A leaked video footage from Lhasa showed a distressed, sobbing woman as one could hear the laments through the tears of another who was shooting the video. The women were clearly distressed as they witnessed an obscenely large projection on the walls of the Potala Palace that read ” Celebrate the CCP’s 100th Founding Anniversary” in Mandarin. The day marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Incidents like these are an exhibition of extreme disrespect since the Potala Palace is a holy shrine revered by the Tibetans. However, they also represent Beijing’s policies of persecution of the land, culture, the tradition, and the identity of the Tibetans. The Communist Party went even further by making cultural assimilation the central tenet of its policy for managing minority populations.
China has perhaps the longest surviving authoritarian regime in the CCP. Its policies have heightened in both scope and tenacity towards maintaining a sense of stability in China. Andrew J. Nathan argues that China has transitioned from a totalitarian to a classic authoritarian regime that appears increasingly stable. Other scholars have discussed the increasing prominence of China and the policies of building the legitimacy of the CCP. However, this articles focuses on how Tibetans have challenged that legitimacy through which China governs Tibet.
On the surface, China has already established its control over Tibet by retaining complete jurisdiction over the region. China not only governs Tibet, but it has also successfully convinced the international community of its legal rights over Tibet. Today no one questions China’s sovereignty over Tibet, except for Tibetans who claim otherwise. However, the Government is forced to reckon with frequent protests against its presence in Tibet. These challenges against its legitimacy are met with increasing regressive policies. Although the Communist Party of China has gained recognition as the legal governing entity over Tibet, political authority to govern is drawn from the consent of the governed. A regime that survives on excessive use of coercion is fundamentally unstable since it lacks societal support which can undermine the power and authority of any State.
However, China continues its rise as a global player. In particular, its ambition stems from the obsessive determination to bring “stability” and “unity” in regions like Tibet. China’s dominance and assertion as an international force draw strength from its booming economy, which is on track to become the largest in the world. Scholars presume that China seeks not only to become a great power but to be able to shape the 21st century, just like how the US shaped the 20th. Nonetheless, the CCP has been questioned over its internal and external policies, in particular with regard to the human rights situation within its borders. The answers to these questions will be paramount in deciding whether the rest of the world accepts China as a responsible global power. The reality is that the repression in Tibet under Xi Jinping’s rule has increased. There has been an intensified effort to coopt and assimilate Tibetans into Chinese society while pushing for the dominance of Mandarin Chinese over Tibetan in everyday public life.
Legitimacy Crisis in Tibet
The legitimacy of the Chinese Government has been repeatedly called into question by Tibetans in Tibet. The 1959 National Uprising in Lhasa, the mass protests between 1987–1989, the 2008 uprisings across Tibet and a series of self-immolations calling for, among other things, the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet; all of them representative of Tibetans resentment against China’s presence in their land. The crisis of legitimacy is further evident from the deployment of both the largest number of the PLA forces, and the single largest unit of China’s paramilitary forces, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in Tibet. The PAP’s mobile detachments are posted across the various provinces of China, with the maximum deployment of forces in Tibet and Xinjiang. There are six mobile detachments in Tibet. In a move to upgrade the PAP’s paramountcy in Tibet, President Xi Jinping elevated the status of the political commissar of the Tibet Armed Police Corps of the TAR to that of a military body, thus recognizing its role in maintaining stability in the region. Such an offensive and ostentatious show of armed forces in Tibet, which the Chinese government claims to have ‘peacefully liberated’, speaks to the fallacy of its claims to legitimacy.
On the political front, the story continues a familiar trajectory. The Chinese Government has leaned heavily into political imprisonment as a favored tool to control the Tibetan population, as almost 50% of political prisoners in China are Tibetans. This statistic, drawn from various databases, reveals that out of the 9116 cases of documented political imprisonment in China from 1981 to 2018, 4,012 were Tibetans. The Tibetan population stands only at 6.2 million compared to China’s population of 1.4 billion. Less than 0.5% of the total population makes up almost 50% of the total number of political prisoners across China, which speaks volumes about its legitimacy crisis.
To maintain its tight grip over Tibet, the Chinese Government has invested heavily in surveillance technology and infrastructure. China’s annual spending on domestic security has more than tripled since 2007, reaching 1.24 trillion yuan ($193 billion) in 2017. On a per capita basis, Adrian Zenz estimated that China spent 3,137 yuan on security last year in Tibet and 2,417 yuan in Xinjiang compared with the national average of 763 yuan. The mammoth economical cost at which China maintains stability in Tibet indicates an inherent need for the Government to consolidate its rule over the region. This need arises against the uncertainties and insecurity over the legitimacy of its position, that lies deeply embedded within their control over Tibet.
For an authoritarian regime like China, one of the fundamental issues is managing popular discontent that leads to mass uprisings. The Chinese Government parrots the claims that these protests have been instigated by the western forces and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is not only preposterous to assert that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile have encouraged these self-immolations, but it is misleading and fraudulent to make such allegations without verifiable evidence even after the exile government have refuted these allegations. The CTA has consistently discouraged self-immolations and any forms of drastic action. Nonetheless, self-immolations are an act of defiance against the ruling Chinese Government by calling for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom for the Tibetan people. In order to deflect focus off the actual causes for these incidents, the regime has engaged in diverting the blame to external factors (Western anti-China forces and the Dalai Lama group). As observed by scholars Erica Downs and Phillip Saunders, “illegitimate regimes may seek to bolster their grip on power by blaming foreigners for their own failures, increasing international tensions”.
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