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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Tsering Shakya -- Tibetan Questions

July 17, 2008

Introduction To Tsering Shakya
New Left Review 51
May-June 2008

The leading historian of modern Tibet discusses the background to recent
protests on the Plateau. What has been the evolution of its culture,
modern and traditional, under the impact of the PRC’s breakneck
development and market reforms?

Tsering Shakya was born in Lhasa in 1959. His father, the headmaster of
a small Tibetan-language private school, died while he was still a
child. The family was divided by the onset of the Cultural Revolution:
an older brother and sister were strongly committed leftists, while
another brother was imprisoned for opposition to it. In 1967, his mother
left for Nepal with Shakya—her youngest child -- and her other daughter.
Shakya attended a Tibetan school in the northern Indian town of
Mussoorie for several years; in 1973, he won a scholarship to a boarding
school in Hampshire, and then continued his studies at the School of
Oriental and African Studies in London. Between 1983 and 1990 he worked
on anti-racist campaigns with Labour-run municipal councils in London.
During the 1990s Shakya produced his outstanding history of Tibet since
1947, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, published in 1999. He also
translated the autobiography of Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso (Fire Under
the Snow, 1997), and co-edited the first anthology of modern Tibetan
short stories and poems (Song of the Snow Lion, 2000). He now teaches at
the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is currently working
on a study of modern Tibetan literature.

In 2002 NLR published an exchange between Shakya and the Chinese
dissident writer Wang Lixiong—a discussion that broke taboos on both
sides. In ‘Reflections on Tibet’ (NLR 14), Wang emphasized Tibetan
participation in the Cultural Revolution, and sought to explore the
paradoxes of PRC rule in the region. Shakya’s response (‘Blood on the
Snows’, NLR 15), by contrast, foregrounded recurrent Tibetan resistance
to Beijing, and the colonial nature of the latter’s dominion over the


New Left Review: Your landmark history of modern Tibet, The Dragon in
the Land of Snows, suggests a broad four-part periodization for
developments since 1951. During the first period, 1951–59, the Chinese
Communist Party sought to work in alliance with Tibet’s traditional
ruling class under the Seventeen-Point Agreement: a ‘one country, two
systems’ arrangement, with autonomous rule by the Dalai Lama’s
government. After the flight of the Dalai Lama and the crushing of the
1959 rebellion, the second stage, 1960–78, saw the extension of
Communist reforms on the Plateau and the redistribution of monastic and
aristocratic lands, accelerating with the collectivizations and mass
mobilizations of the Cultural Revolution. Following 1980, there was an
era of much greater liberalization and ‘Tibetanization’ under Hu
Yaobang, accompanied by open-door trade and migration policies --
followed by a clampdown after 1989. Looking back, how would you
characterize the situation in Tibet in the 1980s, under Hu Yaobang?

Tsering Shakya: The 1980s reforms were welcomed by Tibetans, who saw
them as a major transition, and still regard Hu as one of China’s best
leaders. At the time, many said that things had never been so good. It
marked the start of a period which people thought would bring a certain
cultural and economic autonomy for themselves as individuals, and for
the Tibetan region as a whole. It was seen as an opportunity to
revitalize traditional cultures -- the first noticeable sign of this
being when people reverted to wearing traditional Tibetan clothes,
instead of the blue overalls. Economically, the region also now emerged
from a period of real deterioration, running from 1960 to 1980, which
was even worse than the years leading up to 1959. The slump was partly
due to a total mismanagement of the region’s production, which had been
drastically altered by the imposition of communes and co-operatives;
these were disastrous for the indigenous economy. They were disbanded
under Hu’s reforms, and traditional systems were revived. Living
standards returned to what they had been before 1960, a change that was
naturally welcomed by the Tibetan Plateau’s overwhelmingly rural
population: at this time, 95 per cent were engaged either in herding or
in agricultural production.

Map of Tibetan Protest in May-June 2008

NLR: So what accounts for the protests in the late 80s?

Tsering: The immediate trigger was the growing tension between the
monasteries and the Communist Party. The government had expected the
reforms to bring increased consumer spending, but in many cases people
simply put the extra money they had towards rebuilding the monasteries.
There was a big expansion in the number of monks, and in some rural
areas there were more people going to monasteries than to local schools.
The government was concerned at this growth, and also about the
monasteries’ funding: they received large quantities of donations which
they did not have to account for. By the mid-80s, leftists in the cp
were pointing to these developments as an example of Hu’s liberal
policies going wrong, and the government moved to restrict the number of
monks and gain control of monastic finances. This created opposition,
and it was the monasteries and conservative elements that were the main
groups leading the protests in the late 1980s.

At the time, people were turning strongly to religion -- something they
were denied during the Cultural Revolution, but that they now had access
to. There was a powerful impulse to fight for greater tolerance of
religious practices. But the protests were also responding to changes
taking place in Tibetan society under the reforms. There was a major
debate at the time about the directions Tibet could take in the future
-- traditionalists believing that we must revert to time-honoured ways
in order to preserve Tibet; younger, college-educated people feeling
that it will only survive if we abandon such traditions, and seek a
modernized Tibetan culture, creating new identities, new literature and
art. In this view, it was Tibetan Buddhism and its traditions that had
hampered the creation of a Tibetan identity that might have better
resisted conquest and subjugation; and it was a new, stronger identity
that was needed to overcome Tibet’s current condition. This indigenous
critique of the Tibetan past -- a self-examination mainly proposed by
the younger, educated elite and writers -- was seen by the conservatives
as somehow a disguised attack by the Chinese on Buddhism. The two groups
were not just divided by age, though: there were many young people who
shared the conservative view. In general, those educated in the monastic
community or through the traditional system were much more conservative
than those who went to universities and colleges. These students did not
join in the protests at all. Even now, many college-educated people tend
to think the 80s protests were unnecessary -- that the reforms were
taking Tibet in the right direction, and the demonstrations did great
damage in altering that course.

NLR: To what extent were the protests of the late 1980s stimulated from
outside—by the Dalai Lama’s addresses to the us Congress and European

Tsering: The 1980s were a sort of opening for Tibetans -- those inside
Tibet were allowed to travel to India and go on pilgrimages to see the
Dalai Lama. They established new links with the Tibetan diaspora and
political leadership, and became much more aware of the organized
politics of the Tibetan question. At the same time, the Dalai Lama’s
speeches to the European Parliament and the us Congress gave them a
sense that there was more support for the Tibetan issue in the
international community than really existed. Western countries would
make statements about some social issues, but their desire to engage
China as it emerged from isolation in the 1980s meant that Tibet was
never going to be a major obstacle for Beijing.

NLR: How would you characterize Chinese policy following the imposition
of martial law in 1989–90?

Tsering: There had been concerns within the Chinese leadership about the
direction of the reforms: some felt Hu Yaobang’s policies were too
extreme and were undermining China’s position in Tibet. When the monks’
demonstrations began in the late 80s, the hardliners saw it as proof
that more liberal policies had led to heightened Tibetan nationalism,
encouraging demands for independence. The period from the imposition of
martial law to the present has seen a dramatic change in how Beijing
deals with Tibet. There were to be no more compromises; Tibet was to be
brought under tighter administrative control, and its infrastructure
integrated more closely with the rest of China. The Plateau had been
isolated from China by poor roads and communications, and the prc
leadership believed that the separate provisions made for Tibet in the
1980s accentuated its difference from the rest of the country. So the
first policies adopted under Hu Jintao, Party Secretary of the Tibet
Autonomous Region from 1988 to 92, were aimed at economic integration --
establishing infrastructural links by building roads, opening the
Qinghai–Tibet railway, improving telecommunications and so on. Billions
of dollars have been spent on the development of the region since 1990.

This means that the Chinese government is to some extent justified when
it says that the Tibet Autonomous Region can only survive through
government subsidies. The Regional government cannot even raise enough
money to pay salaries to its own employees; its ability to levy taxes is
very weak at present. All the major infrastructural
initiatives—railways, roads, power systems -- have been dependent on
injections of funds from the central government. This chronic dependence
on the centre is one of Tibet’s biggest problems—the region has no
economic clout to negotiate with Beijing and has to follow its
directives, because it is essentially the Central government’s money
that is paying for the Region’s development.

NLR: Have there been any moves towards self-sustaining development—in
industry, for example, or increased agricultural production?

Tsering: This is one of the contradictions the Chinese government faces
in Tibet. When you look at the statistics for government spending there,
the vast bulk of the budget goes on infrastructure, and less than 5 per
cent on agricultural development -- yet even today, 85 per cent of the
population is dependent on farming. This has to do with Beijing’s
decision to prioritize industrialization over agriculture; but it is
also because the authorities see that Tibet has economic potential,
which cannot be realized until the infrastructure is built. For example,
Tibet has huge quantities of mineral deposits, but they are useless
unless you have the means to exploit them. You can mine for copper,
gold, silver and so on, but without further developing the railways it
will be too expensive to transport them, making them unaffordable on the
international market. So the Chinese government’s long-term plan is to
develop the mining industry, and in the last two years they have invited
international mining companies to operate in Tibet. The idea is that,
with the infrastructure and power systems in place, resource extraction
will make the region profitable. The real day-to-day needs of farmers
and herders are not reflected in this planning process.

NLR: How much of the infrastructural development involves Tibetan labour?

Tsering: The majority of the workforce in railway construction, for
example, consists of Chinese migrants from poorer regions, such as Gansu
and Shaanxi, where many farmers now do not have jobs. The Chinese
government encourages them to go to Tibet as a way of letting off steam
in these hard-pressed provinces, since if they remain it will create
problems for the authorities there. For many people, going to work in
Tibet is an opportunity to make a living for themselves: the regions
they come from are in fact much poorer than Tibet. Generally, Tibetan
farmers are far better off than most rural communities in China -- the
population is smaller, just under 6 million, and land holdings are much
bigger. No one in Tibet will go hungry: people can produce enough for
their own survival, although they may not have enough of a surplus to
sell it on the market. But Tibetan farmers face another problem: what
they produce, mainly barley and mutton, does not have much market value.
For example, Tibet produces a great deal of barley, but it is actually
cheaper for Chinese beer companies to buy it on the international
market, from Canada or the us, than from Tibetan farmers.

NLR: How many incomers are there in the Tibet Autonomous Region at present?

Tsering: This is a very complex issue, because the Chinese government
has not produced any statistics on the number of migrants working in
Tibet. The simple reason is that Chinese census data are compiled
according to official place of residence, rather than where you are at
the time the census is taken. Most of the migrants do not have permits
to live there, and will instead be counted as living elsewhere in China;
they are a floating population. The government also points out that many
migrant workers in Tibet are seasonal -- they go there to work in
summer, and so could not be counted as permanent residents. But in any
case, the census is only taken every ten years; the last figures are
from 2000, and a lot has changed in Lhasa in the eight years since then.
Change is so rapid and dramatic in China as a whole, the mobility of the
population so great, that the figures we have are very unreliable. But
it is certainly true that even to the casual visitor, Lhasa now feels
much more like a Han city than a Tibetan one, in terms of its
population. Chinese migrants tend to be more numerous in urban areas,
and used to be concentrated mainly in Lhasa; but now they have begun to
penetrate into rural areas, opening restaurants or doing small trade as
peddlers across the Tibetan Plateau.

NLR: How does the development of the Autonomous Region compare with the
other Tibetan areas—in Qinghai and Sichuan, for example?

Tsering: The Tibetan population in Qinghai and Sichuan is economically
better off, because they are much more closely integrated with the rest
of China, and they have more ways to supplement their income. The
Autonomous Region also has the problem that there is very little border
trade, from Tibet southwards to India and Southeast Asia. Historically,
this was where Tibet’s trade was focused, since its goods found much
more of a market in South Asia than China. The nearest port is Calcutta,
which is two days away, but if you go across the rest of China it is
eight to thirteen days. So, for example, wool produced on the Tibetan
plateau cannot be exported profitably today since it cannot travel
southwards -- the borders are closed. The India–China trade relationship
is at present essentially based on maritime rather than land routes. The
reason for this is that, despite some improvement in relations, the
border dispute between the two countries has not been settled. It is
partly a security question, but also, neither India nor China are quite
sure what will happen if that region is opened to border trade—whether
the Indian market will penetrate more forcefully into Tibet or vice versa.

NLR: How would you describe the political and cultural atmosphere in
Tibet over the last decade?

Tsering: The government’s policy seemed to be that, as long as you did
not talk about independence or human rights, everything was permissible.
Many more magazines and newspapers started up, and the government
allowed a lot of local, indigenous ngos to emerge, which have been very
effective in campaigning against poverty. Tibetan diaspora communities
in North America and Europe were allowed to set up ngos in their home
towns, funding the construction of houses. The number of Tibetans going
abroad to study -- to the West, to Europe, to America -- increased
during the 1990s. There were more openings to the outside world. In that
sense, it was quite a hopeful time.

Tsering: Culturally, there have been two separate kinds of development.
On the one hand, there has been a revival of traditional Tibetan culture
and arts and crafts. On the other, a new practice is emerging of modern,
figurative painting by Tibetan artists. There is a group of them in
Lhasa who have established an artists’ guild; they sell paintings and
contribute to international exhibitions. There is nothing immediately
Tibetan about their work; conservative elements in fact see it as
somehow a rejection of Tibet, an imitation of the West -- they do not
see it as Tibetan art. But this is something new and vital in Tibet,
produced by a younger generation whose outlook is very different from
that of conservative elements in our society. Similarly in literature,
the younger generation writing in Tibetan do not use traditional verse
forms, but produce poetry in a free style, novels on new and different
subject matter. Again, conservatives would not see this as authentically
Tibetan unless it imitates an existing tradition. But for me, the
emergence of modern Tibetan literature -- novels, short stories and
poetry, from 1980 onwards -- is a very exciting development, expressing
much more of what is happening in Tibet, the desires of ordinary people
and the region’s possible future direction, than various forms of
political protest or movement. There are also a number of Tibetan
novelists who write in Chinese, and since 1985 these have gained a real
literary presence in China. The most famous is Alai, whose Red Poppies
appeared in English in 2002; there is also Tashi Dawa, referred to as
the García Márquez of China for his introduction of something like a
magical realist style. Those who write in the Tibetan language, of
course, do not have such a high profile. It is a similar situation to
that facing Indian writers -- if you write in English you have access to
a world market, but if your work is in Hindi far fewer people tend to
know about you.

For the traditionalists, what is important is the cultivation of the
past; they see the continuation of traditional forms of art as vital for
maintaining Tibetan identity. All over Tibet, such forms have re-emerged
in painting and crafts, and are still very popular. They are popular in
China as well, despite the recent patriotic fervour and hostility
towards Tibetans. Since around 1980, interest in Tibetan culture and
traditions has been growing there. Tibet is seen as being quite other,
and having unique characteristics that China has lost. Its attachment to
traditional forms of dress, painting and ways of life is seen as
admirable. Many Chinese writers and artists have travelled to Tibet and
drawn inspiration from it, as an example of how to live in harmony with
nature. In fact, a much more romantic view of Tibet has emerged among
the Chinese population than in the West.

There has also been a flourishing of modern Tibetan historiography,
including oral history projects on rural life, as well as recording
proverbs and popular folk songs. There has been a lot of biographical
writing, and some very interesting memoirs written by Tibetan women, who
of course are always left out of the traditionalist conservative
accounts; in Tibetan schools in Dharamsala, the history textbooks stop
at the 10th century. In fact, I was attacked for dedicating The Dragon
in the Land of Snows to my wife, instead of to the Dalai Lama. I am
currently working on a historical project on banditry. There is almost a
Wild West element to Tibetan history: travellers across the vast Plateau
would be attacked and robbed by bandits. There are many oral sources and
other accounts, and I am looking into who these people were -- seeing
them not as negative characters, but more along Eric Hobsbawm’s lines,
viewing banditry as a form of social protest. People often became
bandits after running away from traditional Tibetan society, from feudal
law. According to the master narrative they were bad people, but almost
all of them were actually resisting local rulers or governments. When
you identify who they were and what happened to them, you often find
these were marginal groups in Tibetan society.

NLR: Is Tibetan still the official language in the Autonomous Region?

Tsering: According to the constitution, the regional language of
education and administration in the tar should be Tibetan, but this has
not been implemented in practice. The reason is that the leadership of
the cp in Tibet, the party secretaries and undersecretaries, are all
Chinese and do not speak Tibetan. In terms of education, in rural areas
this is carried out in the native language, but in urban areas, and
especially in Lhasa, there is an increasing use of Chinese in schools;
at university level, courses in Tibetan literature and history are
taught in Tibetan, but otherwise everything is taught in Chinese. This
is not necessarily a matter of government policy: many parents prefer to
give their children a Chinese-medium education, simply because in the
long run they will have better job opportunities, and because the
majority of Tibetans in further education -- at present there are nearly
3,000 new graduates per year -- tend to go to universities elsewhere in
China. There are also now the so-called ‘inland schools’: boarding
schools for Tibetan children, who are recruited in Tibet and then sent
to schools scattered across China -- some of them as far away as
Liaoning and Fujian. The ostensible reason they are not in Tibet is that
the government cannot recruit enough teachers there, nor persuade
qualified teachers from elsewhere to go to the Autonomous Region; it is
also a way for the more developed coastal provinces to meet their
obligations to aid the poorer ones, by paying for these schools to be
built in their own area. This is part of an attempt to foster a sense of
‘national unity’ and loyalty to China. Of course, some Tibetans and
outsiders see it as a sinister ploy, comparable to the way the British,
Canadians and Australians tried to Christianize the natives by sending
them to boarding school. Teaching in the ‘inland schools’ is almost all
in Chinese, and the education is very good. But Tibetan students tend to
come out of them much more nationalistic -- on blogs and websites they
are often the ones leading complaints against the Chinese government,
for depriving them of their cultural identity and their language.

NLR: How has the language itself changed since the 1950s?

Tsering: A new standardized literary Tibetan has emerged, much closer to
colloquial language, along with a simplified writing system—the idea
being that it should be easier to communicate with all those who are
literate. But in everyday speech, there has also been an increasing use
of loan-words from Chinese. A PhD student at Oxford was researching
‘code-switching’ in Tibet, where people would vary in their use of
Tibetan and Chinese depending on the context, and he found that on
average, 30 to 40 per cent of Lhasa Tibetans’ vocabulary is borrowed
from Chinese. In general, now that fewer Tibetans are studying the
language at a high level, the standard has declined. But it would be a
serious mistake to think that it is disappearing. In fact, since 1985
Tibetan-language publishing has been flourishing. There are two
newspapers in Tibetan, the Lhasa Evening News and Tibet Daily, and
numerous journals and magazines have appeared, both in the Autonomous
Region and in other Tibetan areas. In part this is because each province
is required to have a literary journal, and under the PRC’s
constitutional provisions on the right of association, in Tibetan areas
there must also be Tibetan-language publications. Not only the tar but
also Qinghai and Yunnan have Tibetan literary journals, for example. Up
until about 1995 these had large readerships  -- Tibet Literature used
to print 10,000 copies, and because it was well subsidized it was
distributed freely to schools and universities, and to anyone who wanted
a copy. But state subsidies have gradually been reduced or withdrawn,
and these journals are now required to make money. Tibet Literature
today prints something like 3,000 copies, and people have to pay for it.

The same applies to books: the withdrawal of subsidies has meant the
price of books has gone up tremendously, making it difficult for
Tibetan-language publications to break even. In the 1990s there was a
real renaissance of Tibetan publishing, driven in part by the reprinting
of more or less every title ever published in Tibetan, since the 7th
century. That initial wave seems to have ended, and the lack of funding
means writers have to seek patronage or pay for publication themselves.
For example, a novelist writing in Tibetan might have to pay the
publisher 10,000 yuan ($1,400) to get his book printed; he would then be
given half of the 3,000 print run and told to sell it himself. I have
seen other cases where a village boy becomes a poet, and the village
will club together to pay for the costs of printing his poems; other
times it will be a local businessman who sponsors the edition.

NLR: What about television and radio?

Tsering: There is vibrant television programming in Tibetan, but people
tend to prefer watching Chinese shows, simply because Tibetan-language
production is very small-scale, and seems to be much more heavily
controlled and censored than the wealth of new Chinese channels that are
available. This is also true of print media: none of the
Tibetan-language journals or magazines are independent -- they are all
produced under the auspices of different government offices. Now that
more and more people in Tibet are competent in Chinese, they have much
more choice of what to read, and will turn to the huge variety of
Chinese magazines. To a certain extent, this choice of language that
people now have is responsible for a decline in readership of Tibetan

NLR: What has been the evolution of the monasteries since the late 1980s?

Tsering: New restrictions were imposed on the number of monks allowed in
monasteries, and anyone wanting to become one had to seek permission
from the county-level authorities; under the law, you have to be
eighteen or over to become a monk or join a monastery. But no one pays
the slightest attention to these restrictions. Anyone who goes to Tibet
now will see hundreds of youngsters in the monasteries. The government
found itself caught in a dilemma: if it forcibly implemented its own
policies and removed these children, it would have a wave of protests on
its hands. So as long as the monasteries did not actively engage in
politics, the government was willing to turn a blind eye to the
situation. But relations between the monasteries and the Chinese
authorities deteriorated after 1995, when the Chinese leadership
insisted on selecting their own 10th Panchen Lama, disregarding all the
wishes and conventions of Tibetan Buddhists. This has had a lasting effect.

As for the number of monks and nuns, it is quite complicated because the
government only issues statistics covering those who have permission to
be in the monasteries. Officially, the figure is 120,000 in all Tibetan
areas, including 46,000 in the tar. But the real number including those
without permission is far larger; I would estimate the total at 180,000.
The fact that the numbers are so large in some ways also reflects the
economic changes that have taken place. Monasteries do not receive money
from the government; they are totally dependent on alms given by the
local community and pilgrims. With the economic reforms of the 1980s,
people became wealthier and gave them more money. Economic success
helped to generate the revival of the monasteries.

NLR: Is there any social distinction between the children who go to
monasteries for their schooling, as opposed to public schools?

Tsering: It is mainly children from rural areas who go to monasteries,
whereas very few urban families will send their children to them. There
are two reasons for this. Firstly, rural families tend to be much
bigger, so parents will often send a child, or even two, to a monastery,
and still have several at home; whereas urban families only tend to have
one or two children at most. The second element is that people in rural
areas are, broadly speaking, more conservative in their outlook and view
of traditional Tibetan culture.

The fact that monastery schooling was free also became an important
factor in the 1980s, when state provision of education was largely
abandoned as part of the turn to the market. Across China, people were
now supposed to fend for themselves in every area. School budgets were
devolved to provincial governments and to the county level; these did
not have enough money to run primary and secondary schools, so although
education was supposed to be free, all kinds of fees were levied -- for
textbooks, uniforms and so on -- as a way of raising funds. In Tibet,
many farmers could no longer afford to send their children to school.
And because agricultural production had been privatized, in farming
areas many parents kept their children at home -- they needed them to
work in the fields and increase their output, which was more urgent than
getting them educated. School attendance had been compulsory during the
Cultural Revolution and the earlier ‘leftist’ period, and literacy
increased as a result. After 1980, there was a visible drop in the
literacy rate.

In these circumstances, the monasteries acted as an alternative source
of education. This was not just because they did not charge fees, as the
public system had begun to do; parents also felt that the monastic
tradition had collapsed during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution,
and that they could contribute to its revival by sending their sons or
daughters to a monastery or nunnery. It was seen not only as a way of
getting an education, but of helping to regenerate Tibetan culture.

NLR: What about the health-care system -- do the monasteries provide an
alternative here too?

Tsering: As in the rest of China, since the turn to the market, medical
care in Tibet is no longer free. In many cases it has become extremely
expensive: relatives of mine in Lhasa recently said it would cost them
as much as $15–20,000 to get treatment -- ten years’ salary for a normal
family. The Lhasa area has quite good, well-equipped government
hospitals, but the cost has prevented most people from using them. The
monasteries tend to have a doctor trained in traditional medicine, who
may have a look at patients in exchange for payment in kind -- a
basketful of eggs or a leg of mutton. These practices have been very
popular, again because there is no fee.

Judging by Western reports, there seem until recently to have been fewer
social protests in the Tibet Autonomous Region than in many other parts
of rural China over the past decade.

This is true to some extent. But one has to remember that Tibet is not
like the rest of China, much as Northern Ireland is not like the rest of
Britain. Because of the demonstrations that took place in the late
1980s, the level of police surveillance and control is far higher than
in other areas of China.

NLR: How would you compare the protests that began on March 10th this
year -- the 49th anniversary of the 1959 rebellion -- to those of the 1980s?

Tsering: The first distinctive feature of the 2008 protests is their
geographical spread—they seemed to take place simultaneously in almost
all the areas where Tibetans live. I think the reason for this is the
use of mobile phones and text messaging to spread news and mobilize for
demonstrations; in China, it is a far more popular means of
communication than the internet or email. It is noticeable that very few
protests took place in Western Tibet, where there is no mobile phone
network in operation, whereas many took place to the East and in regions
on the borders of Sichuan and Qinghai, where the system is well
developed. These demonstrations erupted within a matter of days, after
the initial March 10 monastery protests were put down by the police.

Second, there is a major social difference: the 1980s demonstrations
were essentially led by the monks, but this time the protests involved
groups from across Tibetan society. There were schoolchildren, students,
intellectuals, city workers, farmers, nomads -- as well as Tibetan
university students in Beijing and other cities. This level of
involvement from different sectors of Tibetan society was unprecedented.

NLR: How many people were mobilized in these protests?

Tsering: It is very hard to say how many people took part. The Chinese
government say they detained over 6,000 people, which shows that the
demonstrations were very intense, and involved large numbers of people.
But they have also been sustained at a very high level for several
months -- they are still going on now, in mid-May -- despite the
repression. >From the start, tear gas and baton charges were used
against the protesters. The monasteries were surrounded by riot police.
Armed forces were sent into Lhasa on March 15; prisoners were paraded
through the streets in military vehicles the following day. But protests
continued despite the mass arrests -- there were student sit-ins in many
schools and universities, and demonstrations outside government offices
in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan. A ‘Most Wanted’ list was issued daily
from March 19, Chinese websites published pictures of ‘wanted’ Tibetans,
and China Mobile sent a text message to all its users in Tibet asking
the public to send any information on those participating in the
protests. In a March 23 Xinhua report from the Gannan tap in Gansu
province, there were said to be ‘serious protests’ at the administrative
buildings of some 105 county- or city-level work units, 113 town-level
work units and 22 village committees. The protests included Maqu, Xiahe,
Zhuoni, Hezuo and other counties and cities. The best reports on all
this were on Woeser’s blog;  <> they are
translated into English on the  China Digital Times website, <>.

NLR: Was the issue of Tibetan nationalism the overriding one, or were
some of the protests focused on economic or social issues?

Tsering: People talked about many things, but if you look at the slogans
and banners the protesters were carrying, there was no explicit demand
for independence; I think the main issue was getting China to allow the
Dalai Lama to come back to Tibet, as well as human rights. It’s true
that the protests in Lhasa were against the Chinese government and the
Party, but also against ordinary Chinese people who have settled in
Tibet -- Chinese shops were burnt, ethnic Chinese were beaten. But it
was really only in Lhasa that this took place. In other regions the
demonstrators rushed to government offices or Communist Party
headquarters, taking down the Chinese flag and hoisting the Tibetan one,
ransacking official buildings; there were very few attacks on ethnic
Chinese. The reason they were the target of public anger in Lhasa and
not elsewhere is that the disparity between the migrants’ success and
the status of the indigenous is so glaringly obvious there -- the
Chinese own hotels, shops, restaurants, and are therefore much more
visible. In rural areas, by contrast, the economic disparity between
Tibetans and Chinese is minimal, so there was little resentment based on
economic grievances. There are, of course, tensions between Tibetans and
outsiders: in eastern Tibet, for example, farmers supplement their
income in summer by collecting mushrooms, medicinal plants and
yartsa-gunbu -- the caterpillar fungus, much prized in traditional
Chinese medicine. Now many Han migrants are also going into the hills to
harvest these things, and though the government has tried to restrict
this by charging them a fee, the profits are still large enough for them
to continue. Locals object to what they see as the indiscriminate way
the outsiders collect the mushrooms and fungus, claiming they are doing
long-term damage to the pastures. This competition over resources has
become more intense in recent years.

But personally I do not think the demonstrations were principally to do
with economic disparities or disadvantages suffered by Tibetans. Rather,
I think these were defensive protests, concerning questions of national
identity. Beijing interpreted the 1980s protests as not just stemming
from religious differences, but as the expression of a separate Tibetan
identity. Under Hu Jintao, as tar Party Secretary, policies were
targeted against any manifestation of national identity politics; even
demands for Tibetan language rights were tarred with the mark of
nationalism and separatism. Every Tibetan’s loyalty to China was
questioned. Everyone became a suspect. The campaign against separatism
also became an excuse for clamping down on dissenting voices -- within
the Communist Party, anyone who opposed a government directive was often
accused of being a separatist. But the policy backfired. The Chinese
government became unable to distinguish between those who did actively
oppose its policies and the rest, and so succeeded in creating a gulf
between the government and the whole Tibetan population. The effect was
to unify Tibetans, much more than would have been the case if the
monastic community alone had been targeted. Indeed, the recent protests
have expressed a much more unified nationalistic sentiment than those of
the late 80s. The scale of Han immigration has also been a significant
factor. Throughout their history, Tibetans on the Plateau have always
lived in homogeneous communities, but this is no longer the case—they
feel much more acutely than ever before that this land is no longer
exclusively Tibetan terrain.

NLR: March 24 also saw the start of the Beijing Olympics torch relay in
Athens, where there was a token protest, followed by high-volume
pro-Tibetan and pro-Chinese demonstrations along the torch’s route in
London on April 6, Paris on April 7, and San Francisco on April 9; and
demonstrations against Carrefour supermarkets and CNN TV in the PRC.
Since Berlin in 1936, the Games have been a byword for profiteering and
political spectacle -- what part has Olympomania played in the Chinese
and Tibetan mobilizations this year?

Tsering: The Beijing Olympics were definitely an important element in
the 2008 protests. The fact that there would be this spotlight on China
internationally is crucial to understanding why similar protests did not
happen previously. Both Tibetans within the PRC and exiled political
groups understood the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese
government, and sensed an opportunity to make a statement, to make their
voices heard. In certain symbolic ways, China also politicized the
Games, seeing them in part as a way to advertise to the world its
ownership of the Tibetan Plateau -- hence the plan to take the torch up
Mount Everest and the adoption of the Tibetan antelope as one of the
mascots for the Games. In that sense, both the Tibetan protesters and
the Chinese government saw this as an important moment to highlight
Tibet, for different reasons.

Nevertheless, when China first lobbied to host the Games, I think they
naively assumed that they were not going to be the focus of protest. But
since their inception, the Games have always been a source of
international tensions. In every one there has been some degree of
confrontation -- the Israelis and Palestinians in Munich in 1972, the
boycotts of the Montreal, Moscow and la Olympics in 1976, 80 and 84. All
of them have involved a huge political gamble for the host country.

NLR: How would you characterize the political spectrum of the pro-Tibet
movement outside China, and its relation to Western governments’ policies?

Tsering: The participants in protests in the West are quite a diverse
set of people -- not necessarily Buddhists or Tibetophiles. Pro-Tibetans
tend to come from traditional middle-class, left-of-centre or liberal
groups; in the 1970s and 80s they might have been involved in solidarity
with the ANC, CND, Greenpeace and so on. The human-rights organizations
have also shifted their focus: in the 1970s and 80s, Amnesty and Human
Rights Watch were more concerned with what was happening in Eastern
Europe and the Soviet Union, and China did not figure much in their
reports. Now they have directed their attention more to China, and Tibet
as an underplayed concern. But I would separate Western government
policy from popular sentiment. Most Western governments are essentially
very pro-China. This is mainly connected to economic questions: Beijing
and the West are in broad agreement on matters such as developing market
economies, privatization and the globalization of trade. Since these
governments’ primary objective is to integrate China into the global
economic order, the issues of human rights and Tibet are very much
secondary for them.

By the same token, internet claims in the us and China that the Tibetan
protests were engineered by Western NGOs, funded by the us National
Endowment for Democracy, are wide of the mark. There are Western-funded
NGOs in China -- for example, the Trace Foundation, which supports
health and education projects in Tibet -- but the CCP obviously carries
out rigorous security assessments of them. Trace is well known for
distancing itself from any anti-government groups or activities, which
is one of the reasons why it has been able to operate in the PRCfor
decades. In fact it is often accused by pro-Tibetan lobbyists of being
too supportive of China.

Tibetan exile groups in India do get NED funding, but that does not
translate into an ability to mobilize in the PRC. There is a huge social
and cultural gap between Tibetans in India and those in the tar,
illustrated even by their taste in music. Tibetans inside Tibet are
comfortable with Chinese pop, while Tibetans in India prefer Bollywood.
When Dadon, Tibet’s biggest pop star at the time, defected from Lhasa to
India in 1995, she was shattered to find that there was no audience for
her music. She was virtually unknown, and the exiles accused her of
singing Chinese-style songs. Even when the two communities meet in the
West, there is often little interaction between them. The exiles in
India sometimes see themselves as the ‘true’ representatives of
Tibetanness, and the Tibetans inside as merely passive, oppressed
victims -- a patronizing attitude that does not go down well in Tibet.
The largest exile organization in India is the Tibetan Youth Congress,
most of whom were born in India. They have thoroughly absorbed India’s
long -- and valiant -- tradition of protest, and lead highly vocal
demonstrations on the streets of Delhi, Paris and New York. But they
have no means of projecting their words into actions inside Tibet itself.

One external influence that has had a significant effect on Tibetans was
created by the Chinese authorities themselves. Their insistence on
imposing their own selection as 10th Panchen Lama succeeded in
antagonizing all the monasteries, even those which had previously
supported the government. The Party then declared a patriotic education
campaign, demanding that the monks and lamas denounce the Dalai Lama.
The result was to drive into exile some of the most senior lamas,
including the Karmapa and Argya Rinpoche from Kumbum (Ta’er) Monastery,
who had often acted as moderate voices and Party mediators in the past.
The pro-independence demonstrations in the 1980s did not spread much
beyond Lhasa because most lamas were ambivalent and used their influence
to restrain their followers. In 2008, almost all areas where protests
occurred were in places where the senior lamas had left Tibet. There is
a constant flow of devotees from Qinghai and Sichuan to the new
monasteries these lamas have established in India; but most of their
funds come from Chinese supporters of Tibetan Buddhism in Hong Kong,
Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. If the Chinese authorities want to point
to a plot, it would have to be a Kuomintang conspiracy, not a Western one.

But the main outside influence on Tibetans is the Tibetan-language
broadcasting on Voice of America since 1991, and Radio Free Asia since
1996. Again, it is not a question of clandestine organization; these
services simply provide a source of news and ideas in a society where
people are starved of alternatives. Because there is no independent news
media, and people are automatically very suspicious of what they hear or
read in government sources, they tend to turn to Voice of America and
Radio Free Asia for their information. The two stations report on all
the Dalai Lama’s trips abroad, and on the activities of the exiles in
India, giving Tibetans quite international and politicized coverage; the
stations are very popular in Tibet, which helps to create a certain
climate of opinion there. The Chinese government tries to jam the
signal, but people somehow manage to listen to them.

NLR: What is the current state of repression in the Tibet Autonomous Region?

Tsering: At the moment the situation is very bad. Because of the number
of people involved in the demonstrations, and because they cut across
all classes, the government cannot target one particular group, such as
the monasteries; it seems that they have to target everybody. The
authorities are trying to exert control at every level of the community,
in a way that reminds many people of the Cultural Revolution. It is not
only those who have been detained that are subject to punishment -- the
government is holding meetings in primary and secondary schools, in
colleges, government offices, where everyone has to write
self-criticisms; so do Tibetan students at university in China. The
Tibetan population as a whole is bearing the brunt of this campaign.

NLR: How would you characterize the recent wave of Chinese nationalist
sentiment, in response to the Tibetan protests—would you say it marks a
watershed in the mentality of the PRC?

Tsering: This is very interesting. The Chinese nationalism currently
exhibited on the internet and abroad is essentially a middle-class
phenomenon. It is strongly expressed by those who are the main
beneficiaries of China’s economic success, and who are most conscious of
the country’s global standing. They are also more exposed to what is
happening outside. They feel that, for them, the reforms are going in
the right direction; they are afraid of anything that will hamper
China’s economic advance. But there is a great divide between coastal
and inland areas in China. You do not find nationalism of this kind in
the poorer provinces -- in Gansu, Qinghai or other areas -- where people
have not benefited from the current policies. Then again, the terrible
earthquake in Wenchuan on May 12 shattered the confidence in the Chinese
state that many people had been expressing only weeks before. Simple
questions are being raised about why school buildings collapsed but
luxury hotels and private firms did not. There is much more discussion,
new questions are being asked about China.

There is a debate among China scholars as to whether the upsurge of
patriotic fervour that accompanied the Tibetan protests was engendered
by the government, or whether it arose spontaneously from society. There
are strong arguments on the side of those who claim it was engineered
and manipulated by the government, since the state has evidently been
involved. For example, any differing views posted in internet forums
were almost immediately deleted, and people expressing them in chat
rooms were shut out. Others argue that this nationalism arose not from
within the PRC, but from outside, among Chinese overseas students, and
travelled into China from there. Certainly, many of those studying in
Europe or North America are much more mindful of recent changes in the
PRC, and have clearly benefited from the reforms. They feel that the
criticisms made are not accurate, and that Tibet has in some sense been
used as a stick with which to beat China. They ask why protests in Tibet
have got so much attention in the international media when similar
protests happen every day in China, without being highlighted. There is
some truth in this; but still, the geographical scale of the Tibetan
protests is unprecedented.

I should also say that there is intense diversity within China -- it is
not as homogeneous as it might appear. Over three hundred intellectuals
signed a petition circulated by Wang Lixiong criticizing the
government’s response to the unrest in Tibet and appealing for dialogue.
[1] There were similar articles appearing in a range of publications. A
group of Chinese lawyers announced that they would go to defend the
Tibetan detainees; these people are risking their livelihood—the
government is threatening not to renew their licences. This is not what
the media highlights, of course. Many of these dissenting voices were
not heard amid the patriotic fervour.

NLR: Have there been any attacks on Tibetans in Beijing or elsewhere?

Tsering: The Chinese authorities have actually taken great precautions
to make sure this does not happen, because they are worried that there
will be major repercussions. There are about 5,000 Tibetans in Beijing,
and according to my own relatives there, there have been no attacks at all.

NLR: How do you see Tibet–China relations developing, over the next
months and in the longer term?

Tsering: In the immediate future, the Chinese leadership faces two
problems. One is related to the Olympic Games, and to international as
well as Chinese opinion. Beijing cannot be seen within its own country
to be weakening under the pressure of international criticisms -- to be
forced into compromise because of protesting Tibetans. So the government
needs to present an image of unity and strength, both internally and to
the world at large. The second problem concerns President Hu Jintao and
his followers. Hu came to national prominence as Party Secretary in
Tibet, and is credited with ending the 80s unrest as well as
successfully integrating Tibet and the whole western region with the
rest of China. Tibet is intimately connected with Hu’s leadership -- and
therefore the leadership of the CCP. A number of people in high
positions made their names through their work in Tibet. Almost all the
top figures in the Party today were Hu’s underlings during his tenure
there: Wang Qishan, the present mayor of Beijing, was his
undersecretary, and Hu Chunhua, the last head of the Communist Youth
League -- an important office, held at some stage by almost all Chinese
presidents -- and now acting governor of Hebei province, was also a
former secretary of Hu’s in Tibet. Now these people’s successes are
being criticized, and Hu Jintao’s credibility as a capable leader is
being put into question. Within the Party, discussions are taking place
as to whether Hu will save himself by dismissing some of those he
promoted, or whether his entire entourage will come under attack.
Meanwhile Wen Jiabao, the Premier, has made a number of speeches
seemingly making a concerted approach to the Dalai Lama. But everything
now hinges on the Olympics. Until then the government is paralysed -- if
they take any action before the Games it will bring doubts and
uncertainty, and I think they will wait until they are over before
making any major changes.

In the longer term, one has to understand that one of the Communist
Party’s strongest claims to legitimacy today is that it unified China
territorially and made it strong. This has great power among the Chinese
population. The Party therefore cannot afford to make any concessions on
sovereignty with regard to Tibet, since any compromise would weaken the
Party’s legitimizing appeal. For this reason, I do not foresee the Party
making any major policy changes after the Olympics.

NLR: If Tibetans could articulate them freely, what would their
essential demands be?

One of the biggest grievances is that the Chinese authorities equate any
expression of Tibetan identity with separatism. The government seems to
think that if it allows any kind of cultural autonomy, it will escalate
into demands for secession. This is something the government has to
relax. In Tibet, everything from newspapers and magazines to music
distribution is kept firmly under control, whereas all over China there
are increasing numbers of independent publishing houses. The joke in
Tibet is that the Dalai Lama wants ‘one country, two systems,’ but what
people there want is ‘one country, one system’ -- they want the more
liberal policies that prevail in China also to apply in Tibet.

  [1] An English version was published as ‘Twelve Suggestions for
Dealing with the Tibetan Situation, by Some Chinese Intellectuals’ in
the New York Review of Books, 15 May 2008.
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