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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."

A Way Out of Tibet's Morass

April 24, 2009

Robert Barnett
The Guatemala Times
April 22, 2009

NEW YORK - China has survived the 50th
anniversary of the failed uprising by Tibetans
against Chinese rule in 1959 without major
protests. But, to keep Tibetans off the streets,
China's government had to saturate the entire
Tibetan plateau with troops and secretly detain
in unmarked jails hundreds of people for "legal
education." Those moves suggest that Tibet has
become an increasingly serious concern for
China's rulers, one that they have not yet found
ways to handle without damaging their standing in Tibet and around the world.

A year ago, Chinese and Western intellectuals
competed in dismissing popular interest in Tibet
as a childlike confusion with the imaginary
Shangri-la of the 1937 film Lost Horizon . But
after more than 150 protests in Tibet against
Chinese rule over the past 12 months, concerns
about the area seem anything but fanciful.
Indeed, Tibet could soon replace Taiwan as a
factor in regional stability and an important
issue in international relations. The areas
populated by Tibetans cover a quarter of China;
to have such a large part of the country's
territory under military control and cut off from
the outside world weakens the Communist Party's
claims to legitimacy and world power status.

Last year's protests were the largest and most
widespread in Tibet for decades. Participants
included nomads, farmers, and students, who in
theory should have been the most grateful to
China for modernizing Tibet's economy. Many
carried the forbidden Tibetan national flag,
suggesting that they think of Tibet as a separate
country in the past, and in about 20 incidents
government offices were burned down. In one case,
there were even attacks on Chinese migrants,
leading to 18 deaths. It is hard not to see these
events as a challenge to China's rule.

The government's reaction was to blame the
problem on outside instigation. It sent in more
troops, hid details of protestors' deaths, gave a
life sentence to an AIDS educator who had copied
illegal CDs from India, and for months banned
foreigners and journalists from the Tibetan
plateau. In November, Chinese officials, live on
national TV, ridiculed Tibetan exiles' proposals
for negotiation. They canceled a European summit
because of a meeting between French President
Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama, and regularly
imply that Tibetans are terrorists.

On March 28, Tibetans in Lhasa had to celebrate
"Serf Emancipation Day" to endorse China's
explanation for its take-over 50 years ago. But
such class-struggle terminology reminds people of
the Cultural Revolution and, since such language
would be unimaginable in inland China today, only
makes Tibet seem more separate.

Although both sides claim to be ready for
dialogue, they are talking at cross-purposes: the
exiles say that talks must be based on their
autonomy proposals, while China says that it will
discuss only the Dalai Lama's "personal status" -
where he would live in Beijing should he return
to China. Visceral sparring matches are
continuing, with the Dalai Lama recently
describing Tibetans' lives under China as a "hell
on earth." He was almost certainly referring to
life during the Maoist years rather than the
present, but his remarks enabled China to issue
more media attacks and raise the political temperature further.

Western governments have been accused of
interference, but it is unlikely that any want to
derail their relations with China, especially
during an economic crisis. Last October, British
Foreign Minister David Miliband was so anxious to
maintain Chinese good will that he came close to
denouncing his predecessors' recognition of
Tibet's autonomy 100 years ago. But foreign
concerns about the status of China's mandate in
Tibet are understandable: Tibet is the strategic
high ground between the two most important
nuclear powers in Asia. Good governance on the plateau is good for everyone.

China could help to lessen growing tensions by
recognizing these concerns as reasonable. The
Dalai Lama could cut down on foreign meetings and
acknowledge that, despite China's general
emasculation of intellectual and religious life
in Tibet, some aspects of Tibetan culture (like
modern art, film and literature) are relatively
healthy. Western observers could accept the
exiles' assurances that their proposals on
autonomy are negotiable and not bottom-line
demands, rather than damning them before talks start.

All sides would gain by paying attention to two
Tibetan officials in China who dared to speak out
last month. A retired prefectural governor from
Kardze told the Singapore paper Zaobao that "the
government should have more trust in its people,
particularly the Tibetan monks," and the current
Tibet governor admitted that some protesters last
year "weren't satisfied with our policies,"
rather than calling them enemies of the state,
the first official concession from within China
that some of its policies might be connected to the recent protests.

The Party has so far been following a more
conventional strategy: last week it sent a
delegation of officials to the US (the first ever
sent, it said, to have been composed solely of
Tibetans - a fact that one might expect them to
have been embarrassed to admit) and had its
leader, Shingtsa Tenzin Choedak, tell journalists
that Tibetans enjoy freedom of religion.

As anyone who has worked in Tibet recently knows
well, this was an inexactitude: since at least
1996, all Tibetans who work for the government
and all Tibetan students in Tibet have been
forbidden any Buddhist practice, even though it
is illegal under Chinese law to stop people from
practicing an official religion.

China's government could improve the situation
overnight by sacking the officials responsible
for such illegal policies, and by apologizing to
Tibetans for having overlooked such abuses for 15
years. And it could start reassessing its Tibetan
policies instead of increasing controls and
allegations. Until then, China's quest for
international respect is set to remain elusive
and Tibet is likely to stay on the world's agenda.

*Robert Barnett is Director of the Modern Tibetan
Studies Program, Columbia University.
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