1Six decades after the People’s Liberation Army entered Lhasa, the Tibet problem continues to fester. It erupts through recurring protests by the Tibetan people. Protest movements shook the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1987-1989, but rocked the larger Tibetan high plateau on a larger scale in 1956-1959 and more recently in the spring of 2008.
2Multiple and complex causes lie behind these movements. What is the role of economic concerns, or of political and cultural demands? Does religion lie behind the rebellion? Do the growing numbers of Han and Hui settlers in Tibet’s cities vitiate the situation? Do forced sedentarisation policies fuel the fires? Does the Chinese leadership’s approach to the Tibet issue, especially with regard to rights and liberties, help resolve problems or aggravate them?
3These questions apply more generally to the governance of China’s border regions and are not specific to Tibet. They have been raised and continue to be raised with regard to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, although Tibet’s case stands out because of the Dalai Lama’s stature and the enormous sympathy worldwide for Tibetans. Sun Yatsen’s conception of the Chinese nation as being composed of five peoples (Han, Tibetan, Mongol, Manchu, and Hui1) was at the heart of building the nation state of “China” right from the early twentieth century. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has recognised 55 minority nationalities (shaoshu minzu) but its policies have swung between relatively liberal and repressive phases, between recognition of religious and cultural identities and of assimilation. In this regard, the assimilation of Mongols in Inner Mongolia, which began in the late Qing dynasty, is a significant example.2
4As the notion of a zhonghua minzu (Chinese nation) became central for the Chinese government, it became the essential basis for legitimising its authority. The anthropologist Uradyn E. Bulag has emphasised: “In light of the Soviet Collapse, the Chinese state has adopted a new way of managing its multinational empire. Despite its multicultural guise, China is actually reviving the notion of a single Chinese people (Zhonghua minzu), which the Chinese Communists earlier condemned as Han chauvinism.”3 A revealing move in this regard was the change in 2008 of the Zhongyang Minzu Daxue’s English name from Central University of Nationalities to Minzu University of China.4
5Moreover, the manner in which the Chinese government treats the peoples in the border regions reflects the regime’s authoritarian nature as well as its relations with the population as a whole, minority or majority. Seen in this framework and as Wang Lixiong’s analysis in this issue shows, local leaders play a major role in the aggravation or resolution of conflicts. Many examples, such as corruption cases, show the increasing power of local authorities in their dealings with the centre, which often appears weak.
6This special issue brings together the conflicting views and criticisms of Tibetologists and Sinologists from different disciplines. An initial meeting took place in the autumn of 2008 in Paris, which afforded a tentative exchange of views.5 The aim was to go beyond clichés to understand the events of 2008.
7Our attention has focused on some insufficiently discussed points concerning Tibet, by which we mean the whole of the Tibetan cultural sphere (TAR, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan).6 Given the constraints of time and space, we have had to leave out the consideration of education7 and language8 and the situation of Tibetans in exile.9
8This issue begins with a detailed description and analysis of the 2008 events, followed by a series of articles setting out the historical, social, and economic conditions necessary to understanding the causes of the Tibetan protest. Finally, it seemed essential to consider the different voices that have emerged within Chinese society since 2008.
9Tibetologist Robert Barnett offers the most exhaustive description to date of the March-April events of 2008. He shows not only the strength of protest movements outside the TAR, but also their implications for rural people and urban youth.
10The contested history10 of the Tibetan cultural sphere is considered by the historian Elliot Sperling, who throws light on fluctuations in the PRC’s official historiography regarding Tibet’s subordination to China. Sperling has translated from the original Tibetan the Tibeto-Mongolian treaty of 1913, discovered in 2006, which conjointly asserts the independence of Tibet and Mongolia. Andrew M. Fischer analyses the data on the TAR’s economic development since the 1990s and the “boomerang” effect of the massive investment policies pursued by Beijing, which heightens the region’s dependence and marginalises most Tibetans. He also devotes a brief note to the raging debate on population in Tibet. Completing the picture on the current situation, Françoise Robin considers the sedentarisation of nomadic herders and of the forced relocation of Tibetan farmers.
11In a close look at how the events were followed in Beijing, Michel Bonnin examines the ways in which the Chinese government reacted and the parallels with the political rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution. Marie Holzman invokes the courageous individuals who have backed the Tibetans, such as the noted writer Wang Lixiong. Lara Maconi has selected (and translated into French for Perspectives chinoises) part of a long analytical text by Wang in his blog on the Tibet situation and the system’s contradictions. In counterpoint, she presents the activities of Chinese nationalist youth, whose views on the Internet reflect a position critical of Tibetan protests that is largely shared by the Chinese population.11
12Translated by N. Jayaram
Élisabeth Allès and Françoise Robin, « Editorial », China Perspectives [Online], 2009/3 | 2009, Online since 16 October 2009, connection on 28 April 2017. URL : http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/4833Top of page
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