| The Dalai Lama’s 2006 proclamation led to widespread pelt burnings.
Photo Credit: IWT
Prominent Tibet supporter and Tibetologist Robert Thurman once compared the Tibetan cause to that of baby seals. This appears to be quite an accurate comparison. Indeed, the plight of the Tibetans, like that of the Arctic mammal, belongs to those rare causes with seemingly universal appeal and the power to forge broad and unlikely coalitions across political orientations, cultures and ages. But the comparison goes further. Strong emotionality and, inevitably, the annoyance of the self-proclaimed ‘serious realists’ are as inseparable from both causes as Tibet is from the Chinese motherland – at least according to the prevailing Chinese mantra. And, last but not least, both issues are far more complex than they first appear to be.
Acknowledging the complexity of an issue is a difficult endeavour when clear-cut ideologies prevail and political mythologies often replace hard facts. The position of the Beijing authorities on the Tibet issue is clear: There is no issue. Tibet always was, firmly is, and ever will be an inseparable part of the Chinese Motherland. The Tibet issue is a conspiracy orchestrated by those who opposed Tibet’s ‘liberation’ from imperialist foreigners (of which there were two individuals in Tibet at the time in 1951, one British and one American) and, not unrelated but more importantly, the ‘international anti-China forces’. ‘China’s Tibet’ is striving, and Tibetans, most of whom are ‘liberated serfs’, are thankful to the central government because they enjoy the ‘best time in their history’, just as ‘China’s other 55 nationalities’ do.
This position was formulated down to the letter during the 1950s, and has been maintained throughout all of China’s subsequent political upheavals, a clear illustration of Beijing’s rigidity. However, even official Chinese statistics demonstrate that, six decades after ‘liberation’, and behind the glass-and-steel facades of contemporary Lhasa, there is an overwhelming percentage of Tibetans living in appalling poverty. This does not fit well into the rosy picture put forward above. Neither does the fact that every day Tibetans undertake the ordeal of clandestinely crossing the border to Nepal in order to receive the blessings of their religious leader, the Dalai Lama, or to get a chance to attend a school of their choice – and occasionally get shot for their efforts.
In comparison, views of the Tibetan situation among Tibet supporters at first appear far more pluralistic and flexible. However, here too, ideologies and an inclination towards conspiracy theories often prevail over accuracy and sound analysis. Some see in Tibet ‘the last antique culture disappearing’, and view the intrusion of commonplace aspects of modern life, from tourism to the new Qinghai-Lhasa railway, as tools ‘designed to undermine Tibetan culture’. Promotions or transfers of cadres in Tibet are inevitably denounced as ‘victories for the hardliners’. The People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s creeping shadow appears to some to be omnipresent – even banal network problems, hoaxes and computer viruses are often presumed to be Chinese attacks.
Whereas one might still take all this in with some bemusement, other views in circulation are more worrisome. For example, foreign development organisations working in Tibet were for many years bitterly accused of cooperating with the Chinese government, and the same blanket accusations are now directed towards corporate foreign investors. Meanwhile ‘independent’ reports and press releases often muddle historical facts, and produce inaccurate or inaccurately collated and contextualised figures. This contributes to a damaging reputation for hysteria and triviality for the Tibetan cause in the wider world.
|Role Models: From left, the 13th Dalai Lama, the 9th Panchen Lama, Gendun Chopel, Ngawang Sangdorol|
With obstinacy here, and encapsulation in ideological parallel worlds there, Tibet singularly seems to provide an ideal backdrop for all kinds of political oddities that are never quite comprehensible to outsiders, and have the effect of obscuring far more real Tibetan concerns. Ironically, though, myths propagated by both sides are sometimes stunningly convergent.
Currently, the most widely spread of these is that regarding China’s total control of Tibet. This myth hits the global information market in two forms. First, we have the Chinese authorities praising the ‘stability’ of today’s Tibet, and declaring that the Dalai Lama has now become ‘irrelevant’ for Tibetans as they are “busy becoming well-to-do”. Second, however, some Tibet activists outside Tibet, and media reports inspired by them, cry out in alarm about the imminent disappearance of Tibet under the control of an apparently omnipotent China. One side wants to discourage us in the wider world from even thinking that resistance against Beijing’s rule has any chance (this is what governments do, certainly those who do not have to fear not being re-elected). The other side, in not untypical NGO style, appeals to our sense of urgency (and pity) in order to win us over for their struggle (and acquire funds for this struggle).
The messages we are made to believe and the agendas behind them are as obvious as they are different, but they converge in their factual perception of the status quo and the depiction of Tibetan passivity that this involves. There are problems with these views. The perception that Beijing’s hold on Tibet is particularly strong and confident is anything but accurate. Admittedly, compared with the late 1980s and the 1990s, there is less overt repression now. But this is largely because there is less open Tibetan opposition than there used to be – although this does not indicate Tibetan resignation. Rather, Tibetans have learned to articulate themselves in a less offensive, and often more effective, way, within the structures imposed on them by the Chinese state.
The public burning of wildlife pelts, for example, which occurred throughout Tibet in 2006, was a key event that left both the Chinese authorities and many Tibet supporters perplexed. Although the environmental and ethical aspects of the campaign were doubtless crucial, its unexpected amplitude and success were an unambiguous display of loyalty to the Dalai Lama, who had just recently expressed disapproval of using wildlife products in clothing. The campaign was skilfully implemented and took place strictly within the legal framework defined by the Chinese authorities. It was non-confrontational and clearly contradicted the twin assumptions of Tibetans having become helpless victims on one hand, and politically ‘pacified’ on the other.
As much as this episode has again confirmed that the clear majority of Tibetans inside Tibet continues to regard the Dalai Lama as its leader, Beijing’s identification of the Tibet issue as a “Dalai issue” is based on an inaccurate understanding of the dynamics within Tibetan society and culture. In tune with their authority-oriented – rather than any consensus-oriented – understanding of political dynamics, the PRC authorities apparently assume that following the Dalai Lama’s death, Tibetan opposition to their rule will fragment along regional and sectarian fault lines (which are indeed existent, and which they actively encourage), and finally collapse. But while the Dalai Lama is certainly a powerful catalyst of Tibetan resistance, all observations at the grassroots level indicate that Tibetan discontentment is the key to the issue.
Most Tibetans experience the mainland Chinese presence in Tibet, whether physical or through the bias of more discrete structures, as a nuisance at best and an existential threat at worst. Even atheist Tibetans in the higher ranks of the Communist Party (those ranks Tibetans can access) express such views. This is not because the Dalai Lama has ‘stirred them up’, but is the result of alienation and daily frustrations in their contacts with mainland Chinese immigrants, military, laws or officials (whether they are ethnic Chinese or Tibetans operating within an essentially Chinese system) – or, simply, exasperation, for instance regarding the Mandarin accents of Tibetan newsreaders on Radio Lhasa.
In other words, the real problem is the failure of the Chinese state to accommodate what Tibetans regard as their legitimate rights or needs, and convince them that they are better off within China than they would potentially be in an independent Tibet. The crux of the matter therefore lies with China and its policies, and not with the Dalai Lama. Hence, Beijing’s assumption that the issue may resolve with the Dalai Lama’s demise muddles cause and effect; it is a misconception that simply does not match Tibetan reality. With or without the Dalai Lama, the Tibet issue will remain alive as long as dissatisfaction and frustration continue to fuel Tibetan aspirations for a better and more self-determined life. Repression may suppress any political movement in the short term, but it does not fundamentally correct the situation that generates it, because it addresses symptoms while doing nothing about the underlying cause.
There have been considerable efforts to engage a new generation of Tibetans in the Chinese mainstream – mainly through education – but these have yet to pay off. In fact, today the most nationalist-minded Tibetans in Tibet are young people, many of whom speak and write better Chinese than they do their own mother tongue, and are better integrated into the Chinese system than are the large majority of their fellow Tibetans. This is not surprising; numerous parallels can be found in colonial histories across the world. It was most commonly the acculturated younger generations educated by the colonial rulers who became the champions of nationalism. (The thorny issue of whether the current situation in Tibet can be formally labelled ‘colonial’ will not be discussed here, despite there being striking similarities.) Certainly, considering that Tibetans hardly make up half a percent of China’s population, any Tibetan freedom movement would face a difficult time succeeding. But Beijing’s hope for resolution of the Tibet issue through firm determination alone remains as hollow as the ultra-modern facades of Lhasa’s main streets, which suggest progress and yet, reminiscent of Potemkin’s villages, obscure the real face of Tibet.
Realistically, change for the better in Tibet does not appear to have any possibility without Chinese acquiescence. At the same time, it is only if China’s leadership manages to provide a large number of Tibetans with a better life, both in terms of economic opportunities and non-material satisfaction, that a real solution to the Tibet issue can be found – and, along with this, a more dignified future for both Tibetans and Chinese, whatever their point of view. Given the current power dynamic, the Tibetan contribution towards this goal can only be minimal; the onus is on China, and it is China’s further course of action that will decide whether and when the issue can be resolved. One thing is clear, though: if the Dalai Lama is not the cause of China’s problems in Tibet, he is certainly the only Tibetan who can make major contributions towards their swift resolution – that is, provided China finally manages to find a more constructive way of dealing with him.
That real policy-level progress in Tibet will depend mainly on the Chinese state’s capacity and willingness to correct its course does not mean that contributions for improvement in the Tibetans’ situation cannot be made by the other parties involved. So far, the focus of the Tibet movement outside Tibet has been on exerting political pressure on China; but there is a growing realisation that this approach has reached the limits of what can be achieved, and that alternative strategies need to be considered. The central question here is what exactly ‘support’ for Tibet should mean. The answer now seems to be coming from Tibetans inside Tibet itself.
Recent years have seen the emergence of an astonishingly bold and creative – though sensibly circumspect – civil society within Tibet. Hardly acknowledged by the outside world, local NGOs have been mushrooming, mostly under the initiative of educated young Tibetans, and partly with the backing of mainland Chinese NGOs or individuals supportive of Tibetans. In eastern Tibet, monasteries also have a level of participation in this movement. Their work focuses on environmental, cultural and social issues, and has yielded remarkable early successes in solving local ecological problems; claiming due respect for local culture and sensitivities; and empowering Tibetans by supporting local development, health and educational initiatives.
The nascent Tibetan civil society not only operates strictly within the legal framework of the PRC, but even designs its work according to official government agendas – ie, proactive protection of the environment, respect for the feelings of ‘minorities’ and poverty reduction. This is the result of the realisation that a confrontational attitude to the PRC government may yield credentials of heroism but no improvement in Tibetan society at large, whereas the government is ready to accept social activism as long as its own power positions are not challenged. Indeed, the state has even come to appreciate the ‘watchdog’ function of non-governmental bodies as a tool to regulate the work of local authorities, who often escape effective supervision by the Centre.
This approach might appear ‘un-political’ to some, but experience on the ground shows that it yields practical results and benefits for the Tibetan people. Interestingly, it also echoes the course propagated by the Dalai Lama for the last two decades to drop the demand for independence in exchange for a substantial improvement in the living conditions of his people. After all, the demand for independence stems to a large extent from the experience that Tibetans have not been able to live good and dignified lives under Beijing’s rule. Real opportunities to address these issues would not necessarily solve all of Tibet’s problems, but calls for independence would lose some of their resonance if conditions significantly improved. What is happening here could therefore be defined as a shift of balance of Tibetan political activism from ideal (but hardly achievable), to practical, achievable goals. Simply put, this recalibration of Tibetan activism is in fact a major shift of paradigm from pro-Tibet activism to pro-Tibetans activism.
This new approach raises questions about the role and potential of Tibetans and Tibet supporters outside Tibet. It is an open secret that many Tibetans in exile are still very emotional about the call to ‘free Tibet’, and far less enthusiastic about a more pragmatic course. This is understandable. However, except for a very small minority, the path chosen by the Dalai Lama is the one with which they are ready to go along, if only because there seems to be no convincing alternative. In this respect, the attitude of those in exile is not essentially different from that of their fellow Tibetans inside Tibet.
The situation is quite different when it comes to (mostly Western) Tibet support groups. For what appears to be a rather strong, or at least particularly vocal, minority among these, Tibet is commonly envisioned as the ‘good cause’ par excellence, symbolising the eternal struggle between good and evil. As such, the struggle for a ‘free Tibet’ itself has become something of a crusade. In this perspective, activism tends to be seen as a success in itself, and any adoption of a less-polarising approach can easily be challenged as a betrayal. At times, this has led to very awkward situations.
For instance, demands by Dharamsala to exert a degree of restraint in the way protest against Chinese leaders is undertaken has generated stark disagreement among certain Western support groups. This has reached a point where leaders of some such groups have more or less openly refused to accept what they see as a ‘Dharamsala diktat’ and have insisted instead on their ‘independence’. There has also been a certain amount of support for the activities of Tibetans who openly campaign against Dharamsala’s and the Dalai Lama’s (and thus, implicitly, Tibetan NGOs’) pragmatic approach.
One cannot fail to get the impression that some among the Tibet support groups see their role less in providing support than in providing ‘guidance’ to Tibetans. This raises a crucial issue of legitimacy. Whereas one may or may not agree with their decisions, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala is democratically legitimised by the exile community, while the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama to be the voice of the overwhelming majority of his people, both inside and outside Tibet, can hardly be questioned. Support groups in comparison are at best legitimised by their members, and very few of them are even Tibetan.
To be fair, there is also something of a ‘silent majority’ among the support groups that has begun to diversify its activities by supporting, in one way or another, civil-society groups inside Tibet. Perhaps more significantly, they are creating a new awareness about Tibet that has less focus on fundamental issues and more on the kind of concerns that Tibetans – as any people in a poor, developing country – face. Of particular significance are efforts to enter into a constructive dialogue with potential foreign investors in Tibet. But this approach still faces formidable scepticism from a movement that too often appears to value ideology over practical progress.
Dignity in modern times
French President Jacques Chirac once said: “Predictions are always difficult, particularly when they apply to the future” – and so we shall abstain from conjecture about the future. The past and the present, however, are within our reach, and analysing them is the best way to be prepared for things to come. As it looks now, the only ones in any position to determine Tibet’s future are the two most concerned parties, Tibet and China.
The policies of China’s leadership are based on a rare blend of pragmatism and rigidity that serves two main aims: keeping power, and looking good while doing so. So far, pragmatism has not been prevailing, as Tibetan dissatisfaction, though hardly presenting any acute danger for China, has challenged both of these aims. One can hardly see how this situation could change, unless the Chinese authorities abandon their rigidity – readily or under duress – and provide substantial measures to appease Tibetan discontent. This may happen, but it may not; and even if it were to take place, nobody can predict when.
Meanwhile, the nascent Tibetan civil society inside Tibet works with the tools it has at its disposal to provide its people with what six decades of Chinese domination has failed to provide: material security, contentment and a healthy environment. Although this in no way precludes anything about what Tibet’s future will be, it does imply leaving aside macro political goals and reverting to the essence and ultimate goal of Tibetan nationalism: the search for an appropriate and dignified place for Tibetans within modernity.
In seeking this, it means following the steps of several prominent Tibetans – Gendun Chopel, the late Panchen Lama, Baba Phuntsog Wangyal, Ngawang Sangdrol and many more, but primarily the current Dalai Lama, as well as his predecessor. This unlikely resurgence of Tibetan activism inside Tibet is currently the best bet for Tibet’s future. Supporting it from outside Tibet is both possible and necessary, but it will require reconsideration of familiar positions, a farewell to rigid ideologies, and the unlimited acceptance that Tibetans have to make their own decisions – with the support, but not the guidance, of non-Tibetans.
~ Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist attached to the University of Bonn. He is the former director of the defunct Tibet Information Network, and is now director of TibetInfoNet, its successor. The views expressed in the article are his own.