Cell-phone photographs and videos from Tibet, blurry and amateur, are circulating on the Internet. Some show clouds of tear gas; others burning buildings and shops; still others purple-robed monks, riot police, and confusion. Watching them, it is impossible not to remember the cell-phone videos and photographs sent out from burning Rangoon only six months ago. Last year Burma, this year Tibet. Next year, will YouTube feature shops burning in Xinjiang, home of China’s Uighur minority? Or riot police rounding up refugees along the Chinese-North Korean border?
That covert cell phones have become the most important means of transmitting news from certain parts of East Asia is no accident. Lhasa, Rangoon, Xinjiang, and North Korea: All of these places are, directly or indirectly, dominated by the same media-shy, publicity-sensitive Chinese regime. Though we don’t usually think of it this way, China is, in fact, a vast, anachronistic, territorial empire, within which one dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese, rules over a host of reluctant “captive nations.” To keep the peace, the Chinese use methods not so different from those once used by Austro-Hungary or czarist Russia: political manipulation, secret police repression, and military force.
But, then, modern China bears many surprising resemblances to the empires of the past in other ways, too. Like its Soviet imperial predecessor, for example, China encompasses both an “inner” empire, of which Tibet and Xinjiang are the most prominent components, and an “outer” empire, consisting most notably of its Burmese and North Korean clients. Like its French and British predecessors, the Chinese empire must wrestle constantly with nations whose languages, religions, and customs differ sharply from its own and whose behavior is, therefore, unpredictable. And like all its predecessors, the Chinese imperial class cares deeply about the pacification of the imperial periphery, more so than one might think.
For proof that this is so, look no further than the biography of Hu Jintao, the current Chinese president—and also the former Communist Party boss of Tibet. In 1988 and 1989, at the time of the last major riots, Hu was responsible both for the brutal repression of dissident Tibetan monks and dissidents and for what the Dalai Lama has subsequently called China’s policy of “cultural genocide“: the importation of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet’s cities in order to dilute and eventually outbreed the ethnic Tibetan population.
Clearly, the repression of Tibet matters enormously to the members of China’s ruling clique, or they would not have promoted Hu, its mastermind, so far. The pacification of Tibet must also be considered a major political and propaganda success, or it would not have been copied by the Chinese-backed Burmese regime last year and repeated by the Chinese themselves in Tibet last week. Tibet is to China what Algeria once was to France, what India once was to imperial Britain, what Poland was to czarist Russia: the most unreliable, the most intransigent, and at the same time the most symbolically significant province of the empire.
Keep that in mind, over the next few days and months, as China tries once again to belittle Tibet, to explain away a nationalist uprising as a bit of vandalism. The last week’s riots began as a religious protest: Tibet’s monks were demonstrating against laws that, among other things, require them to renounce the dalai lama. The monks’ marches then escalated into generalized, unplanned, anti-Chinese violence, culminating in attacks on Han Chinese shops and businesses, among them—as you can see on the cell-phone videos—the Lhasa branch of the Bank of China.
However the official version evolves, in other words, make no mistake about it: This was not merely vandalism, it could not have been solely organized by outsiders, it was not only about the Olympics, and it was not the work of a tiny minority. It was a significant political event, proof that the Tibetans still identify themselves as Tibetan, not Chinese. As such, it must have significant reverberations in Beijing. The war in Algeria brought down the French Fourth Republic. The dissident movements on its periphery helped weaken the Soviet Union. Right now, I’d wager that Hu Jintao’s Tibet policy is causing a lot of consternation among his colleagues.
And if they aren’t worried, they should be. After all, the history of the last two centuries is filled with tales of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any different? Watching the tear gas roll over the streets of Lhasa yesterday on a blurry, cell-phone video, I couldn’t help but wonder when—maybe not in this decade, this generation, or even this century—Tibet and its monks will have their revenge.