Offending Smaug

In defence of street protests over Tibet against the Olympic torch relay.

The Olympic torch relay (or security sack race) faces Australian protesters on Thursday: the security bill alone has doubled to A$2m. It’s been kept quiet in other places – Delhi, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, by the massive police presence you would expect for a state visit by say George Bush. Jakarta tomorrow will take the idea to its logical conclusion by simply excluding the public. In Japan the start will be moved from a historic Buddhist temple, which has pulled out, to a city car park.

A few days ago Kevin Drum poured realist cold water on the Tibet Olympic protests:

What’s more, if we are going to bash China, Darfur is a better topic than usual to bash them about. Unlike Tibet, which China will flatly never give in on, their behavior in Darfur is quite possibly malleable.

Huh?

The objective of the Dalai Lama and most of his supporters isn’t Tibetan independence, which has never been on the cards, but autonomy: an end to the forced sinification of the country, self-government on domestic issues, and a breathing-space for Tibetan culture. (The same goes for the forgotten Uighurs of Xinjiang). This sort of home rule is available to the inhabitants of Scotland, the Faroes, Puerto Rico, Catalonia, and Tatarstan among other places. I come from Jersey, which enjoys the autonomy and tax breaks granted in desperation by King John around 1204 to keep this last relic of the Duchy of Normandy from falling like the rest into the hands of his French cousin. The politics in these more-than-regions, less-than-states are often uncomfortable as centralisers and autonomists constantly test the boundaries, but overall the model seems to work pretty well day to day. In fact home rule was a standard model for British imperialism from 1867 onwards – as long as the colonies were white. If you think Russia is soft when ethnic minorities raise their ambitions from autonomy to independence, just ask the Chechens.

Forced sinification must be very expensive – the newly opened high-altitude Lhasa railway, including 1000km higher than Mont Blanc, is one of the great engineering follies. The cost is not available but must have been huge, the economic benefits nugatory. What the Dalai Lama is asking for is surely in China’s best interests as well as Tibet’s. It’s not an impossible dream that China’s rulers and people will come to see this.

Drum and other pessimists also confuse the huge inertia of China the country with the immovability of the Chinese government. But the small class of mandarins who rule a billion Chinese are surely in a very weak position, and not being stupid they must know this. What keeps their rope trick going but a boom they don’t really control? They don’t have the tools that might help them anticipate the deeper threats to their hegemony: a coherent ideology or broad social science training or the experience of knocking about the world. The nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo include 6 engineers, 1 geologist, 1 economist, and one with qualifications unknown to Wikipedia. Unlike the Long March generation of Chinese Communists – Deng for example had worked in a French steelworks as a young man – their lives have been pretty sheltered from all but intra-party infighting. They have set up no robust representative institutions to renew their legitimacy once it is challenged. I bet they live in fear of the sudden awakening of the unpredictable dragon, like Bilbo Baggins tiptoeing round the sleeping Smaug. One of these days some grievance, some mistake or piece of bad luck like the subprime mortgage meltdown, will bring ten million Chinese on to the streets and the power of the oligarchy will vanish.

Winning the right to host the 2008 Olympics looked like a great coup at the time. Showcasing a confident and orderly China to the world is part of it, but more important is surely showing the Chinese people a world paying its humble respects to the rulers of the Middle Kingdom. Suddenly this plan has come badly unstuck: and it’s all due to a few clever agitators who have channeled widespread dislike at Chinese oppression in Tibet into a winning street tactic. The Olympics will take place, and a good time will be had by most, but the payoff to the Chinese government will be halved. It’s called punishing bad behaviour, and the right thing to do if you can.

Kevin is right that Darfur is the more urgent problem and easier to deal with – by conventional diplomacy. Few ordinary Chinese have heard of the place and fewer know of their government’s minor investment in the Khartoum régime. But because it’s an abstruse, wonkish issue for the Chinese government, there’s no way in for Western public opinion. We can only lobby our own governments to put pressure on to China.

Upmarket political blogging is about good policy, sure: in the sense of what you or I would do if I we suddenly became Prime Minister or President or Greater Despot of the world, and why. But basically a blog is nothing more than a soapbox in a very big street. And even blogged policy analysis is also politics: citizens shouting at Hyde Park Corner to express our outrage and pride, throw ridicule at fools, run our aspirations up the flagpole, and try to sell all these opinions to our fellows. Since you never know what will work in a networked society, an excess of prudent realism is just a recipe for leaving the street to others.

So let’s rant a bit for a free Tibet. And perhaps the horse will learn to sing.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web