Robert Barnett on the Qinghai Earthquake

China Beat has posted the full text of an interview in Le Monde with Tibet scholar Robert Barnett about the Qinghai earthquake and the government response:

BP: It’s been reported that Tibetan monks have acted quickly to help people. Is there a potential here for tensions, as there might be a clash of legitimacy?

RB: The quick action of the monks to try to rescue people has huge potential for cooperation with the government rescuers, but this is a very difficult situation, with many people in desperate pain and suffering, and we can see that the Chinese authorities are very keen to maintain control and desperate to show that it is the state that is the main provider of benefit to Tibetans. So although the Chinese officials will try to cooperate with the monks, the potential for tension and conflict is very high indeed.

BP: Is the policy to settle nomads a matter that could somehow be blamed for aggravating the consequences of the earthquake?

RB: This is a deeply worrying issue, because since 2006 China has forced tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads to abandon their flocks and their tents, where they would have been completely safe, and in effect their culture, because they were made to move to concrete and brick houses on the edges of towns, especially Yushu, usually with no clear prospect of income apart from some compensation fee. This policy, for which there seems to have been little or no public consultation,was very controversial even among some Chinese scholars and will seem more regrettable now.

However, it’s important to point out that Yushu has an unusually good history of relations with the Chinese authorities in the last few years, because local Tibetans were allowed to start NGOs, local schools, a library, a Medical College and an orphanage, with far less interference than in most Tibetan towns in China. Additionally, the authorities did not encourage migration of non-Tibetans into the area. The benefits of this policy showed in the fact that people decided not to stage major protests in Jyeku during March 2008. Because the Chinese authorities allowed this town to develop a certain measure of cultural identity and authority, there is a legacy of goodwill that might help the situation even in this difficult period.

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