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Tibet's Dangerous Game

April 10, 2008

Van Jackson | April 9, 2008 - COMMENTARY
Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus

China take heed: a new generation of Tibetan youth is coming of age and
these young people have little interest in playing by the rules of the
game to which you are accustomed. As protests evolved into riots and
riots turned into violence over the last several weeks in Tibet, it
became increasingly clear that Tibetan youths do not plan on maintaining
the status quo ante that has characterized Sino-Tibetan relations over
the last generation. The recent escalation of violence between China and
Tibet illustrates why China cannot continue to react to Tibetan discord
in a typically authoritarian manner, particularly in light of the
increasing role of exiled Tibetan youths in Tibet’s independence movement.

Given such grassroots changes, Tibet too would do well to reform its
approach to its relationship with China. The cognitive dissonance within
the existing independence movement – between those who urge action and
those who urge dialogue – must be reconciled or Tibetan demands for
freedom may ultimately fall on deaf ears. Tibet must present a unified
position in its dealings with China and the world.

China, meanwhile, must develop a strategy vis-à-vis Tibet that allows it
to preserve both face and regional stability. Both must acknowledge and
adapt to the dramatic changes happening within the Tibetan independence
movement. A failure to do so only ensures that both parties will
continue with their mistaken belief that they are operating within the
same framework that has existed since the attempted Tibetan uprising in
1959; the inevitable result of this political miscalculation can only
mean more violence. Because a continued escalation of violence is a
losing proposition for both parties, a new understanding between China
and Tibet must come to fruition or all may be worse off.

The U.S. role in all this should not be an intervening or inflammatory
one; rather it should be one of support that urges restraint on both
sides. The United States must avoid the zero-sum balance between
preserving regional stability on one side and promoting human rights and
the right of self-determination on the other. If the United States leans
too strongly in favor of regional stability at the expense of human
rights, China may only be encouraged to continue its authoritarian
response to civil disobedience in the name of harmony. On the other
hand, if the United States leans too heavily toward human rights and
self-determination at the expense of regional stability, it will
unintentionally encourage continued Sino-Tibetan strife and geopolitical
instability. Greater global economic troubles could easily result.
Different Game, Different Rules

By all indications, China appears to be treating the latest eruption in
Tibet much the same way as it has treated every sizable civil disruption
from Xinjiang to Shanghai over the last 60 years – with increased
physical and electronic surveillance, arrests, and violence. Therein
lies the problem. These latest Tibetan protests differ from those China
has dealt with in the past and therefore require a response that differs
from the routine authoritarian playbook. Attempts to quell Tibetan
unrest using conventional Chinese tactics will likely only foment
further unrest.

These protests are not specifically about democracy, land usage rights,
or welfare provisions per se, all common protest themes of Han Chinese.
Rather, they are about de jure independence. They are not limited to a
single concentrated area or even a single country; instead, the protests
have gone global and become highly diffused. Nor are the protests
centrally organized, by the Dalai Lama or any other lead coordinator. On
the contrary, these protests reveal a much-reported schism between the
Dalai Lama’s historically moderate leadership and the comparatively
radical views of the Tibetan Youth Congress and its affiliate
organizations. Though the Dalai Lama has made great efforts to unite the
Tibetan Youth Congress with the existing Tibetan power structure in a
common cause, the previous generation differs too greatly from the new
generation in both means and ends.

Consistent with the tenets of Buddhism and under the leadership of the
Dalai Lama, Tibet has mostly pursued a “middle way” toward independence
characterized by moderate positions, open dialogue with China, and a
gradualist approach that more or less accepted the autonomy granted it
in 1951. In contrast, the Youth Congress is composed of young Tibetans
in exile, products of an imposed diaspora that has prevented most of
them from ever visiting the land of their fathers. Their desire to “free
Tibet” has as much to do with their globalized thinking and Western
notions of self-determination as it does with their cultural heritage.
And although they greatly admire the Dalai Lama and often claim Buddhism
as their religion, they exhibit far less patience and far greater
agitation with the current understanding China and Tibet have regarding
their mutual relations.
Protests 2.0

Armed with information of a globalizing world and the requisite
technology to access and disseminate it, the Youth Congress and others
have gone global with their defiance of the status quo. Tibetans in
exile can be found standing outside Chinese embassies throughout the
world, staging hunger strikes and sit-ins, all the while calling
impatiently for uncompromising concessions from Beijing. Their virtual
global networks ensure that any Chinese brutality will be immediately
captured and beamed around the world for all to see. Since the protests
and riots coincide with an event as symbolic as the Olympic Games the
Tibetan youth demographic have chosen to play every metaphorical card at
their disposal. Increasingly, this decentralized, spontaneous, and
highly digitized move toward greater pressure on Beijing resembles a new
kind of brinksmanship, a dangerous political game traditionally reserved
for nation-state actors.

Beijing’s decision to respond heavy-handedly is the result of a
cost/benefit analysis. If history is any guide, China is willing to risk
receiving demarches from countries that express opposition to Chinese
brutality as long as the draconian tactics restore harmony or at least
stability. The potential for miscalculation in this case stems from
Beijing’s assumption that an oppressive response will silence the
disquiet. It will not. The zealous and impatient nature of the globally
enlightened, technologically savvy Tibetan youth movement virtually
guarantees that an escalation of force from Beijing will be met with an
escalation of outrage, which will only perpetuate a cycle of violence.

Such a devolution of Sino-Tibetan relations could result in Tibet
permanently failing to secure independence. Meanwhile, China will see
the erosion of its soft power globally, its hopes of leadership
regionally, and its sense of unity nationally, all at a time when public
image weighs heavily on whether the Olympics will be a success.
Tread Lightly

Under such circumstances, the highest priority for the United States
should be to stop the cycle of violence in the most responsible way
possible. In this case, declaring unabashed support for the protestors
would only inflame China, embolden the protestors, and ensure that
violence will continue. By contrast, the best chance for the violence to
end resides in reestablishing unanimity within the Tibetan independence
movement. A unified Tibet will, at a minimum, provide China with a
coherent negotiating partner and a common voice on Tibetan issues. The
United States should take a step back from a zero-sum understanding of
human rights on the one hand and national, interest-based considerations
for regional stability on the other.

The only discernable way to avoid such a zero-sum game is for Washington
to put the full weight of its soft power resources behind aligning the
opinions of Tibetan youths-in-exile with that of the Dalai Lama. The
implementation of such a policy would be complex and challenging. But it
would not compromise the U.S. stance on human rights because the issue
of human rights would not be on the table. At the same time, such
actions may encourage a cessation of hostilities that would help
preserve regional stability. At the very least, it will allow the United
States to do no harm, which should always be its first priority in
foreign policy.

Tibet will have greater international credibility if its people speak
with one voice. Staying on message will also increase the likelihood
that the Dalai Lama will once again be able to exercise a degree of
control over the Tibetan people. This may help to convince China that
the Dalai Lama does indeed speak on behalf of his people. At a time when
China needs peace in its restive regions more than ever, a unified Tibet
may provide the only opportunity for China to consider an agreement with
the Dalai Lama that both sides would be able to implement. At the same
time, it will not be easy to unify the Tibetan opposition movement,
since it has no discernable structure or decision-making authority. The
United States should do what it can to help consolidate the Tibetan
position but should also acknowledge that it has a necessarily limited
role to play in this drama.

China, for its part, must realize sooner rather than later that to end
the hostilities it must engage in dialogue and at least appear to make
some kind of concessions. Official statements indicate that China is
willing to engage in conditional dialogue, but these conditions – namely
that the Dalai Lama first quell Tibetan unrest – need to be removed.
These conditions reveal, among other things, that China simply is not
accounting for the changes taking place in the Tibetan independence
movement when they calculate their actions and reactions. China must
realize that the nature of the game it normally plays is changing. China
must change its game with Tibet – before it can hope to host a
successful Olympic games this August.

Van Jackson is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (
and a frequent writer on Asian business and political issues. He is also
a former East Asia Specialist with the Department of Defense. The views
expressed in this article are his own.
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