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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."

Pro-Justice, Not Anti-China

May 11, 2009

by Amy Yee
Far Eastern Economic Review
May 11, 2009

During the past year that I’ve reported on
Tibetan issues from my base in India, one of the
Dalai Lama’s recurring messages has struck a
chord in me. It isn’t his well-known calls for
peace, nonviolence and compassion. Rather, it’s
his constant reminder that “We are not against
Chinese people. We still have faith in Chinese people.”

The Dalai Lama repeated that again in March of
this year, which marked the 50th anniversary of
China’s rule in Tibet and his exile to India.
That message has become his mantra as he travels
the world and almost desperately tries to meet Chinese people.

His call has grown more urgent as he tries to
defuse surging Chinese nationalism that peaked
with the Olympics in Beijing. Official talks with
Beijing broke down last autumn so the Dalai
Lama’s outreach to Chinese people is the only way
to advance the Tibet issue in China.

But I fear that his outreach to Chinese won’t
work because reason is too easily obliterated by
the flames of nationalism. Too many Chinese
people confuse protests against the policies of
the Chinese government with being anti-Chinese.

The Dalai Lama’s outreach to Chinese people isn’t
lip service. I am Chinese, though born and
brought up in the U.S. by immigrant parents. Even
though I wear the face of the “enemy,” I have
always been treated warmly by Tibetans during the
considerable time I have spent in Dharamsala,
home to the Dalai Lama and about 12,000 Tibetans.
I have waited for a Tibetan to treat me bitterly
or with scorn but it has never happened in dozens
of interviews I have conducted here.

Many Tibetans can tell I’m Chinese and even call
out "Ni hao!" as I walk through the streets of
this hill town. Sometimes we converse in
Mandarin, not out of any sense of obligation but
because Tibetans still have an affinity with
Chinese people even if their religion, language
and culture have been repressed by the Chinese government.

After a four-hour prayer service in March, the
Dalai Lama thanked the people in Tibet, the
international community and “Chinese friends.” At
a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of
Tibet’s failed uprising against Chinese rule, the
Dalai Lama shared the stage with 30 Chinese
pro-democracy activists. Another group of 30
filmmakers and journalists from Taiwan were also present.

When Han Chinese travel to Dharamsala the Dalai
Lama eagerly grants them a coveted private
audience if they speak and write Chinese and can
somehow convey his message into China.

Why this charm offensive with Chinese people? The
Dalai Lama says that Tibetans and Chinese will
have to live together in the future, no matter
what happens. Communication and exchange is
necessary, especially if official negotiations are fruitless.

Since 1994, the Tibetan government-in-exile has
printed magazines and newsletters in Chinese. It
also launched a Chinese-language website that
attempts to convey his point of view within China
to those savvy enough to get around Chinese blocks.

However, it is unclear whether the charm
offensive is working. Chinese who support Tibet
are suppressed in China and branded as traitors
on Chinese blogs. When the Olympic torch passed
through Canberra last year there were about
10,000 Chinese and some 1,500 pro-Tibet demonstrators.

When the Dalai Lama met with some Chinese in New
York who were protesting his visit last year, he
said five of the seven wouldn’t listen to him.
Fortunately it was a large table or they might
have slapped him, he admitted at a press conference last year.

Even overseas Chinese in the U.S., Australia and
Europe where there is free media and access to
information, waved signs that read "Dalai is a
Liar." I’m not sure what they accuse the Dalai
Lama of lying about. He openly advocates autonomy
for Tibet under Chinese rule, not separation as China insists.

Is he lying about human-rights violations in
Tibet? Why not ask former political prisoners
from Tibet who have sought refuge in India? Why
not ask thousands of Tibetans who have been
arrested since China began its harsh crackdown in
Tibet a year ago? And if the list of those
arrested is fake, as some claim, why not produce
the Tibetan in question to show they are alive and well?

For all of China’s insistence that Tibetans are
content and should be happy that they have longer
life spans than 50 years ago, the forceful
repression in Tibet indicates that something is
terribly wrong. The wise thing to do would be to
somehow come to the table to discuss how, at the
very least, the plight of Tibetans in Tibet could
be improved. Measures on improving education and
access to jobs for Tibetans are well within China’s reach.

The Tibetans who rioted in Lhasa last year should
not have resorted to violence and it is tragic
that Chinese people died in the clashes, as the
Dalai Lama himself has said. But why not allow an
independent investigation into exactly what happened last year in Lhasa?

I know firsthand the effects of Chinese
nationalism that can cloud reasoned judgment.
Last summer my brother and I were at my parent’s
house in Boston when the Olympic torch relay came
up. My brother was angry and disgusted by the
pro-Tibet protestors. I was taken aback by his response.

We grew up in a progressive part of Boston where
activism and questioning of the establishment was
de rigueur. U.S. policies were often raked over
the coals during dinner table conversations.

But I knew why my brother was so angry. We are
Chinese. I believe my brother was mistaking
protests against the policies of the Chinese
government with some slight against him as a Chinese person.

I didn’t start a heated debate. I simply told him
what I knew from reporting in India, where I have
lived since 2006. "They shot a 16-year-old
Tibetan girl in the head," I said, referring to
Chinese security that shot and killed unarmed and
peaceful Tibetan protestors in western China last
year. “What’s wrong with protesting?”

I refrained from pointing out to my brother what
he already knew: that I lived in China for two
years, taught English to about 120 Chinese
university students, learned Mandarin and
traveled for nearly a month in Tibet in 1998.
During that trip many Tibetans I met in Tibet
were scared of me until I told them that I was American.

When I mentioned Lhundup Tso, the 16-year-old
Tibetan girl whose body was photographed in a
pool of blood, my brother’s face contorted.
Perhaps his newfound sense of Chinese nationalism
was battling with the education—based on reason,
fact and analysis—that we both received.
Fortunately the latter prevailed. “As long as
it’s nonviolent,” he said grudgingly.

I glanced at my mother, who had threatened to
disown me when I announced I was going to China
after college partly because she feared what
Chinese authorities might do to me. She prudently chose to remain silent.

It is easy to confuse protest against Chinese
policies in Tibet with being anti-Chinese. But
wanting a better way forward in Tibet is not
anti-Chinese people or even anti-China. It is, as
the Dalai Lama likes to say, pro-justice.

Amy Yee is a journalist based in New Delhi.
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