For 51 years, since the People’s Liberation Army marched into the Tibetan plateau, Tibet has been part of the People’s Republic of China. And for 51 years, rancor and distrust have characterized relations between the two peoples: the Tibetans want self-determination, and the Chinese believe Tibet, historically, has been a part of the Chinese nation. The most recent major incident occurred in 2008, during the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Beijing’s rule. Tibetans rioted over detained monks and other issues in both the Tibetan Autonomous Region (what the outside world calls Tibet) and other neighboring Chinese provinces populated by ethnic Tibetans like Qinghai.
This week’s earthquake—and footage of the devastation—is allowing the average Chinese to see both the poverty and humanity of a region they’re used to seeing only in political terms. “It’s very hard to see real Tibetans” through the media, says Yang. “On TV, they’re dancing all the time, shaking hands with leaders, celebrating, or shown as troublemakers. This is an opportunity to realize that Tibetans live and suffer like we do.” In addition, the sensitivity about minority issues—especially Tibetan ones—in China has choked off civic opportunities for Tibetan-Chinese connections. The earthquake is bringing “unprecedented” Chinese-Tibetan grassroots understanding, “and this could be a very good thing,” says Yang.