|The Panchen Lama and Hu Jintao in 1989 in Tibet|
Very little was then known about the life of China’s new boss, but there is no doubt that Hu had a karmic ‘connection’ with Tibet, firstly because, the 'core leader of the Fourth Generation' had been posted as Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region from 1988 till 1992.
In early 1988, Beijing was nervous about the situation on the Roof of the World. A few months earlier, monks and nuns had began to revolt against the 'motherland’. If the situation was allowed to drift, China could follow the Soviet Union on the way to disintegration. Something had to be done.
It is why the promising young cadre Hu Jiatao was sent to Lhasa as Party Chief. It was to be the crucial challenge for Hu. He knew he had to show results in very short time to repay the confidence placed in him.
Hu Jintao took over the rebellious region on January 12, 1989.
On January 23, Hu visited the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse. He was accompanied by the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking Tibetan Lama after the Dalai Lama. The official occasion was the consecration of a stupa containing the mortal remains of one of the previous Panchen Lamas. To everyone's surprise, during the function, the Panchen Lama denounced the Communist Party's role in Tibet: “although there had been developments in Tibet since its liberation, this development had cost more dearly than its achievements.”
Four days later, he passed away in mysterious circumstances.
When a demonstration erupted on March 5, the People's Armed Police quickly took control of the situation. Eyewitnesses later said that hundreds of Tibetans were massacred around the Central Cathedral in Lhasa on that day.
Martial law was clamped down on March 8. The tragic events in Lhasa seem to have been a rehearsal for another event: the student rebellion on Tiananmen Square three months later. But Hu had shown the way; it is probably true that in 1989 Hu saved the country which could have plunged into the 'chaos' so feared by Chinese emperors. Had Tibet been lost, no doubt other provinces such as Xinjiang would have followed in quick succession. It is how Hu Jintao reached the top.
A few weeks before Hu Jintao took over the Helm of the Middle Kingdom in 2002, news agencies carried the news that a Tibetan team led by Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's Special Envoy, had left for Beijing to negotiate with the Chinese government. Beijing then described it as private visit and a chance for exiled Tibetan leaders to see the progress in their homeland under Chinese rule.
It was one of the last actions initiated by Jiang Zemin, the outgoing President. A year earlier, the Communist Party had held its Fourth Tibet Work Forum to decide the Tibet policy for the decade to come. It was planned to give a strong impetus to economic and social development, while preserving the ‘stability’ of the region.
Though development was brought to Tibet (particularly with the opening of the railway line to Lhasa in 2006), stability was never achieved and in March/April 2008, unrest erupted all over Tibet, sending a shock wave through the spine of the Party in Beijing and this despite 8 rounds of talks, mostly held in Beijing, between Chinese officials and the Dalai Lama’s representatives.
It has a personal failure for Hu Jintao, the Party’s ‘Tibet expert’ who convened another Tibet Work Forum (the fifth one) in January 2010. It was attended by the 300 senior-most Party cadres and army officers, in the presence of the members of the Standing Committee. Once again, there was no policy shift, Hu declared: “We must also soberly understand that Tibet’s development and stability are still faced with many difficulties and challenges and have encountered many new situations and new issues.” Though stability had become an obsession for the Chinese President, troubles once again erupted on the Tibetan plateau in the recent months, this time under of the form of self-immolation by monks and nuns (some 19 in less than a year) and large scale demonstrations.
If Hu in not able to quickly change the tide, his leadership will go down in history as the darkest in relations with the ‘minorities’.
When he visits Delhi in March for the BRIC Summit, Hu could change this by meeting the Dalai Lama who remains the key to any solution for the Tibetan issue. Will he have the courage to save his Presidency and take this bold step? We should know soon.