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The question of Tibet

May 12, 2008

Reflections on development, human rights, and politics in China's
unique autonomous region.
Front Line (India)
Volume 25 - Issue 10
May 10-23, 2008

"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."
– T.S. Eliot, 'The Burial of the Dead' in The Waste Land, 1922.

MARCH is the cruellest month for Tibetans in China if you were to go
by the serf-owners' uprising that broke out on March 10, 1959 and the
troubles that surfaced sporadically after that, in 1987 and 1989 --
or what happened in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region
(TAR), on March 14, 2008 and subsequently in some Tibetan autonomous
areas in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces.


If you go by Western media reports, the propaganda of the theocratic
'Tibetan government-in-exile' in Dharamsala and the votaries of the
'Free Tibet' cause, or by the fulminations of Nancy Pelosi and the
Hollywood glitterati, Tibet is in the throes of a mass democratic
uprising against Han Chinese communist rule. Some of the more
fanciful news stories, images, and opinion pieces on the 'democratic'
potential of this uprising have been put out by leading international
news agencies, Western newspapers, and television networks.
Unsurprisingly, these demonstrably false, manipulated reports have
drawn condemnation and sharp criticism from tens of thousands of
Chinese 'netizens.'

The Pavlovian media campaign has been conducted alongside an
international political campaign led by the Bush administration and
joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela
Merkel, various other western political leaders, and American and
European legislators. "Washington," notes F. William Engdahl, an
economist who has written extensively on geopolitical, economic, and
energy subjects, "has obviously decided on an ultra-high risk
geopolitical game with Beijing's by fanning the flames of violence in
Tibet just at this sensitive time in their relations and on the
run-up to the Beijing Olympics"
Engdahl sees the current Tibetan operations as getting "the green
light" in October 2007 when President George Bush agreed to meet the
Dalai Lama for the first time publicly in Washington and also witness
the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama.
Fortunately, the Indian government has distanced itself from these
U.S.-led actions and taken a correct, constructive stand on the
question of Tibet and its recent troubles.

The websites of several Western television organisations and
newspapers, including The Washington Post, BBC News, Fox News, and
CNN, have not been above fielding photographs such as those of
baton-wielding Nepalese policemen clashing with Tibetan agitators in
Kathmandu, with the captions claiming the baton-wielders were Chinese
policemen; an ambulance bearing a Red Cross symbol, with the caption
claiming "there is a heavy military presence in Lhasa"; Indian police
dragging a man away, with the caption saying "Chinese troops parading
handcuffed Tibetan prisoners in trucks"; and seemingly menacing
Chinese military trucks, with the part showing rioters hurling rocks
at the trucks cropped out (for the details, including images, see

But this is not all. Following an allegation made by the Dalai Lama
on March 29 that Chinese People's Armed Policemen dressed up as
Tibetan monks and rioted in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, a sensational
photograph began to circulate on the Internet. It showed several
People's Armed Police servicemen wearing summer uniforms and holding
in their hands folded robes of Tibetan monks. The problem for the
credibility of the image was this. By the end of December 2007, there
were some 210 million Chinese Internet users (32 per cent of whom
were young men and women in the age group 18-24; 72 per cent of whom
used search engines; and 66 per cent of whom were accustomed to
posting or uploading content on the Internet): the data source for
these numbers is the 21st Statistical Survey Report on Internet
Development in China published online by CNNIC, the China Internet
Network Information Centre (the full survey report can be read in
English at

Some of these netizens did some rapid appraisal and research and
found inconsistencies in what the captions claimed in relation to the
images. The first problem was the summer uniforms worn by the
policemen in the picture, something out of the question for March 14
in the Lhasa cold. The second problem was the absence of shoulder
badges, worn by all PAP servicemen since 2005. Further online
discovery gave the lie to what the photograph was supposed to be: it
had been originally uploaded on a website linked to the Dalai Lama's
'government-in-exile,' with the caption reading: "This photo was
apparently taken when monks refused to act in a movie, so soldiers
were ordered to put on the robes"
and (

A notable feature of recent Western media coverage of Tibet is the
way journalism feeds off the disinformation campaign unleashed by the
Dalai Lama's headquarters and the votaries of Tibetan 'independence,'
without any attempt at independent reporting. One favoured method,
under the guise of responsible news reporting, is to rationalise
publication of the most exaggerated and fanciful accounts by pleading
lack of onsite access. BBC did this on its website on April 4, 2008
with reference to the riot in Garze in Sichuan Province by offering
the caveat that "foreign media organisations cannot report freely
from Tibetan areas, so it is difficult to confirm facts from the
area" ( This is
news-speak for 'anything goes' for journalists on the other side of
the ideological-political fence; they are freed from all rules of
responsible and transparent sourcing and verification prescribed by
codes of good journalistic practice and innumerable books on
journalistic ethics.

In particular, such stratagems have enabled various Western
newspapers, news websites, news agencies, and television stations to
deify the riots and disturbances by Tibetan discontents, including
monks, under the banner of 'human rights' and 'freedom.' They equate
Chinese official accounts of the toll taken by the recent Tibetan
riots with vaguely sourced claims made by 'Tibetan exile groups.'
This observation applies especially to the death toll, which is
necessarily a function of body counts in any law-abiding society. In
various subtle and not-so-subtle ways, readers are invited to give
credence to claims by unnamed Tibetan exile sources that up to a
hundred, if not hundreds of, people died in the March-April 2008
riots; and that Chinese security forces cracked down on or brutalised
unarmed protesters or 'opened fire on crowds of civilians, killing'
whatever number the 'Tibetan exile groups' are pleased to put out on
the incident (

The mainstream Western news media have also failed to report on, and
analyse the significance of, the crucial fact that police
investigation has revealed that the "confirmed list of [40]
individuals killed" released by the Dalai Lama's
'government-in-exile' on March 26
( was wholly
fabricated. The investigation has found that five people on the list
of dead are alive or never existed; and that the other 35, whose
birthplaces or residences have been given as 'Lhasa, Tibet,' 'Aba,
Sichuan Province,' and so on, were impossible to locate. A supposedly
dead monk, Lobsang Tsepel of Sera Monastery, and a supposedly dead
nun, Lobsang Doma, have been found to be very much alive; and a
'dead' monk, Ngawang Thekchen of Taklung Drak Monastery, has been
found to be non-existent
( The Dalai
Lama establishment's fabricated list of 40 Tibetan 'martyrs' is
strikingly reminiscent of the list of 59 Hindu 'martyrs' put out by
India's ultra-rightist organisation, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, in 1991;
journalistic field investigation exposed the falsity of the VHP's
communally venomous body count hoax ('When the "dead" came back,'
Frontline, May 24, 1991, pages 12-16).

This kind of journalism turns on its head C.P. Scott's celebrated
maxim, "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." But even the opinions
have been riddled with contradictions. In an editorial, 'China
Terrorises Tibet,' published four days after the Lhasa riot, The New
York Times was quick to judgment. It charged Beijing with a
"crackdown on Tibet" and described the response to the savagery
unleashed by the rioters as a "clash" between Chinese security forces
and "hundreds of Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans"
). Subsequently, this newspaper was obliged to publish news items
that acknowledged, in minimalist fashion, the lynching of Han Chinese
by the rioters. In its editorial, 'A spluttering flame,' published on
April 5, 2008
The Guardian went a step further, even after the nature of the Lhasa
riots became clear to the whole world. This editorial criticised
Britain for being "in close embrace with a government cracking down
on human rights." Citing "exiled Tibetan sources" as claiming that
the death toll was 140 (against the official figure of 18 civilians),
it surmised, "the final death toll could well be much higher." The
liberal British newspaper charged China with "preparing for the
[Olympic] Games by re-establishing control" and accused Chinese
security forces of "behaving in a manner not unlike Burma's junta."

The reality is that the riots that broke out in Lhasa on March 14,
2008 and claimed a death toll of 18 innocent civilians and a police
officer and an injury toll of 382, including 241 police officers,
were the handiwork of violent, thuggish, ransacking mobs. They
included 300 militant monks from the Drepung Monastery, who marched
in tandem with a foiled 'March to Tibet' by groups of monks across
the border in India. The rioters committed murder, arson, and other
acts of savagery against innocent civilians. The atrocities included
dousing one man with petrol and setting him alight, beating a patrol
policeman and carving out a fist-size piece of his flesh, and
torching a school with 800 terrorised pupils cowering inside. The
rioters set fire to seven schools, five hospitals, and 120 homes.
They destroyed or looted 908 shops. The damage caused to public and
private property was estimated at 244 million yuan ($35 million).
Tourism, which is vital to the Tibetan economy, was set back
seriously, with a sharp decline in the number of tourists and
consequently hotel occupancy, and a blow to the catering business.

Visual images and independent eyewitness accounts attest to this ugly
reality, which compelled even the Dalai Lama to put out threats to
resign. There was violence also in Tibetan ethnic areas in the
adjacent provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, which, according to official
estimates, took an injury toll of more than 700.

By way of analysis, Western pundits have linked these incidents to
the March 10 anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising;
non-progress in the talks between the Dalai Lama's emissaries and
Beijing; China's 'human rights record'; the Beijing Olympic Games,
which will of course be held as scheduled from August 8 to 24
(notwithstanding some attempts to disrupt the ceremonial relay of the
Olympic Flame or torch from Olympia in Greece to the Olympic venue in
Beijing); and what not.

Recent Western media accounts express unease and sadness over the
swift containment of the Tibetan troubles, the 'large-scale,' if
belated and politically slow, response by Beijing, and the 'brutal
ease' with which the protests have been 'smothered.' The surrender,
by March 19, of more than a hundred people who admitted involvement
in the Lhasa riots, and the formal arrest, by April 9, of 403,
including 13 of the 93 'most wanted'
were either ignored or reported in mournful tones.

The swift trial, conviction, and sentencing of 30 rioters by the
Intermediate People's Court of Lhasa will no doubt trigger fresh
'human rights' complaints, especially since the Dalai Lama, with
total disregard for the rule of law, called for the release of all
criminal suspects arrested for their role in the March 14 riots.
Three were sentenced to life imprisonment and the rest given jail
terms ranging from three to 15 years. The three given life sentences
are a driver in a Lhasa real estate company who set vehicles on fire,
threw stones at police stations and fire engines, and attacked
firemen; a monk who led 10 people in destroying a government office,
setting alight 11 shops, stealing valuables, and attacking policemen;
and a businessman who was involved in arson and destruction of
vehicles and shops
The fact that the April 21-25 trials strictly followed the Criminal
Law and the Criminal Procedure Law of the People's Republic of China
is unlikely to weigh for much with western 'human rights' champions.

Apart from going after the rioters, as the rule of law requires, the
authorities sent a law education work group to the Drepung Monastery
(whose monks were involved in the riots) and work groups to some
other monasteries to help maintain the rule of law, public order, and
social stability and indeed to calm things down
In another context, say Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf, such a
response from the state would have been characterised as exemplary restraint.

As the evidence on the nature of the riots has piled up, the
realisation has dawned that it was too much to expect any legitimate
government of a major country to turn the other cheek to such
savagery and such a breakdown of public order. Secondly, there has
been a massive reaction from the Chinese people in support of their
government and in opposition to those who have turned the truth about
the Lhasa riots on its head and those who have supported the Dalai
Lama's cause. This mobilisation involving tens of millions of people
has major political and economic implications.

So there has been a strategic shift in the demand made on China: it
must 'initiate' a substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama to find a
'just' and 'sustainable' political solution in Tibet. But this is
precisely what the Chinese government has done for three decades.
Even within days of the riots, it affirmed its consistent stand by
announcing that it would resume "contact and consultation" with the
Dalai Lama's representatives. The framework of the political solution
-- regional autonomy within one China with its socialist market
economy and political system led by the Communist Party -- is there
for all to see.

A fact little-known outside China is its ethnic regional autonomy
system. This is constitutionally entrenched and is clearly beneficial
to the country's 55 ethnic minorities. China's Han population may
comprise 91.59 per cent of the total (according to the 2000 National
Population Census) but the 155 ethnic autonomous areas, including
five autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures, and 120
autonomous counties, cover 75 per cent of the country's ethnic
minority population and 64 per cent of its territory. Tibet, which in
2006 had 0.21 per cent of China's 1.31 billion people but one-eighth
of its territory, has enjoyed regional autonomy since 1965.

So what was the provocation for the violence in Lhasa and some
Tibetan ethnic areas outside TAR? What is the cause for which these
pro-Dalai Lama agitators are fighting? It cannot be economic because
the economy of the Tibet Autonomous Region, as virtually everyone who
has been there recognises, is on a roll. Nobody in their right mind
has accused the Chinese government -- with its sights set firmly on
economic development, political stability, and a 'harmonious society'
and just ahead of the August Beijing Olympics -- of any new set of
suppressive measures, political, economic, social, or cultural,
against the 2.6 million ethnic Tibetans who constitute more than 92
per cent of the 2.8 million population of the Tibet Autonomous Region
or against the 3.9 million Tibetans who live in other Chinese
provinces and regions outside TAR. According to officially compiled
data, in 2008 more than 80 per cent of the deputies elected to
people's congresses at the regional, prefectural, and city levels,
and 90 per cent of those elected at the county and village levels
were Tibetans or people from other ethnic minorities.

The Dalai Lama has charged China with committing "cultural genocide"
but this is contradicted by the existence of 1,700 monasteries and
other Tibetan Buddhist religious sites with their 46,000 monks and
nuns (1.77 per cent of the Tibetan population of TAR); four mosques
for 3,000 Muslims, and a Catholic church for 700 Christians; the
protection and showcasing of the Potola Palace and other priceless
heritage sites; the flourishing of the Tibetan language; the
renaissance of traditional Tibetan medicine, which is enjoying a cult
status internationally; and the strength and vitality of age-old
tradition observable in the daily lives of the Tibetan people.

Some terrible things, including cultural vandalism, happened in TAR
and other Tibetan ethnic areas during the 'Cultural Revolution' but
even worse things happened elsewhere in China. In any case, very much
for ideological reasons, the Dalai Lama and the 'Free Tibet' campaign
have chosen to underestimate the damage done during the 'Cultural
Revolution,' tending to depict the normal years as the worst period
for Tibet and Tibetans.

Overall, over a period of nearly six decades following the Chinese
Revolution, Tibet has developed, with some setbacks and
interruptions, as an inalienable part of the People's Republic of
China. This holds true socio-economically, politically, culturally,
and above all in transforming the lives of the people. There have
been shortcomings and deficits of course in rising to the historic
challenges of development and socio-economic transformation in TAR
and in Tibetan ethnic areas in other provinces but which country does
not have such shortcomings and deficits? A fair, objective, and
balanced assessment makes it absolutely clear that many developing
and developed nations have done far worse by their ethnic minorities
than China has done by its 6.5 million citizens of Tibetan ethnic stock.


One way of examining the issue of human rights, development, and
welfare is from the point of view of the entitlements or capability
approach to well being and the quality of life, as set out by the
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. This is now a rich theoretical field with
far-reaching policy implications
Development, in Sen's analysis, is a process of expanding the 'real
freedom' of people; and real freedom resides in an individual's
'capability to achieve valuable human functionings.' The crucial
question of the freedom of members of a society to achieve basic and
more advanced human functionings depends obviously on the
socio-political system, government policies, opportunities available
to all the constituent sections of society, and stability and harmony
in society. "Measuring real freedom," a commentator on Sen's work
points out, "in terms of indicators such as life expectancy, literacy
and educational attainments, levels of nutrition, access to health
care, employment, social respect and political participation are
central to assessing how individuals and societies are faring"
( In his
book Development as Freedom (OUP, 1999), Sen takes the analysis
further by looking into the relationship between freedom and
development and centre-staging freedom as constitutive of development
and in being instrumental in achieving it.

The primary goal of development must be to enable all members of a
society to achieve basic and more advanced human functionings on a
secure and stable path. Deprivation, chronic as well as contingent
(as in a drought, famine, or flood), is the opposite of development
and the freedom and opportunity to develop the capability to achieve
valuable human functionings. The expansion of freedom in this sense
should be the foundation of human rights – a field that is valuable
in itself but is unfortunately used from time to time as an
ideological-political weapon to injure, besmirch, and pressure
perceived adversaries. Those who use human rights as such a weapon
are clearly open to the charge of upholding double standards.

We can approach Tibetan developments usefully from this perspective.

Ten years from now, a visitor to Tibet is likely to find it
transformed into a region of reasonable development. It is likely to
have decent living standards for all its people; a robust industrial
base; modern agriculture and modernising animal husbandry; a
well-educated, relatively young population; a high cultural level; a
strong infrastructural spine and network supporting the development
of a vast region; and active linkages and contacts with the rest of
the world. It is more than likely that the autonomous region will
enjoy political and social stability. It is certain not just that
Tibet will be a still autonomous but much better integrated part of
China but also that rising China will be very much in charge of
Tibet's future. A significant part of 'Tibet in Exile' could be back
home, participating in shaping this future. Tibet is thus poised to
achieve the status of a moderately developed region by the middle of
the 21st century, possibly earlier.

These predictions can be confidently made on the strength of two
visits I made to the Tibet Autonomous Region over the past seven years.

The first visit, over five days in July 2000, gave me an opportunity
to attempt some reality testing of Dharamsala's main campaign themes.
The opportunity for another reality check came during a weeklong
visit in June 2007 to the Tibet Autonomous Region and, for
comparative reference, some Tibetan autonomous areas in the
neighbouring provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan. The process and effects
of change were there for everyone to see and there were hundreds of
visitors, from various parts of China and abroad.

Five factors stand out about contemporary Tibet.

The first is the rapid development of its economy, which in 2007 grew
by 13.8 per cent compared with 11.4 per cent for China as a whole.
The second is the readily observable fact that the arrival of
material prosperity, steady population growth, rises in living
standards, education and skills training, and in general the process
of modernisation are transforming life, work, and mindsets,
especially of the young who make up the bulk of the Tibetan
population. The third factor is a hard-won improvement in the Tibet
Autonomous Region's internal and external political climate. The
fourth is the dramatic leap in connectivity with the mainland that
has come with the Qinghai-Tibet railway -- a 1,956-km engineering
marvel that now links Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, with
Lhasa. The fifth factor is a widening credibility gap -- between the
make-believe world of the 'independence for Tibet' movement and
on-the-ground Tibetan realities, which are reflected in the Dalai
Lama's scaled-down political demands for an 'autonomous' solution
within a sovereign and one China.

Starting from age-old isolation from the mainstream, a chequered
history, a low economic base, and a unique plateau environment
averaging higher than 4,000 metres in altitude, Tibet has been
growing at an annual compound rate of 12 per cent over the past seven
years. The living standards, education, and skills training of
Tibetans have improved visibly. In 2007, TAR's gross domestic product
was $4.88 billion (34.2 billion yuan); and the per capita income was
about $1,714 (12,000 yuan), which was double the 2002 figure

The per capita net income of farmers and herders -- the really
underdeveloped sector of the region's economy -- experienced double
digit annual growth over the past five years. For 2007, it was
estimated to be $391 (2,788 yuan), a 14.5 per cent improvement on the
2006 figure. This compared with a national per capita income of $487
(3,587 yuan) for farmers
In 2007, TAR experienced the highest growth in retail sales of all
provinces and regions in China

The effects of the economic transformation are conspicuous on Lhasa
roads and streets, with their fast-moving vehicular traffic and
rising modern buildings and commercial complexes. They can be
witnessed on Barkor Street, known locally as 'the Saint Road,' and in
the crowded bazaar around Jokhang Temple; in the vicinity of the
Dalai Lama's long-vacant Potala Palace; in the fast-developing
transportation, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure; and at
another high altitude wonder, the 6.2 square kilometre Lhalu Wetland
in the capital's suburbs, which is known as Lhasa's 'oxygen bar.'

However, the real test is in the countryside, where four-fifths of
Tibet's 2.8 million people live. There is visible evidence of
economic development in the villages we were able to visit,
especially in the households of farmers who have prospered thanks to
their hard work and thrift, the large number of working hands in the
family, central government subsidies, and new opportunities offered
by the construction boom. The positive effects are also visible in
the schools, kindergartens, and medical centres dispensing Tibetan
medicine. They are on view in the bustling, grain producing and
industrialising Xigaze prefecture located in TAR's mid-south.
World's highest railway

The most dramatic change since 2000 has come with the Qinghai-Tibet
railway system, which will be marking its second anniversary on July
1, 2008. The section between Golmud, a city of the Haixi Mongol and
Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, and the Tibetan
capital took five years and 33 billion yuan to build. The world's
highest railway, Nima Tsiren, a Tibetan who is vice-chairman of the
regional government, exulted, "has ushered in a new millennium for
Tibet. It is the realisation of a dream of two generations, of great
importance to the Tibetan people. It has greatly reduced the cost of
transportation. We have taken one more step towards the modernisation
of Tibet and the deeper integration of the regional economy with the
Chinese economy."

During the first ten months of the operation of the Qinghai-Tibet
railway, TAR saw its foreign trade rise by 75 per cent -- to $322
million ($100 million of imports and $222 million of exports). The
trains immediately brought an influx of tourists, more than 2.5
million domestic and foreign tourists in 2006, which represented an
increase of 35 per cent over 2005. In 2007, the number rose to four
million, bringing in $684 million (4.8 billion yuan) of tourism
revenue. Interestingly, the structure of tourism in Tibet has changed.

Investment is likely to follow tourism and trade. Chinese officials
project that by 2010 the Qinghai-Tibet railway will transport 75 per
cent of the autonomous region's inbound cargo, tremendously lower
transportation costs, and double the tourist revenue. As they see it,
the railway symbolises 'the right of Tibetans to seek development,'
catch up with the rest of rising China, and open themselves more to
the outside world. This is the opposite of the reactionary
('romantic') perception of the railway as the ultimate destabiliser
of Tibet's culture, religion, demography, and environment.

Over the next decade, the railway will be extended to three more
lines in Tibet: one connecting Lhasa with Nyingchi to the east,
another with Xigaze in the west, and the third linking Xigaze with
Yadong on the China-India border. Beginning September 1, 2008, a
five-star luxury train, 'the most luxurious… in the world,' will
transport well-heeled tourists from Beijing to Lhasa over five days.

Railway and environment

Apprehensions about the railway's adverse effects on the environment
and wildlife have proved exaggerated, if not entirely baseless. An
unprecedented 1.5 billion yuan package of environment protection
measures, including systems to store garbage and wastewater and treat
them in designated stations, and 33 special passageways for antelopes
and other wildlife, has been put in place. Technologies of heat
preservation, slope protection, and roadbed ventilation have
reportedly come to the aid of the plateau's frozen tundra. Scientists
have set up a long-term monitoring system for water, air, noise, and
ecology. Further, greening the 700-km Tibet section of the railway --
planting 26,000 hectares of trees over the next five years -- is under way.

Aside from the railway, the development of a new kind of physical
infrastructure -- highways, paved roads, bridges, power lines,
telecommunications, irrigation channels, modern housing, and so forth
-- is there for all to see. The plan is to build, by 2010,
'high-class highways' to connect 100 per cent of Tibet's townships
and 80 per cent of its administrative villages; and to convert 80 per
cent of the roads into blacktops. Expressways, however, are
considered unsuitable for a region that has only 2.3 persons per
square kilometres.
Outlook on education

The Chinese socialist system highlights the 'fast, coordinated, and
healthy development of education' in TAR as a solid achievement of
liberation and especially the post-1978 programme of reform and
opening to the world. According to vice-chairman Tsiren, there are
540,000 students enrolled in the autonomous region's educational
institutions, comprising six universities, 118 high schools, seven
intermediate vocational schools, and 880 elementary schools. He adds
that school enrolment covers 96.5 per cent of children of the
relevant age group and the programme of nine years compulsory and
free education has been completed in 46 of the region's 73 counties.

In addition, central government preferential policies have enabled
about 14,000 Tibetan students to study in scores of key high schools
and higher educational institutions in 20 of China's provinces and
municipalities. It has been estimated that up to January 2007, the
fraternal funding of Tibetan education by these provinces and
municipalities aggregated $74 million, in addition to the 2,000
teachers and educational officials they sent to Tibet. There is
clearly a lesson in this for India, and especially the Hindi-speaking States.

The literacy rate among the Tibetan population in TAR is more
difficult to estimate. Some Chinese education officials and literacy
researchers have expressed concern over a stagnant if not worsening
situation across the country between 2000 and 2005, because of
factors like large-scale migration for work and the rising cost of
rural education. Official sources estimated that the adult illiteracy
rate in TAR was below 30 per cent at the end of 2003. It is not clear
what it is in 2008 but it appears that it is not worse than the
situation in India's Hindi-speaking region.

Monasteries and monks

The monasteries we visited were distinctly old world but there were
plenty of signs of modernisation here too. Whether you went to the
16th century Kumbum monastery in the vicinity of Xining; or to 15th
century Sera near Lhasa; or to the imposing Tashihungpo monastery,
the seat of successive Panchen Lamas, in the northwestern suburbs of
Xigaze city, a hub of Tibet's modernisation; or to 17th century
Songzanlin in Diqing prefecture in Yunnan, the monks wore their
traditional robes and debated the sutras in the stylised and
gesticulating style of Tibetan Buddhism. But they also carried
mobiles, drove vehicles, collected fees for allowing photography
inside the most hallowed chambers, followed satellite television, and
performed for tourists. In a Tibetan autonomous area in Yunnan
Province, we visited a novitiate monk of middling rank from a famous
monastery in his rural home, where he is allowed to spend part of the year.
Town-country gap

The development gap between town and country is certainly a matter
for concern in Tibet -- as in the rest of China -- but a high level
of central government subsidies and organised social sector
assistance from the more developed provinces and municipalities are
targeted at narrowing the gap. China, which has recently focussed on
the need to narrow the development gap between its regions, has
adopted a strategy of westward development to overcome the historical
backwardness of this vast part of the country. A recent comprehensive
study of socio-economic development in rural western China, by
Professor Zheng Changde of the Southwest University of Nationalities,
has come up with some surprises. The per capita income of TAR's 2.3
million herders and farmers is actually higher than the per capita
incomes of the rural population in the western Chinese provinces of
Shaanxi, Gansu, Yunnan, and Guizhou. This reflects the sustained
investment by the Central and regional governments in the development
of agriculture and animal husbandry; the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet
railway; and the development of the service industry in TAR

A major aspect of the propaganda campaign by the Dalai Lama, the
remnants of his theocratic establishment, and his supporters abroad
is the supposed contrast between China's 'authoritarian' political
system and the 'democratic' character of 'Tibet in exile.' This is a
bit rich coming from the spiritual and temporal head of feudal
serfdom, which Tibet indisputably was before 1951 -- when the nascent
People's Republic liberated and took control of a region that was
greedily eyed, infiltrated, and manipulated by imperialist powers,
originally Britain and Czarist Russia, and subsequently Britain and
the United States.
The old order

During the theocratic rule of the Dalai Lama, lands as well as most
means of production were in the hands of three categories of
estate-owners -- government officials, nobles, and upper class Lamas
-- who made up merely 5 per cent of the population. The mass of the
Tibetan population, serfs and slaves numbering a million in 1951,
lived in extreme poverty, as appendages to estates owned by masters,
lacking education, health care, personal freedom, and any kind of
entitlement. They were obliged to perform unpaid labour services or
ulag, corvee, and parasitical land rent.

Agriculture was largely of the slash-and-burn kind. Modern industry
was virtually non-existent. Transportation was predominantly on
animal or human back. Life in general was brutish and short, with
diseases rampant, the population stagnant, and life expectancy at
birth hovering around 36. It has been estimated that in old Tibet
monks and nuns accounted for 10 per cent of the population. At the
top of this oppressive feudal and theocratic system sat the
institution and person of the Dalai Lama.

Pre-1951 Tibet had no schools worth speaking about. Monastic
education, going back a thousand years and focussing on the Buddhist
scriptures and to some extent the Tibetan language, was the leading
form of education. There were some schools outside the monastic
system meant for the training of lay and monk officials and for
imparting a modicum of basic education -- reading, writing, and
arithmetic besides the recitation of Buddhist scriptures. These
schools had a student body of less than 1000. Not surprisingly, the
illiteracy rate was higher than 90 per cent.
Twists, turns, and progress

 From such an abysmal socio-economic base, it would be hard not to
make substantial progress. With the 1959 Democratic Reform, which was
brought forward by the armed uprising and the flight of the Dalai
Lama, serfdom and landlordism were abolished and the socialist system
was introduced in stages into Tibet. There have been twists and turns
and 'ultra-left' attempts to force the pace of change -- with the
'Cultural Revolution' of 1966-1976 inflicting extensive and grievous
damage on life, the economy, education, religion, and cultural
heritage in Tibet, as in the rest of China.

While many Tibetans regard the period 1961-1965 as a 'golden age' in
their material lives, it is the post-1978 programme of economic
reform and opening to the world and recent developments in political
policy that have transformed life and work in Tibet most profoundly.
Four central conferences on development issues in Tibet, sponsored by
the central government in 1980, 1984, 1994, and 2001, have led to a
new understanding of what needed to be done and helped put the
autonomous region on a new development path. Top Chinese leaders have
freely admitted that much more could have been done for the country's
'western development,' and specifically for the development of TAR.
Deng Xiaoping it was who inaugurated, in 1978, a new
development-oriented policy approach towards the region. Hu Yaobang
made an important inspection tour of Tibet in May 1980, after which
Tibetan development was given higher priority; and Zhang Zemin
followed up during a fact-finding visit a decade later. Hu Jintao
himself worked for more than a decade as a Communist Party of China
organiser in Gansu Province, which adjoins Tibet, and subsequently
served as secretary of the CPC Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee.

Mao Zedong and Dalai Lama

However, it is Mao Zedong's portrait that you will find in a large
number of ordinary Tibetan homes -- because he continues to be seen
as the liberator of a million serfs from the old feudal regime of
landowning aristocrats and upper class monks. During my 2007 visit, I
noticed that a growing number of Tibetan families also appeared to
see no contradiction in displaying pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama,
typically besides smaller portraits of the 10th and 11th Panchen
Lamas, inside their homes. These moderate demonstrations of reverence
for the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, which I did not witness
during my 2000 visit to Tibet, seemed to reflect a more relaxed
socio-political situation in TAR as well as in more developed Tibetan
autonomous areas outside the region. But the riots and disturbances
of March-April 2008 have obviously brought about a change in this situation.


What about the future of the 'independence for Tibet' movement?

The term 'Tibet in Exile' is used by the Dharamsala-based 'Tibetan
Government-in-Exile' to denote up to 150,000 people of Tibetan
ethnicity spread across India and several other countries who are
supposed to be votaries of the Dalai Lama. This 'Living Buddha,' who
will turn 73 on July 6, 2008, has suffered some health setbacks over
the past few years. He has himself fuelled uncertainty about the
future by making a profusion of statements about his own mortality.
At times, he has indicated that he might choose to be the last Dalai
Lama; and even proposed 'democratic' modalities for ending the
institution. But he has also said: "If I die in exile, and if the
Tibetan people wish to continue the institution of the Dalai Lama, my
reincarnation will not be born under Chinese control…That
reincarnation …will be outside, in the free world. This I can say
with absolute certainty." These remarks make it clear that the Dalai
Lama's approach even to rebirth is decidedly ideological-political.

Politically, Tibet presents a paradox. There is not a single country
and government in the world that disputes the status of Tibet; that
does not recognise it as a part of China; that is willing to accord
any kind of legal recognition to the Dalai Lama's
'government-in-exile' based in Dharamsala. This situation presents a
contrast to the lack of an international consensus on the legal
status of Kashmir. On the other hand, there is little doubt that
there is a Tibet political question; that it has a problematical
international dimension; that it continues to cause concern to the
political leadership and people of China; and that it serves to
confuse and divide public opinion abroad and, to an extent, at home.

With respect to Tibet, India, which started out in the late 1940s
with a policy of ambivalence shaped by the British Raj, has come a
long way. In the 'Declaration on Principles for Relations and
Comprehensive Cooperation Between the Republic of India and the
People's Republic of China,' issued at the end of Prime Minister Atal
Bihari Vajpayee's official visit to China in June 2003, India firmly
reiterated its 'one China policy' and recognised that "the Tibet
Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People's Republic
of China." It added that it did not allow Tibetans "to engage in
anti-China political activities in India." The Manmohan Singh
government reiterated this official Indian position in the Joint
Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's state
visit to India in April 2005, and again during Dr Singh's visit to
China in January 2008. In the aftermath of the March-April 2008 riots
and disturbances, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has
reiterated India's position on the status of Tibet as part of one
China, and also on not allowing the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan
refugees to engage in anti-Chinese political activities in India; and
the Chinese government has expressed its satisfaction over, and
appreciation of, this stand.

The problematical side expresses the interplay of a host of
subjective and objective factors, which I identified in a 2000 cover
story for Frontline magazine as the following
( the Dalai Lama's
religious charisma combined with the iconic international status of
Tibetan Buddhism; his long-lastingness and tenacity; his alignment
with Western powers and anti-Chinese interests and the
ideological-political purposes he has served over half a century; his
considerable wealth and global investments; the cultural and human
damage done in Tibet, as in the rest of China, during the decade of
the 'Cultural Revolution' (1966-1976); the nature of the
'independence for Tibet' movement, which receives financing from
Western governments and NGOs; the links and synergies the Dalai Lama
has established with Hollywood, the media, legislators, and other
influential constituencies in the West; and, most troubling from a
progressive Indian standpoint, the reality of a continuing Indian
base of operations for the 'Tibetan government-in-exile.'

Anti-China political figure

The long-term assessment of China's political leadership has been
that the Dalai Lama cannot be treated merely, or even primarily, as a
religious leader. If he were just a pre-eminent religious leader,
there would be no problem in accommodating him within the
constitutional framework that guarantees religious freedom to all
citizens and regional autonomy to ethnic minorities in extensive
parts of a giant country. In fact, the 14th Dalai Lama is a
consummate politician leading a movement that seeks to take 'Greater
Tibet' away from the motherland -- an anti-communist and separatist
political figure, with external links.

The Dalai Lama's track record certainly bears out this assessment. He
started out by accepting China's peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951
(which can be compared, in some ways, to India's peaceful liberation
of Goa a decade later). He acquiesced in, and supported, the May 1951
'Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local
Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of
Tibet.' The key features of this 17-article agreement were
unambiguous recognition of the status of Tibet as part of one China;
cooperation by the local government of Tibet with the People's
Liberation Army; continuation of the existing political system and
the status, functions, and powers of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas; and
a crucial and remarkably liberal provision that the local government
"should carry out reforms of its own accord" and there would be "no
compulsion on the part of the central authorities."
Secessionist actions

However, after his flight to India, the Dalai Lama showed his, and
his Keshag's, secessionist colours. He declared Tibet to be 'an
independent state.' In September 1959, acting against Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru's advice, he sought unsuccessfully to get the United
Nations to intervene in Tibet. In 1960, he ordered a reorganisation
of the 'Religious Garrisons of Four Rivers and Six Ranges' in Nepal
and thus became complicit in military activities against the Chinese
state. His 'Tibetan government-in-exile,' with its 'Draft
Constitution for Future Tibet' and its front organisations, functions
in flagrant disregard of legality as well as India's long-declared
official policy of not allowing Tibetans "to engage in anti-China
political activities in India."

Over the past three decades, following a high-level political
decision, the Dalai Lama has travelled extensively abroad to rally
support for the internationalisation of the Tibet question and
presented various 'realistic' proposals for its 'satisfactory and
just solution.' These have included a Five Point Peace Plan unfurled
in a September 1987 address to members of the U.S. Congress; the
elaboration of these five points in the so-called Strasbourg Proposal
of June 1988; the withdrawal, in March 1991, of his "personal
commitment" to the ideas expressed in the Strasbourg Proposal on the
basis of the allegation that the Chinese leadership had a "closed and
negative" attitude to the problem; and an abrasive and propagandistic
open letter written to Deng Xiaoping in September 1992. His March 10
speeches have varied in content and tone, in sync with his perception
of the international situation and China's place in the sun.

In his major pronouncements, the Dalai Lama has taken the stand that
Tibet has been an independent nation from ancient times; that it has
been a strategic "buffer state" in the heart of Asia guaranteeing the
region's stability; that it has never "conceded" its "sovereignty" to
China or any other foreign power; that China's control over Tibet is
in the nature of "occupation" by a "colonial" power; and that "the
Tibetan people have never accepted the loss of national sovereignty."

For 'Greater Tibet'

Equally important, he has repeatedly spoken of --six million
Tibetans." He has falsely accused China of rendering Tibetans,
through a state-sponsored policy of population transfer and
Hanisation, into a "minority" in their own land. The plain truth,
borne out by official censuses and easily verifiable by foreign
observers and experts, is that Tibetans constitute more than 92 per
cent of the population of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Dalai Lama
has even accused the Chinese socialist state of unleashing a
--holocaust" and exterminating more than a million Tibetans.

He has put forward the demand for the reconstitution of a 'Greater
Tibet' known as 'Cholka-Sum' and comprising the areas of 'U-Tsang,
Kham, and Amdo.' This is a revival, in another form, of the infamous
British attempt in the early 20th century to constitute two zones,
'Outer Tibet' and 'Inner Tibet' (the latter comprising extensive
ethnic Tibetan areas in several Chinese provinces); weaken China's
sovereignty over both zones; require Chinese 'non-interference' in
the affairs of Outer Tibet; and give the Lhasa-based Tibetan
administration the right to control most monasteries and even appoint
local chiefs in Inner Tibet.

He has demanded that --Chinese forces," the People's Liberation Army,
should pull out of Greater Tibet and that --a regional peace
conference should be convened to guarantee demilitarisation in
Tibet." If the 14th Dalai Lama has his way, a single 'de-Hanised'
administrative unit, which will be formed by breaking up four Chinese
provinces, will appropriate one-fourth of China's territory --
instead of the one-eighth covered by TAR.

In an appeal issued on March 28, 2008, the Dalai Lama declared that
he wanted to assure the ethnic Han people who constitute the
overwhelming majority of China's population that he had --no
intention to split Tibet from the country or cause a rift between the
Han and Tibetan peoples." He claimed that he had --occasionally
pursued a solution to the Tibet issue on the basis of lasting and
mutual benefit between the Han and Tibetan groups" and complained
that --no matter how hard" he worked to --avoid separation of
Tibetans from the one big family," he was unjustly censured by --some
Chinese leaders"
But there was a mischievous new note in this appeal. The Dalai Lama
expressed confidence that --a lot of important issues including those
related with Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia can be resolved."
This remark has been interpreted by some Chinese commentators as
expressing --a new trend in the Dalai Lama's activities," of uniting
with other ethnic separatist forces and even terrorist organisations
to split China

The 11th Panchen Lama

There have been other political provocations under the guise of
exercising traditional religious authority. On May 14, 1995, in a
pre-emptive bid, the Dalai Lama in exile in India `recognised' the
boy Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, sight unseen of course, as the 11th
Panchen Lama. However, in December 1995, the Chinese central
government, going by centuries-old custom and tradition that empower
it to recognise and appoint both the Dalai and the Panchen Lama,
approved the enthronement of Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Erdeni.
Deng's policy shift

Over the past three decades, the Chinese leadership has fashioned and
finessed its strategy of dealing politically with the Dalai Lama and
his followers. In December 1978 Deng Xiaoping announced, in a media
interview, that --the Dalai Lama may return, but only as a Chinese
citizen" and that --we have but one demand -- patriotism. And we say
that anyone is welcome, whether he embraces patriotism early or
late." In May 1991, Prime Minister Li Peng clarified that --we have
only one fundamental principle, namely, Tibet is an inalienable part
of China. On this fundamental issue, there is no room for
haggling…All matters except 'Tibetan independence' can be discussed."

However, after several rounds of informal talks and contacts with the
Dalai Lama's emissaries and fact-finding delegations between 1979 and
1992, and after watching his performance on the international stage,
the Chinese government came to a provisional conclusion by the time
it held the Third National Conference on Work in Tibet in 1994. The
conclusion was that the 'Dalai clique' was demonstrably insincere;
that it was working overtime to separate Tibet from China and
destabilise the situation in TAR in concert with 'China's
international enemies'; and that its real demands were tantamount to
--independence … semi-independence … [or] independence-in-disguise."
Six rounds of talks

However, that was by no means the end of the story. In an era of
China's unprecedented economic growth, inclusive and nuanced
socio-political and cultural policies, commitment to a peaceful rise
and a harmonious society, when serious international political
support for 'Tibetan independence' is non-existent, the Dalai Lama
has been obliged to back-pedal on the key issues. In turn, the
Chinese central government and the Communist Party of China have
shown exceptional patience. This has meant that since 2002 six rounds
of discussion have taken place between the representatives of the
Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

Before the sixth round of discussion took place (June 29-July 5,
2007) in Shanghai and Nanjing, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, styling himself
the --lead individual" designated by the Dalai Lama to --reach out to
the Chinese leadership," made a revealing speech at the Brookings
Institution in Washington D.C. According to his remarks made on
November 14, 2006, five rounds of talks deepened mutual
understanding, --brought the dialogue to a new level," and went --a
long way towards establishing a climate of openness that is essential
to reaching mutually agreeable decisions regarding the future of the
Tibetan and the Chinese people"

'Climate of openness'?

For a start, the Dalai Lama's representatives declared themselves to
be --encouraged by the new focus within China's leadership" on the
creation of a harmonious society and by the concept of China's
peaceful rise, whereby it will develop as a --modern socialist
country that is prosperous, democratic, and culturally advanced."
They also stated that the Dalai Lama's current approach was to --look
to the future as opposed to Tibet's history to resolve its status
vis-À-vis China" because --revisiting history will not serve any
useful purpose." Further, they clarified, the crux of the Dalai
Lama's 'Middle Way' approach was to --recognise today's reality that
Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China…and not raise the
issue of separation from China in working on a mutually acceptable
solution for Tibet." His commitment was to --a resolution that has
Tibet as a part of the People's Republic of China, the need to unify
all Tibetan people into one administrative entity, and the importance
of granting genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people within the
framework of the Chinese Constitution."

But within a year, the tune changed. Addressing the European
Parliament Conference on Tibet in Brussels on November 8, 2007, the
Dalai Lama's envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen, assumed an apparently
pessimistic but more belligerent tone: --After six rounds of
discussion, unfortunately, I have to report to you that the overall
picture of our dialogue process is rather sobering and
disillusioning. Since the resumption of this dialogue in 2002 the
Chinese side has been adopting a position of no recognition, no
reciprocity, no commitment and no concession. Although they profess
an interest in continuing the dialogue, however so far they have been
pursuing a strategy of avoiding any progress, decision and commitment
in the dialogue process. It has now become clear that the Chinese
leadership is clearly lacking the political will to address the issue
of Tibet in all earnestness."
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