In the furore that has broken out over Chinas crackdown in Tibet, Ive been surprised that so little has been said about President Hu Jintaos previous administration of Tibet as a rising communist party cadre. After all, it was Hus iron fisted handling of the last riot in Tibet in 1989 that marked him out as one of the future leaders of the CCP. By demonstrating his ability for toughness when required (having already shown himself to be an intelligent and capable administrator), Hu proved to Deng Xiao Ping that he had the necessary intellect and ruthlessness to become a future leader of the Party. When analyzing recent events, its impossible not to consider the current Chinese position as part of a long term policy rooted in the personal incentives of the top Chinese officials.
Willy Lam, in his detailed book on the current President, gives a fascinating account of how Hu dealt with the riots in 1989:
According to sources close to the Hu camp, the then Tibet boss [Hu] played a crafty game. The head of police [in Lhasa] had sought instructs from Hu by telephone since the afternoon. The police chief wanted to know whether they could use force to disperse the mob. Hus reply was: Keep a close watch on the situation. Dont act yet wait for my instructions. By early evening, however, the protestors had started throwing stones in the premises. Still Hus instruction on the phone was the same Remain on high alert and wait for my instructions. Then, shortly after nightfall, the policy chief called again saying the rioters were trying to burn the place down. Hus reply was the same. After this the party boss [Hu] ordered aides to unplug the telephone so that the policy chief could no longer get through.
Lam goes on:
What happened later was expected. Even without explicit authorization from the part secretary, the police chief had no choice but to order his men to use force and shoot to kill if necessary to chase away the rioters. ..The rebellion was quickly suppressed because the protestors did not have heavy weapons and were badly outgunned. Late that night Hu report to Beijing that the situation had come under control after some valiant action by the police and the PAP [army]. The credit for this successful restoration of order would of course go to Hu. However, should something terrible have happened for example, if the draconian police action were to backfire and the rioting worsen the next day Hu could always put the blame on the police chief on the grounds that he had never given his personal approval for use of force.
Although this story probably gives Hu more credit than he deserves, its easy to see how the current Chinese response to the riots is not only part of a long standing policy of the CCP towards internal unrest, but is also very much part of Hus own personal political legacy. Wen JiaBao and Zhang QingLi may have been given the job of defending the strategy, but we shouldnt be surprised if the orders to use force have come from the top.