Moving Past the Wreckage of China's Tibet Policy
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Moving Past the Wreckage of China's Tibet Policy


March 10th, the anniversary of the uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959, has come and gone. While it is not as infamous in the West as the Ides of March, it is a day of great symbolic import in Tibet and has become a focal point for the expression of Tibetan protest against Chinese rule over the region. Yet, unlike in 2008 when widespread unrest enveloped Tibet following the anniversary, this month has seen no dramatic upheavals on the rooftop of the world.

On the surface such an outcome validates Beijing’s three-pronged approach toward managing the Tibet issue. First, it continues to send large-scale subsidies to the region intended to spur economic growth. Second, it oversees a dense network of coercive and surveillance measures designed to stifle any public expression of dissent. Third, it stymies the prospect of serious talks with the charismatic Dalai Lama in favor of waiting for his death. This final tactic appears to be based upon the assumption that China will be in a stronger negotiating position with the Tibetans after he is gone.

Yet, such an approach is counter-productive to China over the long run. Rather than continuing to do the same thing in Tibet, the time is ripe for China’s leaders to consider a dramatic re-orientation of their policies toward the mountainous region. Beijing should give serious consideration to re-starting the long-stalled out process of engaging the Dalai Lama in meaningful dialogue, one that might even result in his return to Tibet. While the odds against such an initiative unfolding are long, Beijing might find such a turn appealing due to the new realities Beijing is confronting both inside Tibet and in the wider international arena. 

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First, internal signs of a popular rejection of Beijing’s right to rule Tibet are still commonplace throughout the region. The most persistent, and harrowing, indication of such Tibetan displeasure with the Chinese is the ongoing wave of self-immolations that have been carried out across the Tibetan highlands. However, rather than acknowledge the sentiments that cause such acts of desperation (now numbering over 100), Beijing has harshly castigated those who have been involved with these symbolic acts of protest as reckless agitators and criminals. At the same time, in concert with its campaign to paint the Dalai Lama as a callous, calculating, politician it has charged those close to the exiled Tibetan leader with explicitly promoting self-immolation.  In so doing, Beijing argues Dharamsala has revealed the extent to which it is willing to sacrifice anything, and anyone, in the pursuit of promoting Tibetan independence.

Neither of these measures has stopped the Tibetans from continuing their fiery protests. Thus, while Chinese control over Tibet remains firm, the legitimacy of such rule is remarkably shallow. China owns the region but has little authority over those who reside there. Such a situation is a drain on Chinese resources, and presents a never-ending challenge to the country’s leaders.

Vilifying the Tibetan leader also poses international problems for Beijing. First, excoriating the Dalai Lama makes China’s leaders appear vindictive and bullying on the world stage. It thus constitutes a prominent stain on China’s international reputation. Second, as he is widely revered within Tibet, Chinese attacks upon the Dalai Lama further biases Tibetan views of the Chinese state. These are both losing propositions for Beijing.

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