50 years on, what do we know about Tibet?

Author: Ben Hillman

Last week, Tibet was back in the headlines. One year on from the violent clashes that turned Lhasa into a war zone, another spate of protests marks the 50th anniversary (March 10) of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile.

Tibetans stand on a street in Lhasa during last year's protests (Photo REUTERS)

Unfortunately for Western audiences, journalists go weak at the knees when it comes to the Dalai Lama or Tibet. Reading some Western coverage on the issues is almost as exasperating as reading Chinese Communist Party propaganda. An editorial in The Age last weekend is a case in point.

It denounces China with accusations of ‘colonialism’ and ‘cultural genocide’. Its sensationalist moralizing plays to popular perceptions, but it distorts the facts and closes the door on serious discussion about what is going on inside Tibet.

First, let’s get some facts straight:

Journalists often write about Tibet as if Tibet is occupied territory. They ignore the fact that every sovereign nation on earth officially recognizes Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. No sovereign state claims Tibet is occupied or colonized territory. Furthermore, no sovereign state recognizes the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Journalists also write about ‘Tibet’ as if there is only one Tibet and everyone knows where it is. They don’t. Within China there is the Tibetan Autonomous Region where more than two million ethnic Tibetans live. Then there are the Tibetan prefectures and counties located within neighbouring provinces across which more than three million ethnic Tibetans reside. Then there are the exiles—a community of 120,000, with its government in India—the Central Tibetan Administration, and members scattered across the globe. Among these groups there are various religious and linguistic communities with different views on life, the universe and the status of Tibet.

When journalists write about the ‘Tibetan cause’ they are typically writing about the Tibetan exile cause. Even though the exiles are divided into different camps with different aspirations for Tibet, most rally around the Dalai Lama’s call for ‘meaningful autonomy’ rather than independence.

Fair enough. But if that’s the crux of the ‘Tibet question’ then commentators would do well to examine what “meaningful autonomy” might look like in the context of a one-Party state. They can start by looking at the exile government’s demands – outlined on their website. The exiles insist that Tibetan autonomy be expressed through the creation of a new political entity encompassing the entire region where ethnic Tibetans live—essentially establishing a greater Tibetan nation covering about a quarter of China’s territory. Once established, they propose that exile elites would return to design a new constitution and elect a new President. The Dalai Lama proposes to appoint an interim President until such elections take place. These demands were repeated at the most recent ‘discussions’ between exile representatives and Beijing. China’s leaders have responded to them with derision, as they always have done. The Australian government would be equally dismissive of any proposal by far north aborigines for the creation of a new autonomous territory based on Queensland, but taking in parts of New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

But while the exiles rally pro bono international lawyers for their improbable grand design, other Tibetans are working towards gradual change from within the system. From their various positions in all levels of government, religious associations, universities, NGOs and other groups these Tibetans deliberately stay out of the limelight, but they will probably have more impact than the exiles in the long run.

Some of their efforts are already paying off. Anyone accusing China of ‘cultural genocide’ just hasn’t spent much time in Tibetan areas. Tibetan religion and culture has been flourishing in recent decades. Monasteries have been rebuilt and expanded, many with state grants, as Tibetan Buddhism attracts an increasing number of adherents. There are now more Tibetan monks and nuns in China than there are Tibetans outside China.* In many Tibetan areas, local officials are using Tibetan identity and culture as a draw card for tourism and economic development. This is renewing local pride in Tibet’s cultural heritage and creating an environment where Tibet’s heritage can be appreciated and celebrated by all Chinese citizens.

But, this creates political problems too. Monasteries that have regained influence in recent decades pose a challenge to state authority (see my article, ‘Monasticism and the Local State: Autonomy and Authority in a Tibetan Prefecture’, in The China Journal). Monasteries have also long been hotbeds of Tibetan nationalism, which undermines Communist Party rule. So while Tibetans are mostly free to practice their religion (just go to any one of hundreds of sacred Tibetan Buddhist sites throughout China), the Chinese government has been increasingly tough on organised Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibetan areas, monasteries are sometimes forced to demonstrate their allegiance to the Chinese government by denouncing the Dalai Lama and by holding patriotic education classes. These major intrusions into monastic life are a source of great grievance for Tibetan monks. When they get fed up, street protest is their only outlet. Lay people join them in sympathy and it escalates. That’s what happened in 1989 and it’s what happened in 2008.

But it’s overly simplistic to depict Tibet’s troubles as the struggle of an oppressed people against a colonising force. Among Tibetans, as with every other community in China, there are haves and have-nots, happy people and not so happy people. China’s policies in the region have benefited some Tibetans, but not others. Economic development programs have raised incomes for the urban middle classes, but opened the door to non-Tibetan migrants who out-compete less-skilled Tibetan workers for jobs. Many rural parts of Tibet are just as poor as they have been for decades – centuries even. China’s policy makers need to rethink the way the billions in subsidies are being spent. Much more needs to go into education, health and inclusive development programs. But these are development policy challenges for all of China. Tibetan-area protests must be viewed alongside the tens of thousands of protests that take place across rural China every year—nearly all of which are a reaction to unjust policies.

Nevertheless, the continuation of protests across a wide swathe of Tibetan areas is a clear indication that China’s policies in the region aren’t working. China’s leaders need to rethink their approach or things will only get worse. But it would be a mistake to conclude that continued protests mean the exiles’ campaign is gaining ground. Their strategy isn’t working either. For the last two decades the exiles have rallied sympathizers from around the globe, including Hollywood stars, to exert pressure on China. In doing so, they’ve succeeded in making Tibet an international cause célèbre, but they’ve had zero influence on China’s Tibet policy. When the 73 year-old Dalai Lama eventually passes away, the various exile factions will likely lose the minimal leverage they have. Some of the more aggressive groups could resort to violence, which would prolong Tibet’s misery. Everybody needs to rethink the issues and what’s at stake.

The international media is not helping, either. They need to do a better job of informing public debate about Tibet. Rolling out the ‘good guys versus bad guys’ script merely puts wind in the sails of the exiles’ sinking ship. It also feeds the Chinese government’s defensiveness.

It’s time to take the debate to a higher level. Ultimately, the Tibet issue can only be resolved in the context of broader political reforms in China. Meaningful autonomy is impossible without democracy.

Ben Hillman teaches political science at the ANU’s Crawford School of Economics and Government and serves as Chair of the Eastern Tibet Training Institute.

* See the chapter by Matthew Kapstein in Morris Rossabi (ed), Governing China’s Multiethnic Frontier.