Q&A: Why Tibet matters to China
Al Jazeera's Tony Cheng looks at some key questions on the future of Tibet.
Last Modified: 10 Mar 2009 17:14 GMT

China's leaders keep tight control on monasteries inside Tibet [Reuters]

As Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, Al Jazeera's Beijing correspondent Tony Cheng looks at some of the key questions on the issue of Tibet.

Why is holding on to Tibet and suppressing independence calls so important for China?

The one thing that appears to concern the authorities in China more than anything is the break up of China, regardless of whether it is Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang, the Muslim region in China's far west.

This is not a new phenomenon, and it was one of the great challenges to the imperial dynasties of the past to hold together one of largest countries on Earth.

The government is also nervous of  any religious groups (eg Tibetan buddhism or the Falun Gong) that challenge its authority, especially those that inspire a fervour greater than they can command.

Both of these sensitive issues are combined in the question of Tibetan independence and the Chinese government is keen that neither gathers any momentum.

Are most Tibetans in favour of independence?

Tibetan monks lay down their arms after the failed 1959 uprising [AFP]
That is very hard to say, as journalists are never allowed free access to Tibet (trips are always monitored very closely by officials) and over the past 12 months have not been allowed to visit at all.

The Tibetan government in exile favours autonomy rather than full independence, but the level of that autonomy has created big splits within the exiled community, something over which the Dalai Lama himself has said may cause him to resign his post.

Those Tibetans within China, either within Tibet itself or in the Tibetan populations that cover Western China, are often reluctant to openly criticize the Chinese authorities but frequently infer that they are unhappy about certain aspects of government policy.

Nonetheless, many also acknowledge the economic benefits of recent years, as the Dalai Lama himself did in a recent in a recent interview with Al Jazeera.

What impact has Chinese rule had on Tibet?

It depends who you ask.

The Chinese government says Chinese rule has lifted Tibet from a period of feudal oppression, created economic opportunities, development of Tibet's infrastructure and instilled a level of 'civilization' into the Tibetans themselves.

Opponents of China's rule say that the economic benefits have been offered only to a minority, while the infrastructure developments are an attempt to better control and manipulate Tibet while slowly diluting Tibetan culture with an influx of Han Chinese migrants.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two arguments.

Many Tibetans deeply regret the slow degradation of a culture and tradition they clearly hold dear, yet many also want to benefit from the same economic opportunities as are available in the rest of the country.

What are the underlying reasons behind last year's protests against Chinese rule?

China regards the Dalai Lama as devious and untrustworthy [AFP]
Many see economic frustrations at the root of last year's riots.

Lhasa has developed like many cities in China in recent years, especially since the railway link started bring more than a million visitors a year to Tibet.

With the tourists have come streetwise Han Chinese businessmen who have benefited at the cost of the locals.

Some Tibetans have also done well, but as the violence appears to have been centred on the old Tibetan quarter, frustrations appear high amongst the more conservative and less affluent inhabitants.

But economic inspired tensions erupt all over China and rarely result in fatalities.

The violence of 2008 suggests that half a century of Chinese rule has done little to quell the sense of independence that many Tibetans feel.

There also appears to have been an ethnic element to the violence with one of Lhasa's mosques burnt during the riots.

Most of this is speculation however, and it is hard to know the truth until the Chinese authorities allow unfettered access to journalists.

Why does China refuse to talk to the Dalai Lama?

The Chinese government has met with delegations representing the Dalai Lama but as yet very little movement has been made during these talks.

The Dalai Lama is frequently referred to as a "wolf in monk’s clothing", by the Beijing authorities, and it is clear they regard him as devious and untrustworthy.

For his part the Dalai Lama seems to have reached a level of frustration with that process that has made him suggest he is on the verge of retiring.

Either way, with his health reportedly failing, and the Chinese government angered by the riots and recent unrest, it's hard to see the Dalai Lama returning to the place of his birth.

How hard is it for reporters to get accurate information from inside Tibet?

It is never easy getting accurate information anywhere in China, but particularly in Tibet.

The first challenge is a linguistic one. Few ordinary Tibetans speak Chinese and communication without the aid of translation is difficult.

In addition many of those who speak Tibetan have very distinct opinions about the state of Tibetan independence that colours what they say.

The next issue is access. Tibet is accessible only via a few road routes and through one airport. Trying to gain access without the proper accreditation is virtually impossible.

And even if you were lucky enough to succeed, the ramifications for your news organisation and your personal status have to be taken into consideration.

The Chinese authorities have taken a grim view in the past of those who have ignored their regulations.

Al Jazeera
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