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Seven Questions: What Tibetans Want

March 28, 2008

Foreign Policy
Posted March 2008

The most vigorous Tibetan protests in decades have been crushed by
Chinese soldiers and police. Tibet expert Robert Barnett explains why
the most significant action is taking place outside Lhasa and what we
can expect the Chinese to do next.

Foreign Policy: What does the average Tibetan want? Is it independence,
or a greater share of Tibet’s modernization and economic growth, which
has been dominated by Han Chinese?

Robert Barnett: Not really either of those things. We have to be very
careful not to confuse exile politics, which is a demand for anti-China
this and anti-China that, with internal politics, which is much more
pragmatic, complex, and sophisticated.

A very important sector of Tibetans have become very wealthy because
China has poured money into creating a middle class in Tibetan towns,
though there hasn’t really been a dividend for the countryside and the
underclass. So, we can’t explain this as just economic modernization. We
could explain the violence against the [Han] Chinese in that way. It
could have to do with that. But the violence is present in just one
demonstration out of 50 in the past two weeks.

These protests are really about two things: A huge sector of the rural
population has said, “Tibet was independent in the past. We reassert
that belief. That doesn’t mean we demand that it be independent again,
but we are reinserting that into the discussion.” And, “The Dalai Lama
represents our interests.” I suppose a possible third thing is, “We are
certainly not happy with Chinese President Hu Jintao.” This is a huge
political statement that nobody anticipated.

FP: We’re primarily seeing photos of protests in Lhasa and the protests
abroad. But you suggest the real significance is the groundswell of
protests in the countryside?

RB: It’s not a groundswell; it’s a tidal wave. It’s the biggest thing to
happen in Tibetan history for 40 years. In Lhasa, you get a protest as
we [normally] recognize one. But that’s not really significant for China
except in a PR way. They deal with those things with security
operations; they crack down and put people away. This has nothing to do
with the significance of what’s happening. The most significant of the
50 protests are the rural peasants taking over the countryside. These
are people who get on horseback or march down to the local government
office or police post, burn it to the ground, and raise the Tibetan
flag. You can be shot on sight for having a Tibetan flag in Tibet in a
non-Olympics year. Nothing like this has been seen in Tibet for decades,
and it has untold political significance for China.

FP: Will the protests just fade away, or will they grow and spread?

RB: They’ll definitely fade away because the [Chinese] force level is
just so high, and anyway [the Tibetans’] point has been made. We [in the
West] think that people do politics by saying, “I’m going to stage this
protest in order to get X.” But nobody gets X in China. It just doesn’t
work like that. You’re dealing with one of the biggest power systems in
the world. Instead, burn a government building, put a flag up, and then
you’ve achieved this huge victory because China has created a symbolic
form of politics in which everyone is supposed to have forgotten that
they were independent once. So, just by doing that, you have completely
changed the political equation.

FP: Is there any kind of generation gap in the exile community wherein
older exiles are more dovish and the younger exiles want to confront China?

RB: There is certainly a growing group, generally young and English- or
Hindi-speaking, who are very strongly animated by the idea that
diplomacy doesn’t work—and will never work—in China, and instead you
must go for independence. In this case, independence stands for a
criticism that China can’t be trusted and an implication that a
spiritual figure like the Dalai Lama can’t be tough enough. But it’s
quite complicated. These people feel they are adding muscle because they
are doing what he can’t as a monk and spiritual figure. But even they do
not generally question his standing, and they certainly see him as the
solution. Inside Tibet, nobody is questioning his standing or his
potential to be key to the solution. If George Bush had 1 percent of the
support this man has, George Bush would be a happy man. You cannot beat
him for polling figures.

FP: Is there any chance that the Chinese recognize that mandate and sit
down with the Dalai Lama in the near future?

RB: It certainly is a possibility. But this is the problem: The Dalai
Lama’s mandate and most of what he’s been saying is now visibly
reinforced many times over by these events. It gets more difficult for
the Chinese to sit down at the table with him. Hu Jintao could talk to
the Dalai Lama, and he would get enormous dividends internationally in
the short term if he did. But he’s thinking about what might come back
and bite him. The Chinese understand history. They’re not unreasonable
in recognizing that nationalism is no longer a tameable force. You can’t
assume that your own political mandate will never be challenged, so you
have to constantly go back to the people and say, “We’re listening to
your grievances.”

FP: Will India find it harder to tolerate the Tibetan government in exile?

RB: India is clearly moving in the direction of distancing itself from
the exiles. Some people think it’s preparing for the death of the Dalai
Lama, and then it will distance itself even more. There were indications
of a sea change after the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold
Medal in America last October. The Indians issued an order, presumably
under pressure from China, that their cabinet ministers were not allowed
to meet him or receive him upon his return. This was seen as very
unusual. I don’t want to suggest some major realignment, but the
indications are very much that India is maintaining ambiguity but
showing that it largely wants to engage with China. That said, it hasn’t
taken any irreversible steps yet in terms of the Tibetans.

FP: What is absent from press coverage of Tibet that you think people
need to keep in mind?

RB: We have to put aside these questions that fascinate some people,
such as, “Is the Dalai Lama losing his power?” That’s the opposite of
the issue here. The exile complaints are not about power. And we have to
put aside suggestions that the protests in Tibet are because people are
unhappy about economic loss. That really is reductive. And I think we
have to get over any suggestion that the Chinese are ill-intentioned or
trying to wipe out Tibet. It’s obviously horrible that people are being
savagely beaten up and killed. But crucially, this is a historic change
in the profile of Tibetan politics. We’re looking at something much
larger than any immediate anxiety about Olympics, or whether somebody
planned one of these things, or whether people are upset about economic
disadvantage. Historians are going to tell us that we missed the big
picture if we didn’t notice that this is the big story here. All the
party cadres are going to be sent to the countryside areas to listen to
the Tibetans’ complaints and find out what has gone so wrong with the
policy machine in China.

Robert Barnett is director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at
Columbia University and author most recently of Lhasa: Streets with
Memories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
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