Tibetans are often romanticized as the sacred people of Shangri-La and upholders of peace, compassion, love, and non-violence.  In the realm of international politics, Tibetans are generally sympathized with.  However, the sympathy and support of governments, organizations, and individuals may weaken if Tibetans resort to such desperate acts as storming the Chinese Embassy.

These acts not only discomfit the host country but may also impact the future inflow of Tibetans into other countries - provoking restrictions on visas or the granting of asylum and subsidies.

Moreover, irrespective of whether individual Tibetans stand for complete independence or genuine autonomy, they may need to show some degree of sensitivity towards the general feelings of the Chinese masses.

Accommodation of those feelings may one day prove the biggest gain for the Tibetan freedom movement.  That being the case, Tibetans may have to resist tearing up the Chinese national flag and consider reassessing some of their protest slogans.


In conclusion, with the devolution of the Dalai Lama's political power, it is logical to see some changes in the Tibetan freedom movement.  However, it may be too early to say whether the Tibetan freedom movement is entering a new phase.

Considering the recent spate of desperate acts, the Chinese government and the Tibetan people may not have the luxury of time.  If they do not respond to these acts soon, the chances of the Tibetan political movement entering a new phase may be high - a new phase that may be beyond the reach of the present Dalai Lama.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Individual Freedoms in China

“Chinese government realizes that if left unchecked, the individual freedom to pursue private objectives can spill beyond the business realm to include critiques of state power”. Before I share my views on this statement, it may be important to do some background check.

Though Chinese leadership may not agree, there is no doubt that China is a neoliberal state. According to the theory, the neoliberal state should favor strong individual private property rights, the rule of law, and the institutions of freely functioning markets and free trade (Harvey, 2005). In this theory, businesses and corporations are also regarded as an individual. And individual freedom dictates the protection of freedom of action, expression, and choice.

Besides economic, individual freedom was also tied to politics. Halper (2010) noted, “the idea of a market society wasn’t just an economic theory; it laid the basis for a comprehensive political-economic philosophy. The power of the marker lay in the economic freedom, but economic freedom could only exist in the context of political freedom, where individual was free to choose how to live, what to buy, and what to produce”.

Washington also shared this view when it shook hands with Deng in 1980. Within Washington, there was a popular view that international engagement with China would encourage political liberalization inside the country (China). Though this popular Washington view may have remained a “view” so far, Chinese government however seems to fear the Washington view as it restricts the individual freedoms.

Relying on this background check of individual freedom and China, I own two views. First, it is clear that there is a lack of individual freedom in China. One good example may be to look at the conviction rate of Chinese courts i.e., 99 percent (Gifford, 2007). Another may be its firewall, regulations, and armies. However, the check on individual freedom is increasingly getting ineffective, as people find ways to crack the firewall with codes, to contest the laws and regulations with independent journalists and barefoot lawyers, and to challenge its armies with peaceful protests. Also, it may not be possible to write, say, or read “Tibet will be free” in proper China, however, it is possible to have them engraved the same on iPod Touch or other products manufactured in China. It seems individual freedom of corporations are defining the Chinese government’s interpretation of individual freedom.

Second, the Chinese populace will not be content with the individual freedoms they are allowed by the Chinese government. Gifford (2007) shared a beautiful opinion on the power of “choice” in his book on China. He shared, “To my mind, one of the key things is choice. Whatever our own prejudices, we simply cannot deny that there is more choice in China than there used to be. And I am of the opinion that where there is a choice, there is often change for better, and that includes the possibility of political change…. Its not happening tomorrow, but I think that once you allow people to choose their pizza toppings, sooner or later they are going to want to choose their political leaders”.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

When you hear “Socialism with Chinese Characters”, two questions may ring your ears: first, how this catchword originated? And second, is it different from other socialism? Though there may be several other ringing questions, this piece attempts to explore only these two underlying questions. At present, the world seems interested in this catchword primarily because of the fast growing economic, power, and influence of China across the globe. To put it little differently, the export-led economic growth reshaped China as the  world's factory.

Looking back at China’s history, the present economic growth of China may be largely credited to its past leader, Deng Xiaoping who pronounced a stream of economic reforms in 1978. Unlike Mao, Deng believed, “To get rich is glorious”. Deng focused on four modernizations: agriculture, industry, education, and science and defense (Lai, 2011). With these four (and subsequent) modernizations in the last three decades, particularly industry (my emphasis), the social and economic dimensions of Chinese society generally started to see a sea change. And gradually, these changes evaporated high enough in the sky that it starts to nullify the fundamental principles on which Mao laid the foundation of the People’s Republic of China and his Communist Party. Beginning with Deng’s economic reforms, Mao’s vision of proletariat and classless society changed slowly and dramatically over time. If Mao is alive and visit today’s China, he may not recognize it. He may hardly see a socialist China.

In addition, the role of Communist Party evolved from Mao’s great leap forward to Deng’s economic reforms to Hu’s harmonious society. In the present neoliberal China, the Party began to abandon the farmers and proletariat, and ally itself with the new moneyed classes, the entrepreneurs and businessmen, the urban elite, for whom the farmers are just migrant factory workers (Gifford, 2007). Today’s China is riding high on the neoliberalist agenda of free market, privatization, and decentralization of central powers to counties and provinces. Because of these neoliberalist agendas, China now has two classes of citizens: rich and poor, urban and rural, residents and migrant workers, entrepreneurs and underemployed youth, and businessmen and peasants, among others. This is where socialism with Chinese characters meets its unidentifiable shadows – shadow that fails to identify Mao and his socialism.

Though some may associate “socialism with Chinese characters” with the neon-like glittery side of China’s economic growth and development, it may not be justifying the real meaning of socialism and how it was initially established in China. The initial view of socialism, that helped the rise of Mao and his Communist Party, was generally grounded on the Marxist socialism that embraced a classless society and power to the peasants. As noted earlier, this meaning of socialism hardly make any sense in the present China despite the Chinese leadership’s expression of peaceful rise and harmonious society. This may be the reason behind the need of identity “socialism with Chinese characters” because it no longer associates with China’s past socialist ideals.

If you look at China now, you will see more of capitalism in action. Some did call China as a socialist capitalism. Whether China is an authoritarian state or a socialist capitalist, it seems the socialism has lost its feet and ground in China. For instance, there are cases of land grabs from the peasant, poor, and underprivileged Chinese to make way for business centers, Olympics, manufacturing units, and residential apartments (Broudehoux, 2007). Migrant workers are generally considered as nuisance to the urban elites. The sex industry is booming in China. Peasants are suffering because of high taxes. These are few examples of how socialism may not be working in China. Indeed, it’s socialism with Chinese characters.

Note: This piece is not not-all inclusive.