Today’s long anticipated visit by the Tibetan Freedom Torch riders at the University of California, Santa Barbara was countered by an emotionally charged protest by Chinese students and community members who had been organized this week by the Chinese Scholars and Students Association (CSSA). The focal point of the Tibetan protest being centered about Tibet’s boycott of the summer Olympics in Beijing, several people were shouting angrily at one another, looking like they were going to fight. One man even ripped a poster out of the hands of a woman on the opposing side and threw it to the ground before being escorted away by police. In a sea of red Chinese flags and drowned out by angry shouts, the group of Tibetans protested what they called atrocities by the Chinese government and called for liberation. From the Chinese side, shouts of, “You’re a liar!” were hurled, to be countered by, “You’re speaking the language of communism!” from the Tibetan side.
The Tibetan freedom torch began its journey on March 29th, coming into the possession of the Tibetan Freedom riders in San Francisco last weekend, where they were posted to protest the running of the Olympic torch during its only North American stop. The route of the Olympic torch-carried by runners flanked by hundreds of police officers-was changed at the last minute, in avoidance of problems anticipated by authorities due to the commotions which accompanied the torch in London and Paris. Invited by the Santa Barbara Friends of Tibet, the Tibetan riders stopped in Santa Barbara on their bicycle ride to the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, after which the Tibetan freedom torch will continue its journey in India.
Focusing on the Olympic torch as a symbol of Chinese oppression, the Tibetan Freedom riders-which included the Dalai Lama’s nephew Jigme Norbu-spoke out against continued political domination by the Chinese government. They were also incensed about what they described as human rights violations including arrests and killings, particularly those associated with a series of protests begun by Buddhist monks on March 10 to mark the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet by the Chinese government in 1959. Starting peacefully, the protests were followed by arrests by Chinese police. The situation quickly devolved, with some protesters setting fire to buildings and attacking Chinese bystanders. The government responded with force, killing many of the protesters.
Due to a lack of confirmation by an independent body and conflicting counts by the Chinese government and the Tibetan government in exile, it is unclear how many people have been killed in the violence that has followed. Some estimates by Tibetans in exile have been as high as 150, reportedly along with thousands of arrests, but Beijing refutes that number. The violence has caused the Dalai Lama to recently threaten resignation as the political leader of Tibet. “The Chinese government needs to open up Tibet to international bodies to get an assessment of the situation,” said Jose Cabezon, a professor of religious studies at UCSB. “That’s the short term goal. The long term goal is getting the Chinese government to change its Tibet policy to allow for greater autonomy.”
Supporters of the Chinese government in attendance at the UCSB protest reacted angrily to Tibetan claims that Tibet was a free country before the Chinese occupation in 1959, maintaining that Tibet has been part of China for centuries. “Whether or not Tibet was under Chinese sovereignty was not an issue until 1959,” said Yang Shen, an engineering post doc at UCSB who grew up in China’s Hui autonomous region, and has worked as a volunteer teacher in Tibet. “In 1951, the Dalai Lama and the Central government signed a treaty reaffirming Chinese sovereignty. As part of the 1951 treaty, Tibet was exempted from land reforms [making private lands public property]. The Dalai Lama was reluctant to lead a rebellion in 1959, but he had to bend to pressure by former landowners [from outside the Tibet autonomous region].”
One man held up a sign reading, “The CIA’s secret war in Tibet,” in reference to the CIA-backed rebellion in 1954. Others felt that the uprisings in Tibet were specifically aimed at ruining the Chinese Olympics. “China normally doesn’t care about Tibetans waving flags,” said Haibing Ding-an earth sciences post doc at UCSB-in response to charges that anyone showing a Tibetan flag in Tibet is immediately arrested,” but this time it’s different because they want to destroy the Chinese Olympics.” Chinese protesters also pointed out that before 1959, most Tibetans were engaged in a system of serfdom that had existed for centuries. “If these guys are here today,” said Ding of the Tibetan riders, “it is 90 percent assured that their grandmothers and grandfathers were slave masters. Why are Americans supporting a system of slavery?”
“Some of what they say is true,” said Cabezon of Chinese criticism of Tibet’s former slave culture. “The situation before 1959 wasn’t good, but the Dalai Lama has said that he doesn’t want to return to pre-1959 Tibet.”
Norbu, who has lived in Indiana since fleeing with his family from Tibet when he was 15, voiced the sentiments of many of the students and protestors shouting denunciations of what they called cultural suppression of Tibetans. “China says that Tibet has been liberated and modernized,” he said, “but with bars and everything, it’s killing our culture. We’re being suppressed by China. Our economy is being controlled. We’re like American Indians. China is all about big business, and human value is ignored. So who cares about six million Tibetans when you’re looking at revenues from the Olympics?”
One of the CSSA organizers, who wished to remain anonymous, felt that China needs to be given more of a chance to make the situation work. “We think America is more democratic [than China], and that’s good, but we need to give the Chinese government time to move step by step. The Olympic Games are a good opportunity to talk-just like 40 years ago with the Chinese-American ping pong tournament. After that, Nixon came for talks.” Cabezon said that the Chinese government feels marginalized and is responding by reacting harshly to opposition. “The Chinese feel that the world is trying to undermine them and hold them back from being a world power,” he said.
Protesters from both sides, however, cited the need for rational discussions as a way to help solve the problem. The US House of Representatives is currently debating a bipartisan resolution-House Resolution 1077-calling for a cessation of excessive force by the Chinese government in Tibet, and the establishment of a U.S. Consulate in Lhasa. “The Chinese government’s crackdown in Tibet is a sad example of the state of human rights in China and its overall lack of respect for freedom of expression,” said Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA), “:We must do what we can to promote peaceful dialogue that produces a resolution that underscores the fundamental freedoms of all Tibetans.”