First, I should get something off my chest. I hate the Olympics–I always have but it gets worse with each iteration of the ‘best Olympics ever’. The false bonhomie and brotherhood of nations in friendly competition crapola, the dreadful opening ceremonies featuring synchronized flag-waving and other pseudo-mythic symbolism so beloved by dictators through the ages, ‘amateur’ athletes doped to the eyeballs, and all run by the International Olympic Commission–an organization so corrupt it could probably offer master classes in corruption to officials from places like Myanmar or Somalia. The Games should not have gone to Beijing (that they did is proof of point that the Olympic Games in practice are a travesty of the ideals which they purport to represent). So I agree more or less with the main sentiment of this editorial May the Torch be Harassed (the caveat being that the author thinks that they ought to have gone to Toronto instead; I hate Toronto too but not so much that I’d wish to inflict the Olympic Games on the place).
But I’ve a more serious interest in the Tibet-China-Olympic Games story. If you are interested in contemporary insurgency you should be interested too. For I would suggest that what we are seeing here is that most interesting of academic cases to study: a proto- or almost-insurgency. Whether, why and how it becomes a full-blown insurgency (or not, as the case may be) is something of great interest. In common with other groups, Tibetans are using some of the cutting edge techniques of post-modern insurgency. These include virtual networks involving a diaspora, alliances with other groups with similar or related aims, global connectivity, and a really rather sophisticated and effective propaganda campaign. There is also a strong religious dimension. This is already a pretty rich stew; what’s missing is a final spicy ingredient.
That ingredient is violence. I’m not ignoring or explaining away the recent riots in Lhasa. Those seem to me to have been a spontaneous outpouring of rage not the organized instrumental use of violence for political ends. (There’s still not enough known about the riots, their cause, extent, and leadership to judge, in my view). There would seem to be more than a passing similarity here to the outbreak in December 1987 of the first Palestinian Intifada which, if not altogether spontaneous, nonetheless caught both the Israelis and the major Palestinian resistance movements off-guard. In other words, Tibetan ‘resistance’ may be on the verge of the biggest strategic decision that any non-state actor seeking a change in the status quo must ultimately face: whether to add violence to its repertoire or not.
It bears emphasizing that most non-state actors do not choose to adopt violent means and there are good reasons why they should not. For one thing, non-violence has quite a good record of success. For proof of this see Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s rather fine book A Force More Powerful. For another thing there is in almost all cultures a strong taboo against the use of violence. This taboo is evident in various dimensions: Legal (violence is criminal in pretty much every society which has bothered with even a rudimentary code of law); Political (the notion that states hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a powerful norm); Social (violent individuals are generally socially excluded); and, religious (most religious beliefs embody some moral injunctions against violence). Additionally, non-violence is attractive to non-state groups as a technique because it is less likely to expose the group to a violent state response. In plain terms, non-violent resistors are less likely to be killed or incarcerated for long periods. Nonetheless, the taboo against violence may be weakened or overridden by other considerations almost all of which exist to a greater or lesser degree with respect to Tibetans:
- Political and legal norms may be weak or lack legitimacy, especially in a failing or corrupt regime. Whether or not the Chinese Communist Party constitutes a failing regime is a question for another day; what should not be in dispute is its corruption and its deficit of legitimacy.
- Social norms may become more accepting of the use of violence to settle disputes, and religious norms may be ineffectual or reinterpreted to allow violence under specific conditions. Insofar as the Dalai Lama commands what Tibetan Buddhists regard as the norm regarding the use of violence we can say that this dimension of the taboo still holds. See: Why the Dalai Lama Might Quit. Nonetheless, there is good reason to ask how long this might remain the case –not so much that the Dalai Lama will change his mind but that activists will decide that his opinion on the matter should not rule.
- The group’s ideology may portray its adversary as an existential threat and thus a legitimate target of violence in the name of self-defence and political/social justice. Here too it seems to me this is an area where the taboo against violence is being eroded. Tibetans, and many non-Tibetans, do view China as an existential threat to that country through a process of cultural, linguistic and economic assimilation hastened by the mass , government-sponsored migration of Han Chinese. See: BBC Inside Tibet click on the ‘Cultural Shift’ tab.
And there are other incentives for the use of violence which probably apply:
- It may be seen as the only viable option against an authoritarian regime (check)
- It is more attractive if the state is weak or failing (probably no check)
- or if the group is unable to mobilize the general population to mass protest which is the hallmark of non-violent resistance (check, cf Tiananmen Square 4 June 1989)
- It may be seen as necessary and proportionate if the state is already using violence at a low or high level (check).
- And finally, violence will be chosen where it is seen to have been effective
On the last, watch and wait.
Endnote: My thinking on these things is strongly influenced by a PhD student in the department, Jeni Mitchell, who is working on strategies of violence in non-state actors. You might not have heard of her yet. In a couple of years when she gets her thesis done you will.