What was the initial spark that launched the rioting in Tibet? Yes, there were protests in the streets to remember the last time the people there really fought to be free, nearly 50 years ago. But what really initiated the action, whether it was a hotheaded protester getting a little to frisky near the police, or a poorly timed slur uttered by a cop to a raging youngster, or maybe a panicked local administrator who decided to bring down the hammer rather than risk retribution from his own overlords – we’ll never know. What we do know is that things have gotten ugly, and are likely to get worse as this unique year in China goes on.
It seems likely that 2008 was chosen by the monks for its Olympic auspices in Beijing. Why else mark the 49th anniversary of your failed revolution, rather than wait for the 50th? The monks know that the Communists running the show have to play it pretty safe this year, with the world watching. They know that world public opinion is on their side, even if the centers of power have all agreed to forget about this Free Tibet thing and leave the Chinese alone to deal with their backyard any way they see fit. Look at the situation in Xinjiang – China has used the War on Terror as an excuse for cracking down on Uighur separatist ideas there, with full US support. Now if Beijing could only show how violent and unhinged Tibetans are…
The problem now looks like the Tibetans are going along with Beijing’s plan. The Dalai Lama is beside himself in his sheltered Indian bungalow, powerless to lead the people, powerless to stop them. His nonviolent resistance model, cultivated over the last 50 years, is fraying at the edges. The Commies in ZhongNanHai have accused him of secretly organizing and leading the violence, in which innocent Han Chinese are being attacked on the streets or in their shops. The people are getting out of hand. There is no good reason to be attacking civilians – the enemy of Tibet wears the flag of China.
But the kids are getting restless. My impression of Tibet was radically changed when I was there for a couple of weeks in 2002. The society in general was so peaceful – just in their movements, in their speech, in their friendly manner. It was as if nothing could phase their sunny disposition. When my friend and traveling companion broke his leg, the women running our hostel dug up a pair of crutches for him to use. We were touched by the kindness of strangers. But there was another side to the story, and it only came out at night, in the few gathering spots that remained open long past dark. The streets of Lhasa are quiet at night, and most restaurants close up after sundown. What few bars there are tend to shut their doors before 10pm. But the flashier spots, with the neon and the music, tend to stay open a bit later, and they tend to be run by the Han.
We were in such a place with a group of travelers we’d met. Deciding we’d find a place to keep drinking if it meant going to the edge of town, that’s exactly where we ended up, in the central square near the Potala Palace, the sight recently of overturned, burning cars and blood. Walking inside about six strong, we sat near the front of the small disco club, in a room that extended back to the dance floor. We ordered a round of whiskeys. And then shit hit the fan.
People on the dance floor started yelling, and then women were screaming. People started running out of the club, and there was the sound of broken glass. We sat stunned, looking at each other, not knowing what to do. Then the mob started rushing out, and we were a bit stuck. Off to the side, there was the choice of huddling by the bar or joining the mob on its way out. We huddled and watched these young men fighting ferociously. Bottles were smashed on heads. Glasses were thrown at the mirrored bar, where the bar maids had ducked behind, seeming used to the spectacle. The police arrived, and one of them dragged out a young man by his hair, who was bleeding from the head. It seemed an unsafe way to treat the injured.
Soon enough it was all over and, seeing we hadn’t left, the waitress brought us our drinks. The place was near empty now, but not completely. There was broken glass all over the place, and a bit of smeared blood on the floor, but we were fine, and that was all we cared about. We finished our drinks and discussed what might have just happened.
The general theory was that Tibetans and Chinese do not like each other, especially the young men, especially those in clubs who’ve been drinking, and especially when there are women involved. Someone mentioned a fight over a girl, but who knows what happened. The obvious point to take home was that Tibetans are not always the peace-loving spiritualists embodied by the Dalai Lama. They cannot all follow the example of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of them are just young, angry men who are pissed off at having no economic standing, no prospects, and who feel the boot on their neck. And among them, it seems, some are deciding that this is the year they fight back.