Tibetan Independence

15 March 2008

Tibetan Independence

By Gwynne Dyer

The monks who marched through Lhasa on 10 March to mark the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 did not want to wreck China’s Olympic year, but they knew that Chinese troops would be less likely to shoot them this year than most. And so it proved: the monks were arrested, but the crowds of Tibetans who gathered on the following days to demand their release were not harmed.

The dilemma facing the Chinese troops was that if they didn’t shoot, the crowds would inevitably grow bigger, for most Tibetans dream of independence and fear that the mass immigration of Han Chinese to Tibet is a form of cultural genocide. By Friday, 14 March the crowds had become so bold that it was they who turned to violence, attacking Chinese civilians in Lhasa and looting and burning Chinese-owned shops, banks and hotels.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua says that ten people were killed in Lhasa on Friday. The Tibetan government-in-exile says that eighty were killed, and accounts by foreign tourists in Lhasa support the higher figure. But so far, by most accounts, the victims have mostly been Han Chinese settlers killed by angry Tibetans.

This doesn’t fit the simple foreign narrative of peaceful protesters and wicked Chinese, but nationalism, whether Tibetan or Fijian, is not an inherently tolerant and peaceful phenomenon. Foreign troops who hold their fire are still foreign occupiers, and innocent Chinese civilians who were encouraged by their own government to come and set up businesses in Lhasa are still unwelcome foreign agents of cultural genocide.

All the players are sticking to their scripts. China insists that “the recent sabotage in Lhasa was organized, premeditated and masterminded by the Dalai clique” (the Dalai Lama is Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader). Qiangba Puncog, the puppet chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, vows that “The plot of the separatists will fail.” They have to say that, as otherwise they would have to admit that Tibetans don’t want to be ruled by China.

The Dalai Lama insists that he is not seeking Tibetan independence from China, but only more autonomy for Tibet’s culture and its Buddhist faith. As the violence in Tibet intensified, however, he had to harden his line. “Ultimately, the Chinese government is clinging of policy, not looking at the reality,” he told the BBC on 15 March. “They simply feel they have gun – so they can control. Obviously they can control. But they cannot control human mind.”

Foreign governments urge China to “exercise restraint,” but they carefully avoid questioning Beijing’s right to rule Tibet. And with the unrest spreading to ethnically Tibetan regions of neighbouring Chinese provinces — hundreds of monks from Labrang monastery marched through the town of Xiahe in Gansu province on 14 March — the time may soon come when Beijing decides it has to crush all dissent by force regardless of the impact on the Olympics.

Force will succeed, as it has before. The 1959 uprising was crushed, the 1989 demonstrations in Tibet were crushed, and the current unrest there will be crushed as well. Tibet’s only chance to recover its independence will come if and when there is a change of regime in China.

China did not traditionally seek to expand beyond the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom, an agrarian society that lived in the north Chinese plain and the river valleys of southern China. The non-Chinese territories that now make up the western third of the country — the deserts and oases of Muslim Xinjiang and the high plateau of Tibet — were not conquered by Chinese, but rather swept into the same Mongol empire that conquered China itself in the 13th century.

Since the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty ruled from Beijing, Tibet came to be seen as a Chinese possession, but the subsequent (ethnically Chinese) Ming dynasty took little interest in it. When another foreign nation of mounted nomads, the Manchus, conquered China in 1644, they too brought Tibet under Beijing’s rule — and when the Manchu dynasty was finally overthrown in 1911, Tibet again slipped from China’s control. For the next forty years, Tibet was effectively independent.

The Chinese Communists seized power in 1949, and invaded Tibet the following year on the argument that “what was once ours is ours forever.” So long as they hold power in Beijing, they will also hold Tibet — but an interesting analogy comes to mind. For the history of the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — is not very different.

They fell under the rule of the expanding Russian empire in the 18th century, but regained their independence after revolution overthrew the Tsarist regime in 1917. They lost it again when the Soviet Union invaded them in 1940 — but got it back when the Communist regime in Moscow collapsed in 1991. And the main motive for their drive for independence was fear that their languages and cultures were being submerged by a wave of Russian immigrants.

As with the Baltic states, so too with Tibet. If there is ever a change of regime in Beijing, then a window of opportunity will open — and Tibet will have a couple of years to establish its independence before a new government emerges in Beijing that feels compelled to hold onto it in deference to Chinese nationalist sentiment. But that window is not open now.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“All the players…mind”)