Surrender the best option for Tibet

2013-03-20Asia Times

BEIJING - Is there a future for the Tibetan cause? After two years of protests and more than 100 suicides across the historical region of Tibet, it is hard to see any real evolution in the cause of Tibetan independence or even autonomy.

Certainly, Chinese rule in Tibet has been tarnished by the wave of self-immolations that shows no signs of receding. Beijing has imposed new rules on satellites dishes, banning reception of subversive broadcasts from India and other countries. It has slapped new restrictions on the use of inflammables and applied new controls on monasteries and checks on the activities of monks.

These measures are bound to push more common Tibetans, even those who might be more sympathetic to the government, toward the cause of those committing suicide. But China being what it is - and unlikely to radically change in the next few years - even if the suicides were to number 1,000 or 10,000 among Tibetans in China who represent less than 0.5% of the population, that would hardly shake Beijing's resolve in its rule of the region.

This, for Beijing, is an issue of cold-blooded political calculation, and time is on its side. Despite the potential growing sympathies for the self-immolators, there are some very important trends at work in the region.

Tibetans in Tibet are becoming increasingly different from those living outside of Tibet. They listen to different music, watch different TV programs, and even speak a language that is becoming distinct on the two sides of the Himalayan highlands. Moreover, even without taking into account the position of the government, normal Han Chinese (the vast majority of the population) are warming to their Tibetan "possessions".

Tibetan living Buddhas are roaming China, spreading their religious message and being wined and dined by rich and powerful Chinese in search of some form of spirituality to feel connected to. To them, traditional Chinese Buddhism is losing steam and appeal, while new Western Christianity is too foreign and at odds with their traditional mindset. Tibetan Buddhism is both authentic and reverberates with old beliefs. To these people, who might even be sympathetic to the Tibetan plight, the loss of Tibet would be like losing a piece of the country's soul. This bond of common Chinese to Tibet is becoming deeper, and it goes well beyond nationalistic attachments to a stretch of land or a rock out in the water.

In this sense, a new identity seems to be developing for both Tibetans, who are becoming more integrated into China and increasingly detached from their brethren living in India or abroad, and for Han Chinese, who feel closer to Tibetan culture and religion and who find in the Himalayas a new source of spiritual life after decades of communist or capitalist materialism.

The self-immolation taints and humiliates those in charge of Beijing's rule in Tibet, but does not change the basic facts: the greater integration of Tibetans into Beijing's China and the warm feelings many Chinese have for Tibet. Conversely, in a way the suicides help to strengthen these deeper trends. Tibetans will be more cut off from foreign influence and face more Chinese authorities, and thus naturally will have a stronger sense of belonging to China's Tibet, which they may dislike but they can't avoid.

In a way, it is like the situation with Native Americans: they may have disliked and fiercely opposed colonization, but in the end, more than ever they belong to the United States. Meanwhile, the Han Chinese - even when they are sympathetic to the Tibetan cause - will develop stronger feelings for Tibet, and thus deep in their souls will be more reluctant to let it go.

In this situation, the death of the Dalai Lama will make things worse for the cause of Tibet. Beijing will choose its own Dalai Lama, and the Tibetans outside of Tibet will choose theirs. The sentiment in Tibet will be split. No doubt many - if not most - people will support the Dalai Lama who resides outside of Tibet, but it is also likely that a minority, which might grow, will listen to the Beijing-appointed Dalai Lama, especially if he manages to more closely address the worries and concerns of the Tibetans in Tibet, while the Dalai Lama outside of Tibet becomes more and more detached from the qualms and sentiments of Tibetans in Tibet.

This trend is not likely to be reversed even in the case of massive democratization in China. Conversely, a more democratic China could feel stronger about Tibet, and thus resent direct or indirect attempts to break it apart from the rest of the country. Then a democratic China, answering more directly to the will of the people, would have less room to maneuver in dealing with Tibetans in exile.

Unless one believes there could be a major breakup of China with a civil war and all its trappings, the prospect of an improved climate for exiled Tibetans to talk to Beijing is worsening by the day - also, paradoxically, because of the self-immolations.

What then would I say if I were an adviser to the Dalai Lama? I would tell him that, generally speaking, there are two options on the table:

1. Work toward a civil war in China that could blow up the country, and thus create an opportunity to carve out Tibet's independence or greater autonomy. The possibility of success for this is slim and depends on the general thrust of the countries in the region: are they willing to foment a civil war in China that could kindle chaos in the whole world? In reality, this is still an option, although chances are becoming thinner, as the potential global costs of a civil war in China grow by the day.

2. Surrender to Beijing today rather than tomorrow because the current conditions are better than they will be in future. And in doing so, try to extract as much as possible by presenting a case for an alignment of interests between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. This would mean forfeiting decades of fighting and dreams of independence or great autonomy, but it would avoid the greater split between Tibetans within and outside of Tibet. It will be difficult because the people out of Tibet have lived all their lives according to these dreams, and to smash them in return for nothing will be very painful and hard to explain - especially since the possibility, albeit small, of massive civil war in China still exists.

Realistically, chances are that, as has happened so far, the Tibetan leadership will not clearly choose between the two grand options, and this will continue to stifle their initiatives. They could opt, as they have done, for small tactical campaigns, such as the Dalai Lama's tours, supporting protests in Tibet, confronting Chinese authorities where they can, and spreading to far-flung parts of the world followers of the Dalai Lama who can undermine China's image and soft power.

All these small initiatives have not dented Beijing's rule in Tibet and have actually, as we saw, reinforced the deeper integration of Tibetans into China. They make real sense only in case of an all-out effort to bring down unitary China, something that is not likely to happen any time soon, as we saw. Meanwhile, Tibetans out of Tibet will lose the leverage to negotiate.

This, to me, reinforces the need for the second course of action. But will His Holiness the Dalai Lama accept this analysis and prevail over his many counselors? He is the only one who is able to do it, but can he really?  (2013-03-20 Asia Times)


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