Until recently, China has been very successful in portraying itself as a country that is modernizing, if not successfully modernized, politically and economically. Although China is not yet a democracy, it has been moving in that direction, albeit slowly, as indicated by the increasing importance of local elections and local political actors.
However, as the recent unrest in Tibet continues, Chinese government actions toward the demonstrations and riots have invited many criticisms. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, just visited Dalai Lama and appealed to the international community to speak against the Chinese government's crackdown on the demonstrations and riots, and the plan to arrest individual perpetrators of the protests.
Has this event and the Chinese government's handling of it undermined China's position and credibility in the international community? Several pieces of evidence suggest the event has only somewhat undermined China's position and credibility, but not by much.
Instead internally, the Chinese government has gained legitimacy among the Chinese majority by showing its ability to maintain stability and a commitment to sustain the unity of China. The Chinese government has been very successful domestically in portraying the unrest in Tibet as an attack against the Han Chinese majority and has gained significant results politically.
The opinions within the international community have been divided. There are differences of opinion among different countries and even differences within each of these countries. To understand the variation of the opinions we must understand that there are several interrelated but different issues which are: the use of force by the Chinese government in suppressing the protests, the violent acts by the protesters, the pursuit of autonomy by some and the pursuit of independence by other Tibetans. In addition we must also understand that opinion is not separable from interests.
Unlike Pelosi, many world leaders did not specifically condemn the Chinese government, but instead condemned the violence in general. This clearly means that many world leaders do not direct their criticism only at the Chinese government but also toward the protesters who turned to the use of violence.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the pope have urged restraint on both sides. U.S. President George W. Bush is still planning to attend the Olympic Games in China. The Vatican after the unrest has been reported to meet with a representative of the Chinese government, a report that the Vatican did not deny or confirm. Even the Dalai Lama has publicly conveyed his disagreement with the use of violence by protesters.
A few days ago, World Public Opinion released a polling result from the citizens of six countries (United States, France, Great Britain, South Korea, Indonesia and India) about their opinion on the Chinese government's handling of the issue of Tibet. The polling was conducted before the unrest, and shows that in four countries (United States, France, Great Britain and South Korea) the people do not favor China's policies toward Tibet. In Indonesia and India, there is a more favorable view toward China's policies. This gap is due to the fact that Indonesia and India, unlike the other four countries, have been facing significant security problems from separatist movements. This shows that opinions on this issue can be based more on experience and interests rather than on the attitude toward violence.
If this is true, that it is good news for the Chinese government. The good news here is that it can still win the support of people who are still unfavorable toward China on this issue by making China indispensable to them.
Besides, an unfavorable view of China's handling of the issue of Tibet does not mean that the international community supports the independence of Tibet. Many people support Tibet's autonomy but not as many people support Tibet's independence.
In summary, although the unrest and the continuing problem of separatism in Tibet pose a threat to China's credibility, the Chinese government has been very successful in winning the support of many players in the international community. China's policies on the issue of Tibet might not gain full international support, but China's agenda to keep China united has gained widespread support domestically and internationally.
In addition, the continuing unrest in Tibet has actually strengthened the Chinese government instead of undermining it.
In the past, the Chinese government under the Communist Party gained legitimacy based on its role in winning independence for China. The Chinese government established itself as the liberator of China.
As China moves away from the revolutionary period, the Chinese government can depend less and less on the revolutionary legacy. Instead, the Chinese government has to base its legitimacy on the ability to sustain economic growth, and to sustain the unity of China.
Threats to stability that can undermine these bases of legitimacy and its survival will not be tolerable for the Chinese government as well as for the people of China. This logic is true for any government in the world, and this the international community must understand when dealing with China.
The writer is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at Northern Illinois University. He can be reached at stanuwid*niu.edu. Sunny Tanuwidjaja , Dekalb , Illinois Wed, 03/26/2008 1:15 AM Opinion