Last October, when the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Dalai Lama, monks in Tibet watched over the Internet and celebrated by setting off fireworks and throwing barley flour. They were quickly arrested.
It was for the release of these monks that demonstrators initially turned out this month. Their brave stand quickly metamorphosed into a protest by Lhasa residents who were angry that many economic advantages of the last 10 or 15 years had gone to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. A young refugee whose family is still in Tibet told me this week of the medal, “People believed that the American government was genuinely considering the Tibet issue as a priority.” In fact, the award was a symbolic gesture, arranged mostly to make American lawmakers feel good.
A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1987 when the Dalai Lama was denounced by the Chinese state media for putting forward a peace proposal on Capitol Hill. To Tibetans brought up in the Communist system — where a politician’s physical proximity to the leadership on the evening news indicates to the public that he is in favor — it appeared that the world’s most powerful government was offering substantive political backing to the Dalai Lama. Protests began in Lhasa, and martial law was declared. The brutal suppression that followed was orchestrated by the party secretary in Tibet, Hu Jintao, who is now the Chinese president.