Join our Mailing List

"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."

A Not-So-Fine Romance

April 4, 2008

The New York Times
April 3, 2008

Op-Ed Columnist

In the aftermath of the Tibet upheavals, the complicated romance between
America and China is degenerating into mutual recriminations, muttering
about Olympic boycotts and tensions that are likely to rise through the

It would be convenient if we could simply denounce the crackdown in
Tibet as the unpopular action of a dictatorial government. But it
wasn’t. It was the popular action of a dictatorial government, and many
ordinary Chinese think the government acted too wimpishly, showing far
too much restraint toward “thugs” and “rioters.”

China and the U.S. clash partly because of competing interests, but
mostly because of competing narratives. To Americans, Tibet fits neatly
into a framework of human rights and colonialism. To Chinese, steeped in
education of 150 years of “guochi,” or national humiliations by
foreigners, the current episode is one more effort by imperialistic and
condescending foreigners to tear China apart or hold it back.

So what do we do? A boycott of the Olympic Games themselves is a
nonstarter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has raised the possibility of a
boycott of the opening ceremony, and that is plausible.

The best answer is: Postpone the decision until the last minute so as to
extort every last ounce of good behavior possible out of the Chinese
government — on Darfur as well as Tibet. But at the end of the day, if
there have been no further abuses, President Bush should attend — for
staying away would only inflame Chinese nationalism and make Beijing
more obdurate.

If President Bush attends the ceremonies, however, he should balance
that with a day trip to a Tibetan area. Such a visit would underscore
American concern, even if the Chinese trot out fake monks to express
fake contentment with fake freedom.

President Bush and other Western leaders should also continue to consult
with the Dalai Lama, even though this infuriates Beijing. The Dalai Lama
is the last, best hope for reaching an agreement that would resolve the
dispute over Tibet forever. He accepts autonomy, rather than
independence, and he has the moral authority to persuade Tibetans to
accept a deal.

The outlines of an agreement would be simple. The Dalai Lama would
return to Tibet as a spiritual leader, and Tibetans would be permitted
to possess his picture and revere him, while he would unequivocally
accept Chinese sovereignty. Monasteries would have much greater
religious freedom, and Han Chinese migration to Tibet would be limited.
The Dalai Lama would also accept that the Tibetan region encompasses
only what is now labeled Tibet on the maps, not the much larger region
of historic Tibet that he has continued to claim.

With such an arrangement, China could resolve the problem of Tibet,
improve its international image, reassure Taiwan and rectify a
50-year-old policy of repression that has catastrophically failed.

But don’t hold your breath. Instead, President Hu Jintao — who made his
reputation by crushing protests in Tibet in 1989 — will make up for
failed policy within Tibet by trying to stir up Chinese nationalist
resentments at nosy foreigners.

America and China get on each other’s nerves partly because they are so
similar. Both are big, self-absorbed, and insular nations; both are
entrepreneurial overachievers; both are infused with nationalism and yet
tread clumsily on the nationalism of others — whether in Vietnam or
Iraq, or Tibet and the Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Both the United States and China also hurt themselves by petulantly
refusing to engage leaders they don’t like. The U.S. shrinks from
talking with Iranian and Cuban leaders, and China refuses to negotiate
directly with the Dalai Lama, whom it recently denounced as “a jackal
wrapped in a habit, a monster with human face and animal’s heart.”

That refusal to talk is stunningly foolish. Nearly every Tibetan I’ve
ever spoken to in Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan or Gansu has been loyal to the
Dalai Lama — except those who think he’s too gentle and accommodating
toward China. After the Dalai Lama dies, there will be no one to hold
Tibetans back, and more militant organizers in the Tibetan Youth
Congress and other organizations will turn to violence, and perhaps

The only other Tibetan who could fill that vacuum is the Panchen Lama,
the No. 2 Tibetan leader, who turns 19 later this month. But the Chinese
government kidnapped the Panchen Lama when he was 6 years old and
apparently has kept him under house arrest ever since.

Americans sometimes think that the Tibetan resentments are just about
political and religious freedom. They’re much more complicated than
that. Tibetan anger is also fueled by the success of Han Chinese shop
owners, who are often better educated and more entrepreneurial. So
Tibetans seek solace in monasteries or bars, and the economic gap widens
and provokes even more frustration — which the spotlight of the Olympics
gives them a chance to express.

Comment on this column on my blog at:, and
also join me on Facebook at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank