China and Tibet: the true path

Wang Lixiong
15 April 2008

Wang Lixiong is a Beijing-based writer. He was the organiser of the twelve-point statement on Tibet by twenty-nine Chinese intellectuals, released on 22 March 2008. This article was published in the Wall Street Journal. It was translated from the Chinese by Perry Link of Princeton University.

The recent troubles in Tibet are a replay of events that happened two decades ago. On 1 October 1987, Buddhist monks were demonstrating peacefully at the Barkor - the famous market street around the central cathedral in Lhasa - when police began beating and arresting them. To ordinary Tibetans, who view monks as "treasures", the sight was intolerable - not only in itself, but because it stimulated unpleasant memories that Tibetan Buddhists had been harbouring for years (see Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule [Columbia University Press, 2008]).

A few angry young men then began throwing stones at the Barkor police station. More and more joined in, and then they started fires, overturned cars and began shouting "Independence for Tibet!" This is almost exactly what was witnessed in Lhasa on 14 March 2008.

The fundamental cause of these recurrent events is a painful dilemma that lives inside the minds of Tibetan monks. When the Chinese government demands that they denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, monks are forced to choose between obeying (which violates their deepest spiritual convictions) and resisting (which can lead to loss of government registry and physical expulsion from monasteries).

From time to time monks have used peaceful demonstrations to express their anguish. When they have done this, an insecure Chinese government, bent on "annihilating unstable elements" in the "emergent stage", has reacted with violent repression. This, in turn, triggers violence from Tibetans (see Robert Barnett & Shirin Akiner, Resistance and Reform in Tibet [C Hurst 1994]).

Also in openDemocracy:

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008) In recent decades, the Chinese government's policy for pacifying Tibet has been to combine the allure of economic development on the one hand with the threat of force on the other. Experience has shown that this approach does not work (see "Skewed gains", Economist, 10 April 2008).

The most efficient route to peace in Tibet is through the Dalai Lama, whose return to Tibet would immediately alleviate a number of problems. Much of the current ill-will, after all, is a direct result of the Chinese government's verbal attacks on the Dalai Lama, who, for Tibetan monks, has an incomparably lofty status. To demand that monks denounce him is about as practical as asking that they vilify their own parents.

It should be no surprise that beatings of monks and closings of monasteries naturally stimulate civil unrest; or that civil unrest, spawned in this way, can turn violent.

The solution within

Why aren't these simple truths more obvious? Phuntsog Wanggyal, a Tibetan now retired in Beijing who for years was a leading communist official in Tibet, has observed that a doctrine of "anti-splittism" has taken root among Chinese government officials who deal with religion and minority affairs, both in central offices in Beijing and in Tibet. These people, having invested their careers in anti-splittism, cannot admit that the idea is mistaken without losing face and, they fear, losing their own power and position as well (see Isabel Hilton, "Ditch the tatty flag of nationalism", Guardian, 12 April 2008).

Their ready-made tag for everything that goes wrong is "hostile foreign forces" - an enemy that justifies any kind of harsh or unreasoning repression. When repeated endlessly the originally vacuous term "anti-splittism" does take on a kind of solidity. Careers are made in it, and challenging it becomes impossible.

I am a supporter of the Dalai Lama's "middle way" - meaning autonomy for Tibet in all matters except foreign affairs and national defence. This arrangement eventually would have to mean that Tibetan people select their own leaders - and that would be a major change from the way things are now. Tibet is called an "autonomous region", but in fact its officials are all named by Beijing, and are all tightly focused on their own personal interests and the interests of the Communist Party. Tibetans can clearly see the difference between this kind of government and self-rule, and there is no way that they will support bogus autonomy.

It follows - even if this is a tall order - that the ultimate solution to the Tibet problem must be democratisation of the Chinese political system itself. True autonomy cannot come any other way.

It is time for the Chinese government to take stock of why its long-term strategy in Tibet has not worked, and to try something else. The old problems remain, and they are sure to continue, perhaps in places like the "Uighur Autonomous Region" of Xinjiang, if a more sensible approach is not attempted.



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