Seven Questions: What Tibetans Want

The most vigorous Tibetan protests in decades have been crushed by Chinese soldiers and police. Tibet expert Robert Barnett explains why the most significant action is taking place outside Lhasa and what we can expect the Chinese to do next.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images View ForeignPolicy.coms recent photo essay, Rebellion in Tibet.

Foreign Policy: What does the average Tibetan want? Is it independence, or a greater share of Tibets modernization and economic growth, which has been dominated by Han Chinese?

Robert Barnett: Not really either of those things. We have to be very careful not to confuse exile politics, which is a demand for anti-China this and anti-China that, with internal politics, which is much more pragmatic, complex, and sophisticated.

A very important sector of Tibetans have become very wealthy because China has poured money into creating a middle class in Tibetan towns, though there hasnt really been a dividend for the countryside and the underclass. So, we cant explain this as just economic modernization. We could explain the violence against the [Han] Chinese in that way. It could have to do with that. But the violence is present in just one demonstration out of 50 in the past two weeks.

These protests are really about two things: A huge sector of the rural population has said, Tibet was independent in the past. We reassert that belief. That doesnt mean we demand that it be independent again, but we are reinserting that into the discussion. And, The Dalai Lama represents our interests. I suppose a possible third thing is, We are certainly not happy with Chinese President Hu Jintao. This is a huge political statement that nobody anticipated.

FP: Were primarily seeing photos of protests in Lhasa and the protests abroad. But you suggest the real significance is the groundswell of protests in the countryside?

RB: Its not a groundswell; its a tidal wave. Its the biggest thing to happen in Tibetan history for 40 years. In Lhasa, you get a protest as we [normally] recognize one. But thats not really significant for China except in a PR way. They deal with those things with security operations; they crack down and put people away. This has nothing to do with the significance of whats happening. The most significant of the 50 protests are the rural peasants taking over the countryside. These are people who get on horseback or march down to the local government office or police post, burn it to the ground, and raise the Tibetan flag. You can be shot on sight for having a Tibetan flag in Tibet in a non-Olympics year. Nothing like this has been seen in Tibet for decades, and it has untold political significance for China.

FP: Will the protests just fade away, or will they grow and spread?

RB: Theyll definitely fade away because the [Chinese] force level is just so high, and anyway [the Tibetans] point has been made. We [in the West] think that people do politics by saying, Im going to stage this protest in order to get X. But nobody gets X in China. It just doesnt work like that. Youre dealing with one of the biggest power systems in the world. Instead, burn a government building, put a flag up, and then youve achieved this huge victory because China has created a symbolic form of politics in which everyone is supposed to have forgotten that they were independent once. So, just by doing that, you have completely changed the political equation.

FP: Is there any kind of generation gap in the exile community wherein older exiles are more dovish and the younger exiles want to confront China?

RB: There is certainly a growing group, generally young and English- or Hindi-speaking, who are very strongly animated by the idea that diplomacy doesnt workand will never workin China, and instead you must go for independence. In this case, independence stands for a criticism that China cant be trusted and an implication that a spiritual figure like the Dalai Lama cant be tough enough. But its quite complicated. These people feel they are adding muscle because they are doing what he cant as a monk and spiritual figure. But even they do not generally question his standing, and they certainly see him as the solution. Inside Tibet, nobody is questioning his standing or his potential to be key to the solution. If George Bush had 1 percent of the support this man has, George Bush would be a happy man. You cannot beat him for polling figures.

FP: Is there any chance that the Chinese recognize that mandate and sit down with the Dalai Lama in the near future?

RB: It certainly is a possibility. But this is the problem: The Dalai Lamas mandate and most of what hes been saying is now visibly reinforced many times over by these events. It gets more difficult for the Chinese to sit down at the table with him. Hu Jintao could talk to the Dalai Lama, and he would get enormous dividends internationally in the short term if he did. But hes thinking about what might come back and bite him. The Chinese understand history. Theyre not unreasonable in recognizing that nationalism is no longer a tameable force. You cant assume that your own political mandate will never be challenged, so you have to constantly go back to the people and say, Were listening to your grievances.

FP: Will India find it harder to tolerate the Tibetan government in exile?

RB: India is clearly moving in the direction of distancing itself from the exiles. Some people think its preparing for the death of the Dalai Lama, and then it will distance itself even more. There were indications of a sea change after the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal in America last October. The Indians issued an order, presumably under pressure from China, that their cabinet ministers were not allowed to meet him or receive him upon his return. This was seen as very unusual. I dont want to suggest some major realignment, but the indications are very much that India is maintaining ambiguity but showing that it largely wants to engage with China. That said, it hasnt taken any irreversible steps yet in terms of the Tibetans.

FP: What is absent from press coverage of Tibet that you think people need to keep in mind?

RB: We have to put aside these questions that fascinate some people, such as, Is the Dalai Lama losing his power? Thats the opposite of the issue here. The exile complaints are not about power. And we have to put aside suggestions that the protests in Tibet are because people are unhappy about economic loss. That really is reductive. And I think we have to get over any suggestion that the Chinese are ill-intentioned or trying to wipe out Tibet. Its obviously horrible that people are being savagely beaten up and killed. But crucially, this is a historic change in the profile of Tibetan politics. Were looking at something much larger than any immediate anxiety about Olympics, or whether somebody planned one of these things, or whether people are upset about economic disadvantage. Historians are going to tell us that we missed the big picture if we didnt notice that this is the big story here. All the party cadres are going to be sent to the countryside areas to listen to the Tibetans complaints and find out what has gone so wrong with the policy machine in China.

Robert Barnett is director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University and author most recently of Lhasa: Streets with Memories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

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