China appears to have had a pretty rough time in the month of March having to deal one after the other with what it calls the three 'evils' - extremism, terrorism and separatism. First, it was the attempted hijack of a domestic airliner by 'terrorists' of Uyghur ethnicity from Xinjiang, the site of China's extremist problem. Next, came the problem of 'splittism' or separatism as exemplified by the protests by ethnic Tibetans not just in the Tibet Autonomous Region but also in its neighbouring provinces. Even as the protests raged, Taiwan, China's 'renegade province,' held presidential elections and referendums on whether the island would seek UN membership.
The Olympics have been widely perceived as showcasing China's arrival on the global stage. However, along with its Olympic preparations, Beijing must have, no doubt, been preparing also for eventualities related to each of the three 'evils.' What then, do China's reactions to the events of March indicate about its level of preparedness? And, what do these reactions say about how China sees life after the Olympics?
Xinjiang's 'extremism' is clearly the easiest of the three 'evils' China has to tackle. China has been quick to take advantage of 9/11 and the resulting increased global focus on Muslim-led terrorism. Xinjiang's Uyghurs are Muslim and while they have become increasingly radicalized from the 1990s, post-9/11, it has been easier to categorize Uyghur movements as terrorist. The airplane hijack was the first real crisis in the Olympics year and from putting it down to the investigations and arrests that followed, as also the statements by Chinese leaders everything appears to have gone by the book. On view, was a China that was prepared for any threat and ready to host the largest spectacle on the planet, until Lhasa erupted, that is.
Meanwhile, Taiwan was, on paper, China's biggest worry in the run-up to the Olympics, but Beijing must have known for sometime, that the island's separatists were not likely to win either the presidential elections or the UN referendum. Nevertheless, it constantly kept up the pressure on the island and on its perceived supporters. China's leaders, it seemed, had become comfortable focusing on a problem that was both familiar to them and which provided them the opportunity to affix the blame more easily on external actors such as the United States or the outgoing Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian. It was also an issue more amenable to being leveraged by Chinese leaders as a rallying point for the country. However, with international media attention remaining focused on Tibet, the KMT's return to power in Taiwan did not allow Beijing much opportunity to feel relieved.
It is China's reactions to the Tibetan protests that will have the most to say about the country, post-Olympics. While China might have expected Tibetan protests in other parts of the world in the run-up to the Olympics it clearly did not expect them to occur within its own territory, either so violently or so widely spread. Tibet has always been a sensitive issue internationally but Beijing too, has in recent years, wished to be seen as more open and accommodative of popular aspirations. As a result, it apparently did not crackdown on the protests immediately. Once they started getting out of hand, however, Chinese leaders were left with no choice but to put troops on the streets and blaming the "Dalai clique" for fomenting the unrest.
The protests in Tibet have garnered international attention more for emotive issues such as 'cultural genocide' or for issues of geopolitics rather than the increasingly economic content of Tibetan grievances. For China's leaders, however, it will be the domestic implications of the latter that are the more serious long-term concerns than any international opprobrium. For long, the idea in China has been that economic development and prosperity would make up for constraints on political rights and for other political ills. However, despite several years of sustained economic attention, rising income inequalities and regional disparities are, evidently, providing additional fuel to political discontentment and cultural and ethnic grievances in China's western periphery. It is doubtful that China will solve these domestic issues in the near future. However, Beijing is also unlikely to face a sustained challenge, as long as the Tibet issue remains caught in a time-warp of religious and cultural concerns and focused on the personality of the Dalai Lama, without consideration of the changing internal dynamics of Tibet, itself.
Meanwhile, even as it accused the international media of biased reporting, China appears to be crafting a far more confident response to the sustained attention on its domestic troubles. It has moderated its fire-and-brimstone approach and even slipped in the occasional feelers about being willing to enter into talks with the Dalai Lama. Further, despite the fiasco it turned out to be, opening up Lhasa to foreign journalists in quick time was still a bold stroke and indicative of Beijing's willingness to deal with international attention head on. It is this confidence that is going to be China's biggest achievement from hosting the Olympic Games.