The Future of Tibet

22 November 2008

The Future of Tibet

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Dalai Lama spoke in his customary platitudes, and the Chinese regime responded with its habitual bluster, but a corner was turned in the China-Tibet dispute last week. From now on, it’s likely to get worse.

After a five-day meeting in Dharamsala, India, that gathered together Tibetan exiles from all over the world, the Dalai Lama emerged with his authority unchallenged and the policy towards Beijing unchanged.

“[The] majority of views have come up supporting the Middle Way path to the Tibetan issue…which is right,” he declared on Sunday. In other words, the Tibetans should seek only autonomy under Chinese rule, not full independence.

The regime’s official mouthpiece in Lhasa, the Tibet Daily, replied that “the so-called ‘Middle Way’ is a naked expression of ‘Tibetan independence’ aimed at nakedly spreading the despicable plot of opposing the tide of history.” The gutter-Marxist vocabulary is out of date in today’s China, but the Tibet Daily got the Chinese regime’s attitude right: the Communists have never believed that the Dalai Lama was telling the truth.

It’s because the ultra-combative Communist mind-set makes them see everyone they do not control as an enemy and a plotter. Yet the Dalai Lama was potentially their greatest ally among the Tibetans, for he calculated the odds on Tibetan independence long ago and found them to be hopeless. So he opted for the next best thing: autonomy.

For decades, he has been offering Beijing a deal. If it respects Tibet’s culture and stops trying to drown the historic identity of Tibetans under a wave of Han Chinese immigrants, he will deliver Tibetans’ loyalty to China. It has never been clear that he could actually do that, but he certainly meant to try, because he could see no other path that didn’t end in tragedy.

Unfortunately, the Beijing regime has never understood that the Dalai Lama was its best chance of reconciling Tibetans to Chinese rule. Instead, it defined Tibetan nationalism as an artificial phenomenon that was stirred up from outside by evil plotters — so the man who did most to contain the wilder extremes of Tibetan nationalism became, in Beijing’s view, the arch-plotter.

For all the sophistication of its views on other issues, the Chinese regime lives in a cave when it comes to nationalist movements among its subject peoples. When violent protests against the presence of so many Han immigrants broke out in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities last March, Beijing reflexively blamed the apostle of non-violence, the Dalai Lama. It is leaving itself nobody to negotiate with — but then, it doesn’t think it will ever have to negotiate.

Beijing’s unspoken calculation, based on the delusion that Tibetan nationalism is the artificial creation of a hostile religious leader backed by malevolent outside forces, is that it just has to stand pat and wait for the Dalai Lama to die. He’s 73 now and not in the best of health, so that shouldn’t take too long — and then Tibetan separatism will evaporate as all the fraternal Tibetan patriots are enfolded in the bosom of the beloved Chinese motherland.

I’m not exaggerating, you know. That is how they think. So it will come as a nasty surprise to the Chinese regime when the post-Dalai Lama Tibetan leadership opts for a violent struggle for full independence, and many inside Tibet answer their call.

The signs are already visible. Younger, more radical Tibetans at the Dharamsala summit bowed to the Dalai Lama’s wishes one last time, but the meeting also concluded that if China made no effort to meet his demands for autonomy, then other options, including calls for independence and self-determination, would be put forward.

Nobody talked about violence, but they didn’t have to. We already saw lots of spontaneous anti-Chinese violence in the riots last March. Tibetans feel their country is vanishing around them as more and more Chinese immigrants flow in, and their reactions are becoming more extreme.

This is bad news for Tibetans who dream of independence. The only way Tibet could ever win its independence back is during a transition in China from Communism to more or less democratic rule. That moment may come some day, and if it does a brief window of opportunity may open for Tibetan independence, just as it did for the various non-Russian republics of the old Soviet Union when Communism collapsed there in 1991.

But there is a proviso. Chinese people would only ever assent to Tibetan independence if they were sure that the country was not a threat to them. A guerilla and terrorist campaign that targets ethnic Chinese people in Tibet would produce the opposite conviction in China, and end all hope of Tibetan independence. Yet such a campaign may now be only a few years away.

Why is the Chinese regime pushing the Tibetans into this disastrous strategy? Simple ignorance will suffice as a motive for the highest leadership cadre, but surely the senior intelligence people in China understand the implications of China’s stone-walling on Tibetan autonomy.

Of course they understand, and what does that tell you? It tells you that senior Chinese intelligence officers realise that a Tibet with a violent, ethnically based separatist movement has even less chance of achieving independence than a peaceful, cooperative Tibet. So they advise their relatively naive superiors to follow policies that will make the violence inevitable.

Or do you think I am being too cynical?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“It’s because…autonomy”; and “For all…negotiate”)