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A Tibetan’s View of June Fourth: Human Rights in China Interviews Rigzin

June 4, 2009

How are the “Lhasa Riots” and “June Fourth Incident” related? How did Tibetans view the 1989 Democracy Movement and the June Fourth crackdown, and how were they affected? How would a democratized China affect Han-Tibetan relations? Human Rights in China posed these questions in an interview with Rigzin, former editor of a Tibet studies journal, who was in Lhasa in the spring of 1989.

Human Rights in China [HRIC]:
Before the June Fourth incident
in 1989, what was the situation
in Tibet?

Rigzin: Before June Fourth, some
so-called “riots” occurred in
Tibet. One was in ’87, one was in
’88, and one just happened to be
in ’89. Because these three “riots”
were on a fairly large scale, each
larger than the last, the result was
that in March 1989, the Chinese
government declared all-out
martial law in Lhasa.

HRIC: So, in actuality, the Chinese
government imposed martial
law in Lhasa earlier than in
Beijing. Then what was the relationship
between the riot that
occurred in Lhasa and Beijing’s
democracy movement?

Rigzin: Many people believe that the events in Beijing
and Lhasa resembled one another. First, in Beijing it
was students who first came out to protest with the slogan:
“Oppose corruption, demand democracy.”Then,
following the students’ lead, Beijing residents and students
in other cities were mobilized. It was similar in
Lhasa. In March 1989, also in 1987 and 1988, it was
monks and nuns from several major monasteries near
Lhasa who came out first to demonstrate against the
government’s policy in Tibet. Spurred on by them, residents
in the city also participated.

HRIC: Can you talk about the ’89 protest activities?

Rigzin: A considerable number of people participated
then. At the time, several government agencies had
already received notifications from higher levels saying
that cadres were not permitted to participate or watch
from the side. So all of us stayed in our homes. Even
though my house was far away
from central Lhasa, I could still
clearly hear the sounds of the
demonstrators shouting slogans
from the center of town. Several
people who participated said
tens of thousands of people took
part. Some scholars believe that
protests in Lhasa preceded the
democracy movement in Beijing.
In some sense, they believe that
Tibet’s movement gave impetus
to Beijing’s patriotic democracy

HRIC: In your view, what was the
link between the events in these
two places?

Rigzin: I think the nature of each
of these two movements was different.
The student movement in
Beijing was directed at their own
government’s corruption and systemic problems, which
they hoped could be solved. However, what Tibet’s
monks and people wanted was Tibetan independence
and an end to the Communist Party of China’s (CPC)
rule of Tibet.

HRIC: What were the demands of the March 1989

Rigzin: At the time, many monks said they wanted
Tibetan independence. But the protest was not organized,
it was a spontaneous movement of the masses and
the monks. In actuality, Lhasa’s mass movement was
even less orderly and even less organized than the Beijing
student movement. This kind of spontaneous mass
movement had its own slogans, and everyone had their
own demands.

HRIC: What kind of slogans did they have?

Rigzin: The monks said that the government had jailed
a monk leader. It was said that he published some articles
that were perhaps quite sharply critical of the government.
This monk’s attainments in Buddhism were
very high, and he was very influential among the
monks. That was why many monks demanded his
release and demanded that the government stop interfering
in Tibet’s religious affairs. Many people also
demanded Tibetan independence.

HRIC: In 1989 during the Tibet protests, did you pay
any attention to the student movement in Beijing?

Rigzin: I paid close attention. In 1989, from about
March 9, Lhasa was put under martial law for one
whole year.When the patriotic student movement happened
in Beijing, the situation in Lhasa was also
extremely tense.You could see troops stationed everywhere.
Street corners and intersections were all guarded
by soldiers. Our work units organized us to study material
related to anti-separatist struggle. This made everyone
very nervous. But everyone would gather in front
of the television after work.At that time CCTV was
more objective. Everyone hoped in their hearts that
there would be democracy in China soon. In Lhasa,
many people, including cadres and young people, liked
to go to the teahouses. They did not go there for the tea.
The main reason was to meet and talk. They talked
about many topics, domestic ones and overseas ones.
We spoke about China, about everything.

HRIC:What topics concerned you most?

Rigzin: At the time we wanted news from Beijing. Everyone
discussed what in fact was happening in Beijing.
You could see that everyone’s eyes were brimming with
fervent hope. Everyone supported the Beijing student
movement and hoped that there would be a change in
China, and that democracy would be realized quickly.
This mentality was very strong, including in me.

HRIC: So what sort of change did you think the democracy movement
could bring to the lives of Tibetans?

Rigzin: Back then everyone believed that only when
China became a democracy would we Tibetans have a
place of our own. At the time everyone thought this way.
But there was a contradiction here. From the point of
view of righteousness and justice, Tibetans hoped that
the Beijing student movement would succeed, and that
China would quickly become democratic. This was a
thought that came from the heart. But on the other
hand, when many Han cadres from Lhasa’s major
offices and bureaus came to the Tibetans for donations
of money and materials, the vast majority of Tibetans
in the Lhasa area did not donate anything. In other
words, in their actions they did not support the Beijing
student movement.

Why was that? I believe there are two reasons.One is
that in Tibetan history there have been many mass
peaceful demonstrations. They were met with brutal
government crackdown every time, and the vast majority
of Han people, particularly Chinese intellectuals,
stood on the side of the government. They have always
held double standards toward mass peaceful demonstrations.
When government crackdowns occur within
China, they believe that the CCP is wrong, but when the
same thing happens in Tibet they believe that Tibetans
are wrong. Since this has happened so many times, the
Tibetan people have completely lost trust in their hearts
for the Han. Many Han intellectuals holding positions
in Tibetan work units actually masterminded schemes
on behalf of the CCP’s ruling cliques, and played an
active role in suppressing Tibetans. Time and again,
they have hurt the Tibetan people. Therefore, when a
large-scale student movement occurred in Beijing,
Tibetans on the one hand hoped that China would
change and quickly become democratic, and on the
other hand, were unwilling to give concrete support. Of
course, there was a very small minority of Han scholars
such as Liu Xiaobo and Wang Lixiong who stood up,
but the vast majority of Hans completely endorsed the
government’s way of handling the Tibetans.

Another problem was Tibetans’ sense of national identity.
Tibetans have always believed that China occupied
Tibet, and not, as they say, “liberated” it. When Tibetans
peacefully demonstrated, Han people did not give them
moral support. Instead, they stood on the side of the
government. This strengthened Tibetans’ sense of
national identity. Therefore, when Han people mobilized
Tibetans to donate money and materials in 1989,
Tibetans said: We are not from the same country. This
is China’s internal affair. Doesn’t the Chinese government
like to say that internal affairs must not be interfered
with? So we did not interfere.

HRIC: Is this the thinking of the vast majority of
Tibetans? Do you also believe this?

Rigzin: Including myself, the vast majority of Tibetans
all think this.

HRIC: After the June Fourth crackdown, what was the
situation like in Tibet?

Rigzin: In Tibet people were also captured. Many Han cadres and students in Tibet were extremely passionate and had organized fundraising activities in Tibet. Afterwards, one by one these activists were jailed, put in isolation, and investigated.

HRIC: When did investigations in Tibet begin?

Rigzin: Probably not long after the June Fourth crackdown, probably within one week after it started. Many people around us were investigated, isolated, and arrested. I had a friend that was a reporter for the Tibet Daily agency.

HRIC: Was he Han or Tibetan?

Rigzin: He was Han. He graduated from the journalism
department of one of Sichuan’s universities. He was
eventually investigated at his work unit. He was fairly
young at the time and had just been sent from Sichuan.
He was extremely active. He frequently expressed himself
in our midst, saying that we Tibetans should support
the Beijing democracy movement, that it was tied
to the fate of Tibetans.

HRIC: Can you discuss how the June Fourth incident
influenced you as an individual? What were your own

Rigzin: I believe that, under a totalitarian system in
which the government controls the military and the
nation’s lifelines, when the masses peacefully and
rationally hold demonstrations, the government will
definitely suppress them. The government has the
absolute advantage. So these demonstrations always fall
far short of the effect anticipated at the start. And I
believe that in China, these types of large-scale democracy
movements will eventually fail. This is because the
military is in the hands of the CCP. As soon as they send
in the army, there is no way out. Therefore, if China’s
system of government doesn’t change, protests that
stem from the hopes people have placed in the government
will always fail to achieve results. These are my

Tibetans have always believed that China occupied Tibet, and not, as they say, “liberated” it. When Tibetans peacefully demonstrated, Han people did not give them moral support. Instead, they stood on the side of the government. This strengthened Tibetans’ sense of national identity. Therefore, when Han people mobilized Tibetans to donate money and materials in 1989, Tibetans said: We are not from the same country. This is China’s internal affair. Doesn’t the Chinese government like to say that internal affairs must not be interfered with?

HRIC: Are you still able to recall the influence that Party
Secretary Hu Yaobang had on Tibet policy while he was
in office?

Rigzin: When Hu Yaobang was in office, he came once
to Tibet. A conference for county level cadres and
higher was held in Lhasa. At the time some cadres from
our work unit attended. After the conference, they said
that Hu Yaobang’s words astounded them. They said
once Hu Yaobang said, “You Tibetans should fight for
yourselves. If you don’t fight for yourselves, other people
will shit on your heads, so you Tibetans should
strengthen yourselves and develop your own ethnic culture.”
Many cadres were moved because previous Han leading cadres had not said such things; they had not
dared to say such things.

When Hu Yaobang was in office, the situation in Tibet
was relatively calm. Back then the Party Secretary for
the Tibet Autonomous Region was Wu Jinghua.He was
not a Han, he was an Yi. After he came to Tibet he implemented many
central policies and put into effect many
policies to rehabilitate cadres.1 He did united front
work, religious work. He truly implemented many policies
that were praised by the people. For example, on
the religious front, some Tibetan government officials
who had previously been criticized were released, given
compensation, and returned to their positions. At that
time in Tibet, great importance was placed on religion.
There was a major conference on Buddhism for many
Tibetan religious branches from January 1 to 15 of the
Tibetan calendar. The Autonomous Region’s leaders
made personal appearances to donate to the monks.
This was unprecedented.

HRIC: If new policies had been implemented until
1989, why did authorities then capture the monk leaders?

Rigzin: The circumstances in Tibet had twists and
turns. In the past, in Mao Zedong’s time during the
Cultural Revolution, there had been ruthless struggles,
but very few people protested. I think that demonstrations
by the masses generally happen when the political
atmosphere is slightly more relaxed.Only then do their
accumulated grievances get let out. Before, they wanted
to let it out but had no opportunity. During Hu
Yaobang’s time, policy was more relaxed, the masses
were given a certain amount of the right to speak, so
these monks came out and started demonstrating. They
used this opportunity to settle scores, so in this way
many monks came out, and Lhasa’s masses also came
out to support the monks’ actions, and eventually the
large-scale protests of 1987, 1988, and 1989 occurred.

HRIC: What effect do you think China’s democratization will have on relations between Hans and Tibetans?

Rigzin: I believe it will have a very large effect. Let’s not
talk now about Tibetan independence, because the
problem of independence does not look very realistic. If
China becomes democratic, the Tibetan people will
have an opportunity to express their hopes and
demands. After China becomes democratic, relations
between Tibetans and Hans will not be like now, in
which one is the ruler and one is the ruled. Now many
Han scholars believe that they are advanced and
Tibetans are backwards; they are the rulers, Tibetans are
the ruled. If China becomes democratic, then there will
be people who can fight for the rights and interests of
Tibetans. Therefore, many Tibetans hope that China
will quickly democratize.

HRIC: Do you think that the demands raised by the
Dalai Lama for high-level autonomy in Tibet can be

Rigzin: I believe that there isn’t much hope if we solely
rely on Tibetans to strive on their own. Since 2002, the
two sides have had contact eight times, but there hasn’t
been any result. Moreover, the Dalai Lama said he has
lost faith in the Chinese government, but he still has
faith in the Chinese people. During these eight contacts
over a total of six years, each time Tibetans were hurt.
So, I believe that if it is the Tibetans participating in a
one-sided talk with the Chinese government, then the
prospect is very uncertain. I believe that only if China
democratizes, and after the Tibetan people gain their
rights under a democratic system, can there be room
for negotiation. However, some people say that even if
China eventually becomes democratic, if China’s
nationalist sentiments aren’t reduced, the situation for
Tibetans will perhaps become even more difficult.On
this point I agree.

HRIC: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

April 24, 2009

Translated by Human Rights in China


1. During the Cultural Revolution, cadres, along with intellectuals, were sent to the “cadre schools” in the countryside to perform manual labor and undergo ideological reeducation. ^

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