The demonstrations and riots that broke out in Tibet this past March were the largest anti-Chinese protests there since March 1989, when martial law was imposed for a year, and arguably the most serious since the massive and bloody revolt of 1959. Not only their magnitude, but the spread of these protests to all parts of the Tibetan Plateau—including areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—fully justify characterizing them as a Tibetan national uprising.
The explosion of anger and violence has arguably been building for years in response to deliberate Chinese policies designed to extinguish, once and for all, the last vestiges of Tibetan separatism. Indeed, the popular Tibetan reaction has had an air of finality, even desperation, about it, as though 2008 is the last chance Tibetans may have to preserve their national and cultural identity.
The response of the Chinese government and its security forces to the Tibetan Uprising has been entirely predictable, as has its incessant propaganda line ever since. The Han Chinese leadership feels close to its goal of extinguishing the Tibetan spirit of resistance, as it has done over many centuries to other peoples now thoroughly integrated as Han people. Any sign of weakness risks reversing decades of patient effort and might also be interpreted by other non-Han people within the borders of the People’s Republic—the Uighurs of East Turkestan, for example—as an invitation to defy the central authorities. In this context, perhaps the leadership also reasons that its claims to Taiwan will be harmed if Tibetan nationalism is allowed any expression.
What neither Tibetan nor Chinese leaders seem to have expected, however, is that the Tibetan Uprising has triggered a vast rally-’round-the-flag phenomenon in support of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is true for the vast majority of Chinese in China, who have been inculcated with Chinese propaganda on Tibet since the day they were born. But it is also true of most Chinese living outside of China, who adhere to the CCP’s version of Tibetan history despite their access to another version of Tibetan reality. This reaction speaks volumes about the character of contemporary Chinese nationalism, and it bears important implication for the policies of the United States and other democratic nations.
On March 10, 2008, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 revolt that led to the exile of the Dalai Lama into India, some 200 monks of Drepung (Zhebang) monastery, located a few miles northwest of Lhasa, attempted to march into the center of the city. They were soon stopped by Chinese security police; some were arrested and beaten and the rest were confined to their monastery, which was surrounded by police. Meanwhile, a smaller...