Tibetan freedom: Illusion and reality

31 Marzo 2008
Article
China's ruthless crushing of the Tibetan protests has sparked reactions ranging from disquiet to condemnation the world over. Even India, which views all separatist movements with suspicion because of its problems in Kashmir and the Northeast, was "distressed" at the "violence in Lhasa", called upon "all those involved" to "work to improve the situation", and asked Beijing to "remove the causes of such trouble". The crackdown, despite a death-toll nearing 150, didn't deter Tibetan exiles in India from mounting an attempt to scale the walls of the Chinese embassy in Delhi, and marching to the Tibetan border. China accuses "the Dalai clique" of fomenting the violence to sabotage the Beijing Olympics. But the Dalai Lama says he wants the Games held in China; and he opposes all violence. India's stand on the protests has been less than firm. After allowing US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to meet the Dalai Lama and issue acerbic statements on China from its soil, India reiterated its "clear and consistent" position that Tibet is part of China. But India also cancelled a meeting between Vice President Hamid Ansari and the Tibetan leader after its ambassador in Beijing was "called in" at 2 am on March 22 for a special briefing. The roots of the present unrest go back to October last, when a US Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Dalai Lama — an event wrongly interpreted by Tibetan monks as a sign of US support for Tibetan independence. Violent protests erupted on March 10, the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising. Their immediate cause was the demand for the release of the monks arrested in October, coupled with resentment at the Han ethnic group, which comprises 92 per cent of China's population. The Hans have cornered a huge proportion of the fruits of Tibet's growth, which has averaged 12 per cent over six years, faster than China's 10 per cent. There's the rub. Despite the boom, incomes in rural Tibet are only a third of those in China. One million of Tibet's 2.7 million people live below the poverty line ($150). Their literacy is only 50 per cent, compared to China's 85. In Tibet, the Han, and Hui Muslims, monopolise the better jobs. Tibetans are excluded from effective representation in government and the army. Although China calls Tibet an "autonomous region", Tibet enjoys no political or cultural autonomy. Tibetans find it hard to study their own language. The nominally Communist state professes atheism, but has inserted itself into Tibetan Buddhism by nominating the Panchen Lama. So extensive is Tibet's Han penetration that most young Tibetans cannot speak their language. The new Qinghai-Tibet railway will increase the Han influx. Many Tibetans fear their way of life will destroyed — what the Dalai Lama calls "cultural genocide". China is loath to allow cultural autonomy to its 56 ethnic minorities. It seeks to assimilate them into a Han identity, as it did with the Mongols and Manchus. China's relationship with Tibet has changed. Under the Qing dynasty, which expanded Chinese territories Westwards in the 18th century, Tibet was a buffer state. The dynasty collapsed in the early 20th century, and China suffered "a century of humiliation" under imperialism. Its territories were parcelled out: Hong Kong to the British, Manchuria to the Japanese, Taiwan to the US-backed Kuomintang. Within the nationalist project of reunification, shared from Sun Yat-sen to Mao Zedong, Tibet became central to the identity of a proudly independent China. The Tibetans are very different from the Han in ethnicity, language and religion. Because they were incorporated into China recently, and enjoyed four decades of de facto independence until 1951, they maintain a strong, distinctive identity and want religious and cultural freedom. However, Beijing remains obsessed with government centralisation and homogeneity. It has used migration to spread Han culture especially into Tibet and Xinjiang (55 per cent of whose population is non-Han, primarily Uighurs). Several Tibetan-majority areas were transferred to Han-majority provinces like Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu. Yet, precisely because the cause of Tibet's freedom has attracted support in the West — because of the Dalai Lama's charisma and friendship with American celebrities — China has become allergic to it. Beijing regards solidarity with that cause as "interference" in its affairs. This reaction isn't entirely paranoid. The West does selectively use human rights and freedom as sticks to beat its adversaries with. China also has memories of the Khampa rebellion of the 1950s, sponsored by the CIA. China also sees various recent US moves, including Ballistic Missile Defence, support for Taiwan, and the US-India "strategic partnership", as threats. Regrettably, the world cannot do very much to help the Tibetans by dissuading China from resorting to repression. China is far too powerful to be pressured into changing its behaviour by other states or the United Nations. But it's also too xenophobic and paranoid to concede autonomy to the Tibetans — unless it can be persuaded to value diversity. A big country like China can live with differences — and thrive. State-level actors and civil society groups like the Free Tibet Campaign (FTC) have failed to deliver that message. Such groups continue to pursue a bankrupt policy, according to Patrick French, FTC's former director and author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land. Realistically, an independent Tibet isn't on the agenda. The Dalai Lama realises this and advocates "the middle way", or autonomy within a union with China. But he's no great strategist. He has never managed, unlike Mahatma Gandhi, to convert his commitment to non-violence into an instrument of mass mobilisation or resistance. Worse, he's increasingly unable to carry radicalised young exiles. Lack of creative strategising on the part of the Tibetan leadership will strengthen Beijing's hardliners. They can hold autonomy talks primarily to deflect international criticism — without conceding anything substantive. Unless the 72 year-old Dalai Lama names his successor soon, Beijing will probably wait for him to die and be "reincarnated" as a child — as with the Panchen Lama. One can only hope the Dalai Lama will act fast — and wisely.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.