Comments by Robbie Barnett, Tibet expert at Columbia University, March 27, 2008, regarding the recent major protests in Tibetan-populated rural areas, especially the temporary takeovers of government buildings and taking down of Chinese flags and raising of Tibetan flags:
This seems to me to be of a completely different kind of character from anything we’ve heard of in Tibet in some 40 years, these particular kinds of incidents. I think they’re far more significant to us as political analysts and also to the [Chinese Communist] Party leadership, I would guess, than the other incidents we’re seeing, which are of three kinds. There’s the monk-led, Burma-type things, which are actually quite focused and manageable and negotiable; they have specific demands and are rather peaceful. Then there’s the ethnic-hatred riots, which is its own phenomenon in that one case in Lhasa. And then there’s the university-type, candlelight vigils, which are very peaceful.
It’s these symbolic takeovers [in the rural areas], which include casualties, which include loss of life, which are politically significant. And the reason I’m saying they’re significant is that they suggest that the Party’s primary base—which is in the rural areas, which in China would be the peasantry—has been lost as a “loyal subject.” This is the most direct expression that could be imagined of a symbolic questioning of the legitimacy of the Party.
I don’t want to suggest it’s any more widespread than it is. It’s some 20 to 30 cases of this category. But they’re in the eastern area, they’re in the area which actually had less restrictions than Lhasa. But they are [also] in the area which has seen the “settlement of nomads” policy, so maybe that’s an aggravating factor. But either way, these have a political aspect or political implication that seems to me to be very important for the Party. And I’m convinced that they will respond to this in a very serious way, by which I mean a mature way.
Of course, there will be crackdowns, but I’m certain they will take this very seriously politically, and they will send teams to try to ask those people what’s wrong—what the policy failures were in those areas. I don’t know that we’ll hear about it, but that’s my interpretation.”
Interview by RFA reporter in Washington DC, Richard Finney