By Koh Jie Kai

It seems to me that the riots in Tibet are in many ways similar to the riots that erupted against Chinese communities in urban areas all over South East Asia over the past few hundred years.

Anti- Chinese riots are not a new thing, and the tale seems to have a familiar ring to it- poor industrious Chinese move into indigenious areas, out-compete the natives, which results in native resentment and rioting.

There were anti-Chinese riots in Manila in the 1680s (see 1688: A Global History by John Mears, a very interesting book) , just as there were in KL and Singapore in the 60s and Jakarta in 1998.

The difference between the Tibetan riots and the South East Asian riots is of course that the Mainlanders are in political and military control over Tibet.

And unlike Singapore, the Mainlanders assert that Tibet has always been part of China, and have been pursuing a policy of colonising Tibet (instead of simply exacting tribute/ fealty to the Son of Heaven, as in dynasties past). It is both the political and economic domination of Tibet that has led to the riots in Lhasa.

But no doubt helped by their own delusional propaganda, the top Communists probably believe that this week’s riots were started by the Dalai Lama himself. And so a grim-faced Wen Jiabao claims that the Tibetan protests were started by the “Dalai Lama organisation”- the way he said it and the words he used implied that this was no work of a small group of organisers ( in other words, not a “clique” as the BBC translates it), but the work of a determined, ruthless terrorist organisation.

This is of course not a particularly credible or helpful explanation. What has probably caused this week’s riots was a mixture of sharp economic inequality mixed with quixotic messages of freedom and independence from Tibetan Independence activists who are not quite as pacifist as the Dalai Lama.

The protesters were screaming “long live the Dalai Lama”, for the same reason the Burmese protesters shouted support for Aung San Suu Kyi last year- they’re both potent symbols of freedom from oppression (economic and political), not that these two individuals directed the protesters to do so.

The Dalai Lama certainly doesn’t approve of the violence exacted by the protesters. (By the way, I think that the ordinary Chinese people who were injured, killed, and had their property destroyed are just as much victims of their own government’s policy as the Tibetans; it was their government’s policy which led to all this trouble, but they bore the brunt of the suffering).

The political elite on the Mainland isn’t going to admit- not even to themselves- that this is mostly likely to be the case. Why would they rather believe the conspiracy theory even if they don’t find evidence for it (bar evidence such as confessions exacted under torture, or sympathetic utterances by various inconsequential legislators from various western democracies)?

I think we have to attempt to see things from their perspective. The first is a deep seated feeling that Chinese people can only possibly be the victims in global politics, and never perpetrators of evil to other peoples. The second is a suspicion that all countries with significant military power (especially Western democracies), are out to hobble China‘s rise to global power.

The third is an adherence to an orthodoxy about what is rightfully land belonging to China which goes something like this: all land which has been previously conquered by a dynasty recognised as effectively Chinese rightfully belongs to China today, unless that was (a) conquered by the Yuan dynasty or (b) the people that now sit on those lands are too strong for us to overcome for now, which is fine by us because they are not really Chinese anyway ( applies to Mongolia, Vietnam and Korea).

The fourth is an ethnic prejudice against other cultures which never built empires holding significant political and cultural sway over large enough swathes of the earth.

These attitudes have, I think, helped shape Mainland policy towards Tibet.

The protest by the political elite and some educated Mainlanders would be that it is not as if China is deliberately impoverishing Tibet and stripping the land of its natural resources, that China has thrown a lot of money at the, apparently, ungrateful Tibetans. Which is true; there has been quite a lot of money involved in attempting to improve the economic lot of Tibetans.

But that is not the point- the point is that this economic development was going to be done with Chinese money and labour, with little Tibetan input.

With the money also came the immigration of Chinese not all that better off than Tibetans- I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these immigrants came from the impoverished inland provinces.

The Mainland government probably underestimated the inherent sensitivities involved with such levels of immigration- they probably calculated that the Tibetans would be “grateful” because this influx of money and (Chinese) labour was the most efficient solution to bringing about economic development.

They probably thought that such immigration would pose less problems than immigration to the rich coastal cities, because they only thought of immigration problems in terms of overcrowding, never ethnic tensions.

What will the Mainland government do now?

It can’t have a bloody crackdown on its hands- not when the Olympics are only months away. It should start negotiations with the Dalai Lama to find some way of accomodating demands for even greater autonomy, but this would be too much for the political elite to stomach.

It could try to limit immigration into Tibet, and in fact I think this is what the Mainland government will probably do, and will buy them a bit more time in Tibet.

The alternative – accelerating its current economic and immigration policies and harsher political crackdowns in an attempt to uncover DalaiLama-led conspiracies against it, will probably provoke something worse than mere urban rioting.