HONOLULU (March 21, 2008)—While the unrest and street violence that has erupted in Tibet is rooted in resentment against the Chinese government’s neo-colonial policies, it is also symptomatic of broader and even more serious problems within the overall Chinese political economy, a top East-West Center researcher said here this week.


“While the grievances of the Tibetans are unique,” said Center research fellow Christopher McNally, “they are also symptomatic of more deep-seated problems throughout China.”

Those problems include environmental degradation, corruption – particularly at the local level – political repression and the increasingly painful gap between rich and poor.

Across China, McNally said, there is a growing “malaise” as the negative fallout from over-heated economic growth becomes real. Food prices have soared by some 23 percent year-over-year and the overall inflation rate of 8.7 percent is the highest in more than a decade. These economic pressures, combined with social disruption, environmental problems and continuing corruption are creating pressures throughout Chinese society.

“Those on the bottom who thought their lives would get better are disappointed,” he said. “Inflation is eating them alive.”

And while all of China feels the fallout of this headlong economic drive, the impact is particularly dramatic in Tibet where ethnic Tibetans have failed to gain their share of the nation’s economic progress. Unemployment, poverty and lack of access to social services are all particularly acute in Tibet, he said.

In short, ethnic Tibetans are forced to take the full brunt of the negative impacts of China’s capitalist juggernaut while failing to share in its benefits.

While McNally said he does not expect to see rioting or street violence erupt elsewhere in China, the pressure for change is just below the surface. In that sense, he said, what is happening in Tibet should be like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft for Chinese authorities.

“There’s something really hollow about the system, and we’re seeing it right now in Tibet,” he said.

McNally acknowledges that the unique nature of the Tibetan situation made it easier for this simmering discontent to erupt publicly. There is longstanding resentment over heavy-handed control by the Chinese over virtually every aspect of Tibetan life, ranging from the migration of Han Chinese into Tibet to religious management and “patriotic education sessions” for monks in Tibetan monasteries, including “even up to how reincarnations are handled with the lamas,” McNally said.

“China controls Tibet in fact as a colony,” he said.  “It is not an autonomous region. They just haven’t done the job.”

The coming 2008 Beijing Olympics have provided a political opportunity for Tibetan resentment to be aired. Combined with the tools of the information age, text-messaging, cell-phone photos and the Internet, it fueled what might otherwise have been a localized and rapidly controlled uprising, McNally said. Reports have emerged of protests and demonstrations in Tibetan enclaves across China – even in Chengdu and Beijing itself.

Where this will go is anyone’s guess. But McNally pointed out that the Chinese leadership itself, especially Premier Wen Jiabao, have noted that 2008 is likely to be one of the most difficult years for China’s economy.

Indeed, McNally said, there are “eerie parallels” to the unrests of 1989 that led to the mass demonstrations and crackdown at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Protests that year began as they have this year, in Tibet.

“Heavy-handed Leninist policies are evident in many areas in China,” McNally said. “They’re just more visible in Tibet.”

Chris McNally is a China specialist and research fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He can be reached at (808) 944 7239 or [email protected]

The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.


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