Making progress on Tibet

Author: Robert Barnett, Columbia University

The Chinese authorities last met with representatives of the Tibetan exile leadership five years ago. Since then, no progress has been made towards a resolution of the China–Tibetan dispute. Meanwhile, protests against Chinese rule have continued, with over a hundred self-immolations by Tibetans. The Chinese government has responded with tighter controls on movement, worship, speech and information in Tibetan areas, together with increased mechanisms for surveillance. But the reason for the failure to resolve the issue is not because of tensions on the ground. It’s because of the inability of the two leaderships to agree on what the issue is.

Looking homewards: novices at a Tibetan monastery in Mustang, Nepal. Many Tibetan exiles are banking on reforms in China to resolve the dispute. (Photo: Bartosz Hadyniak, iStock).

There are two major views of the Tibetan situation. One view sees it as a minority question, where structural inequities in a society have been exacerbated by problems of religious difference and economic tensions. Chinese officials typically adopt this view, adding that these tensions have been exaggerated by outside agitators.

The other perspective, often found among Tibetans and Westerners, sees Tibet as a nation annexed by a large neighbour and denied its history. Expressing that view in China is likely to lead to a sudden end to any conversation, if not a visit by the police. The mutual distrust between holders of these two views incapacitates any talks between them.

Both sides have reasonable evidence to back up their perspectives. The ethnic tension view is supported by the fact that in the 13th, 18th and 19th centuries Tibetans were seen by the imperial court in Beijing as among its subjects. Today, they account for only 0.4 per cent of China’s population, and over 80 per cent still live in the countryside (the figure in China as a whole is closer to 50 per cent).

Most informed holders of this view acknowledge that Tibetans face serious stresses on their culture and their language from internal migration and rapid development. But they see this as similar to the predicament faced by most minorities and a result of uneven development or competition in the marketplace. This is complicated in the Chinese case by limitations imposed on culture, religion and expression, but it still largely fits the standard model of ethnic discontent.

But in other ways the Tibet situation differs from minority issues of that kind. For most of the early 20th century, if not earlier, half of the Tibetan plateau constituted in practice a separate, treaty-signing nation. It had its own government and social system, and it had produced a vast and distinctive literature that is a noted part of world heritage, which all Tibetans are aware of. Few Chinese had ever been to the Tibetan region before Mao Zedong sent his army to take it over in 1950, and even today there are few Chinese who can speak or read Tibetan.

For Beijing, Tibet has other special features. It is a strategically significant area that represents a quarter of China’s current territory. It sits between three nuclear-armed powers, two of which — India and China — have been involved in a long-running military face-off over the Tibetan border. In addition, the Tibetan plateau holds the sources for the rivers that supply most of China and much of South and Southeast Asia.

The Tibetan issue is also unusual in another respect: compared to long-running conflicts like Palestine, Chechnya or Darfur, the level of violence is exceptionally low. During the late 1950s and 1960s, when Tibetan armies or guerrillas fought with the Chinese forces, tens or hundreds of thousands died. But in the last 40 years unrest has taken the form of street protests, interspersed on just six or seven occasions by urban riots. Only about 20 or so Chinese have died from political violence by Tibetans over these four decades, mostly in one brutal incident in 2008. Approximately 300–400 Tibetans have been killed by security forces in the same period.

This low incidence of violence is due largely to the insistence of the Dalai Lama and is likely to be reversed immediately after his death. But it is one of several indicators that a resolution is still feasible. Each side has an undisputed leader who could sign a deal, the weaker side has long agreed on the need to compromise, and the two sides are — in principle — only arguing over one thing: what degree of autonomy Tibetans should enjoy. In addition, the current discrimination issues in Tibet are minor compared to those in conflict-zones worldwide. These are the marks of a dispute that is — for the moment — within reach of a political solution.

In 2018, when the current leadership of China will enter its second term, it will probably have removed many opposing interest groups and wiped out the deadweight legacy of Hu Jintao-era policy on Tibet. It will have new and younger leaders in place whom it has groomed for office, giving it a freer hand should it decide to introduce reforms. This is the scenario that the Tibetan exiles are gambling on as their best remaining hope for a solution.

But several factors hinder a solution. Most Western governments have bungled their handling of China’s blustering style of diplomacy and have lost the little leverage they once had to encourage a negotiated settlement. Now only the US, India and Taiwan still have any chance of influence on this question. The Dalai Lama’s success in getting world support since the 1980s led to ten rounds of preliminary talks with China from 2002–10. But he has little time left (he turns 80 this year), urgently needs to find effective leaders to succeed him, and has wavered over recent issues like the self-immolations, to which he failed to call a halt.

The Chinese side faces even greater obstacles, such as entrenched conservativism within the bureaucracy. It has a long history of introducing policies that worsened rather than assuaged relations with its key minorities. But it needs to avoid anything that might look like a concession to outside pressure.

Yet China’s underlying strategy in Tibet is finally beginning to show signs of success. For 30 years Beijing has been pouring money into infrastructure and economic growth there, hoping that this will lead Tibetans to become too invested in the economy to risk involvement in political unrest. Many urban Tibetans are now prosperous, and rural incomes are starting to rise. The political dividend of this economic growth is likely to be short-term, but it will delay and discourage any move towards a settlement by Beijing.

Despite these obstacles, the Chinese leadership might well decide that a negotiated solution to the Tibetan issue would be in its interests. But for that to be successful, Tibetan and Chinese leaders will need to recognise each other’s views of the Tibetan situation, both as a site of ethnic tensions and as a place with a singular and distinctive past.

Robert Barnett is Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, New York.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia’s Minorities.