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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

He May Be a God, but He’s No Politician

March 23, 2008

New York Times
March 22, 2008

NEARLY a decade ago, while staying with a nomad family in the remote
grasslands of northeastern Tibet, I asked Namdrub, a man who fought in
the anti-Communist resistance in the 1950s, what he thought about the
exiled Tibetans who campaigned for his freedom. “It may make them feel
good, but for us, it makes life worse,” he replied. “It makes the
Chinese create more controls over us. Tibet is too important to the
Communists for them even to discuss independence.”

Protests have spread across the Tibetan plateau over the last two weeks,
and at least 100 people have died. Anyone who finds it odd that Speaker
Nancy Pelosi has rushed to Dharamsala, India, to stand by the Dalai
Lama’s side fails to realize that American politics provided an
important spark for the demonstrations. Last October, when the
Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Dalai Lama, monks in Tibet
watched over the Internet and celebrated by setting off fireworks and
throwing barley flour. They were quickly arrested.

It was for the release of these monks that demonstrators initially
turned out this month. Their brave stand quickly metamorphosed into a
protest by Lhasa residents who were angry that many economic advantages
of the last 10 or 15 years had gone to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. A
young refugee whose family is still in Tibet told me this week of the
medal, “People believed that the American government was genuinely
considering the Tibet issue as a priority.” In fact, the award was a
symbolic gesture, arranged mostly to make American lawmakers feel good.

A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1987 when the Dalai Lama was
denounced by the Chinese state media for putting forward a peace
proposal on Capitol Hill. To Tibetans brought up in the Communist system
­ where a politician’s physical proximity to the leadership on the
evening news indicates to the public that he is in favor ­ it appeared
that the world’s most powerful government was offering substantive
political backing to the Dalai Lama. Protests began in Lhasa, and
martial law was declared. The brutal suppression that followed was
orchestrated by the party secretary in Tibet, Hu Jintao, who is now the
Chinese president. His response to the current unrest is likely to be
equally uncompromising.

The Dalai Lama is a great and charismatic spiritual figure, but a poor
and poorly advised political strategist. When he escaped into exile in
India in 1959, he declared himself an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi’s
nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi took huge gambles, starting the Salt
March and starving himself nearly to death ­ a very different approach
from the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which concentrates on nonviolence
rather than resistance. The Dalai Lama has never really tried to use
direct action to leverage his authority.

At the end of the 1980s, he joined forces with Hollywood and generated
huge popular support for the Tibetan cause in America and Western
Europe. This approach made some sense at the time. The Soviet Union was
falling apart, and many people thought China might do the same. In
practice, however, the campaign outraged the nationalist and xenophobic
Chinese leadership.

It has been clear since the mid-1990s that the popular
internationalization of the Tibet issue has had no positive effect on
the Beijing government. The leadership is not amenable to “moral
pressure,” over the Olympics or anything else, particularly by the
nations that invaded Iraq.

The Dalai Lama should have closed down the Hollywood strategy a decade
ago and focused on back-channel diplomacy with Beijing. He should have
publicly renounced the claim to a so-called Greater Tibet, which demands
territory that was never under the control of the Lhasa government.
Sending his envoys to talk about talks with the Chinese while
simultaneously encouraging the global pro-Tibet lobby has achieved nothing.

When Beijing attacks the “Dalai clique,” it is referring to the various
groups that make Chinese leaders lose face each time they visit a
Western country. The International Campaign for Tibet, based in
Washington, is now a more powerful and effective force on global opinion
than the Dalai Lama’s outfit in northern India. The European and
American pro-Tibet organizations are the tail that wags the dog of the
Tibetan government-in-exile.

These groups hate criticism almost as much as the Chinese government
does. Some use questionable information. For example, the Free Tibet
Campaign in London (of which I am a former director) and other groups
have long claimed that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the
Chinese since they invaded in 1950. However, after scouring the archives
in Dharamsala while researching my book on Tibet, I found that there was
no evidence to support that figure. The question that Nancy Pelosi and
celebrity advocates like Richard Gere ought to answer is this: Have the
actions of the Western pro-Tibet lobby over the last 20 years brought a
single benefit to the Tibetans who live inside Tibet, and if not, why
continue with a failed strategy?

I first visited Tibet in 1986. The economic plight of ordinary people is
slightly better now, but they have as little political freedom as they
did two decades ago. Tibet lacks genuine autonomy, and ethnic Tibetans
are excluded from positions of real power within the bureaucracy or the
army. Tibet was effectively a sovereign nation at the time of the
Communist invasion and was in full control of its own affairs. But the
battle for Tibetan independence was lost 49 years ago when the Dalai
Lama escaped into exile. His goal, and that of those who want to help
the Tibetan people, should be to negotiate realistically with the
Chinese state. The present protests, supported from overseas, will bring
only more suffering. China is not a democracy, and it will not budge.

Patrick French is the author of “Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a
Lost Land.”
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