Features | Politics | East Asia

Moving Past the Wreckage of China’s Tibet Policy

Beijing should give consideration to re-starting a process of engaging the Dalai Lama in dialogue, one that might even result in his return to Tibet.

By Allen Carlson for

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. 

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.

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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.

Refusing to talk with the Tibetan leader underscores both of these trends. China’s leaders have calculated that if they can outlast the current Dalai Lama the Tibet issue will fade from international consciousness. They believe this will give them a freer hand to bring the region into line with their vision of Tibet as a fully integrated part of China. However, offsetting such a prospect is the likelihood that after the Tibetan leader’s demise the Tibetan diaspora will splinter into various competing groups and factions, and, possibly gravitate toward more militant methods and uncompromising positions. Within Tibet there would be no individual who could sell a policy of compromise to a disillusioned population. Such trends would introduce a new degree of uncertainty and turbulence into the Sino-Tibetan relationship and make the likelihood of stabilizing the situation in Tibet even more remote than it is now.

To remain mired in such an intractable quagmire is then inconsistent with China’s self-image as a rising great power. Clearly, those in Beijing have begun to envision what the world might look like should Chinese power and influence continue to grow. They contend that China will become a more magnanimous and benevolent type of international actor than previous rising powers have been. Yet, Chinese leaders undercut their grand narrative of a peaceful rise when they chastise an individual who much of the world sees as a simple Tibetan monk.

To lend substance to the contention that China is indeed a new type of great power, Beijing could utilize a softer approach to the Tibet issue simply through reaching out to the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan leader’s recent formal retirement from all positions of political authority, while complicating the logistics of any dialogue, also gives the Chinese a pretext for taking such a move as they would now be meeting with an individual rather than the leader of an exile government whose legitimacy they do not recognize. In so doing they could in a single stroke do a great deal to enhance their international reputation and consolidate their authority over the region.

There are many obstacles to such a bold initiative. China’s leaders are risk averse. They are constrained by nationalist sentiment and think they are in a strategically superior position from which there is no pressing need to act. The Tibetans cling to the positive image they have gained in the international arena, which gives them an inflated sense of the extent to which they can pressure Beijing to make significant concessions on a wide range of issues. Both sides should be more realistic about what they have become, and what can be accomplished. Beijing is on the cusp of great power status. Tibet is a small, remote area, with a tiny population, and an engaging, internationally beloved, but aging leader.

The current situation in Tibet is untenable; all sides in the conflict should be encouraged to take stock of the wreckage that is China's Tibet policy in the wake of the 2008 demonstrations, and the ongoing wave of self-immolations. A great power and a compassionate spiritual leader should find a way to get past the current impasse, and move, even in the most modest of ways, toward talking of talks while the opportunity, and challenge of working with the Dalai Lama still exists.

The Tibetan government in exile would be well advised to respond in a positive fashion to any such overture, while Washington should also promote such a process as it would remove a major irritant within Sino-U.S. relations, allowing the White House to proclaim a breakthrough in the Tibet issue that seemed impossible just a few years ago. All involved are likely to find the world to be a much more complicated and potentially volatile place once the Dalai Lama is no longer with us.

Allen Carlson is an Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Government Department.