Friday, April 17, 2009

An opportunity missed 20 years ago

April 16, 2009

By Ching Cheong

IT'S academic, but scholars continue to wonder whether the Tibet issue would have turned out differently had Hu Yaobang's political life not ended so prematurely.

Two years after he resigned in disgrace as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in January 1987, Hu died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989.

About a month before his death, martial law was imposed in Lhasa. Chinese troops were sent there to quell rioting Tibetans, many of them monks and nuns. The protests, which had been building up since 1987, reflected the Tibetans' unhappiness with the Chinese authorities who had ruled with a heavy hand.

Could the unrest in the Himalayan region have been avoided if Hu had remained in charge and not been removed because his policies towards Chinese intellectuals and Tibet were deemed too liberal by party conservatives?

Mao Zedong's theory of class struggle had brought widespread destruction and hardship to Han Chinese as well as ethnic minorities, including the Tibetans. Millions died either of unnatural causes or from human rights abuses between 1949 and 1976, especially during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

Soon after Hu became CCP General Secretary in February 1980, he convened his first Central Secretariat conference: Tibet was on the agenda.

The conference produced the so-called Document No. 31, which was aimed at repudiating Mao's class struggle theory and policies as applied to Tibet. The document reiterated the right of Tibetans to self-rule, stressing that they were 'entitled to pass their own laws to protect their own special interests'.

'(Tibet) need not implement any central government instructions, regulations, orders and directives if they are not appropriate to the local situation,' said the document.

In May 1980, Hu went on a fact-finding trip to Tibet, the first CCP leader to do so. Spending nine days there, he was appalled by the backwardness of the place and shocked to see the people's suffering.

According to official statistics, there were 500,000 Tibetans - or 36 per cent of Tibet's population of 1.8 million at the time - who were worse off in 1980 than in 1959, just after the commune system was introduced.

On his last day in Tibet, Hu apologised to the Tibetans for the CCP excesses of the previous three decades, when thousands of monasteries were destroyed.

'The life of the Tibetan people has not been improved. Our party apologises for that,' said Hu.

He then set out six ways to improve the lot of the people. These included respecting the Tibetans' right to self-determination. He ordered Han Chinese cadres to leave Tibet so that local cadres could fill the posts instead. Those who remained were required to learn Tibetan. There would also be improvements in education and efforts to revive Tibetan culture.

Later the same year, Hu held another conference on the ethnic problems in Xinjiang, which produced Document No. 46. This, together with Document No. 31, formed the basis of Hu's thinking on policy towards ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. He believed that ethnic minorities must enjoy the right to autonomy or self-rule.

He made it clear in Document No. 46 that the central government would henceforth hand over all powers to ethnic regions except for defence, foreign relations and the centre's right to veto local policies that were inconsistent with national interests.

Hu's pragmatic policy delighted the ethnic minorities and won him widespread support. In a rare move, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, sent a congratulatory message to Hu at the CCP's 12th national congress in 1982. The Dalai Lama commended Hu for his courage in admitting the party's past mistakes and said he looked forward to meeting Hu at some future time,

A source told The Straits Times that the Dalai Lama had indeed indicated his wish to visit China and Tibet in the mid-1980s. The trip never materialised. And any hopes of real improvement for Tibet and its people were soon dashed when Beijing reverted to its hardline ways after Hu's fall.

In an interview published on Nov 17, 2005, in the World Daily, a US-based Chinese newspaper, the Dalai Lama said that if Hu had remained in power, the Tibetan issue would long have been resolved. Beijing and the Dalai Lama's representatives have had several rounds of talks in the 20 years since Hu's death, but they have all ended with little to show.

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