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Tibet: a Tibetan-Chinese View
2011/11/16
Rigzig Losel, born in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, is a researcher of Tibetan history, culture and current affairs. He served as a consul at the Chinese Consulate-General in New York from 2002 to 2010. He is currently the head of the Institute of Current Affairs of China Tibetology Research Center.
 
From 13 to 17 November, Rigzig Losel and two other Tibetologists, Luorong Zhandui and Bianba Lamu, pay a visit to Helsinki.
 
The latest issue (10-16 November 2011) of Helsinki Times, the sole English Newspaper in the Nordic area, publishes Mr. Rigzin Losel's viewpoints on Tibet:
 

Regrettably, seldom are the views of educated and non-monastic Tibetans in China heard outside China. As they joined the rest of China in political and economic development since 1959, more and more Tibetans have become educated, modern and middle class. They are the majority of Tibetans whose voices should matter. Yet their intellect, integrity and independence are questioned by their exiled counterpart if they simply agree with Beijing's view of Tibet or its policies in Tibetan regions. The exiles' monopoly of Tibetan discourse outside China has helped to magnify the voices of a few disgruntled Tibetans in China and the remnants of the former theocracy overseas, giving the outside world a distorted view of Tibetan or Chinese realities.

 

Contrary to the Dalai' pan-Tibetan claims, Tibetans are regionally, culturally and linguistically diverse, as well as religiously divided. What the Dalai defines as "Greater Tibet" encompasses areas in four provinces beyond the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and is a concept not identified or experienced by Tibetans in China. Inhabited by numerous ethnic groups, these areas have not been ruled by Lhasa since the 9th century, when the Tubo Kingdom collapsed. Tibetans in these regions share local Chinese dialects with their ethnic counterparts, while also speaking Tibetan dialects distinct to their local ethnic peers.

 

The Dalai's clinging to the idea of Greater Tibet is understandable given the birthplace of himself and his chief lieutenants. But the demand to remap a millennium of historical formation, even if only on cultural grounds as he calls for, is as unrealistic as it is unreasonable. The Dalai himself, born in a hamlet in Qinghai Province, was released to assume his current title only after China paid a large sum of compensation to the local Muslim warlord in the 1930s. In fact, since the Mongol Prince Altan Khan's accord with the Tibetan theocracy in the 16th century, successive Dalai Lamas were officiated by the central Chinese government. So-called Tibetan "self-rule" of Greater Tibet would be unfair to the long-term non-Tibetan residents in the regions, and likely create enduring ethnic and religious tensions.

 

The resurging religious forces, nonetheless, have failed to counter the appeal of modernizing forces in Tibetan regions. Tibetan families who can do so send their kids to secular public schools rather than monasteries. Young people prefer to find jobs in the modern sector. Not only do new recruits but donations decline for the monasteries. All this causes resentment among the monastic class. To the extent that the monastery is no longer the sole avenue to education and socioeconomic status, the proliferation of life paths for today's Tibetans speak most eloquently about the diversity of Tibetan interests and choices across and beyond the Tibetan plateau.

 

The Dalai's claim to representing "6-million Tibetans," in short, is misleading and self-serving. His sympathizers among the clergy and the Gelugpa followers are no indication of widespread support among Tibetans in China, nor a Tibetan identity symbolized by such support.

 

The inflow of migrants is also far more complex a story than one of Han migrants displacing local Tibetans. Often it is those Tibetans who have secured land, government contracts, or bank loans - in part from state policy benefits - that choose to employ migrant workers from other provinces. Those Tibetans make economically rational decisions, not ethnically driven ones. But preferential policies have had paradoxical effects, as they help enhance a sense of entitlement based on ethnicity, while also channeling grievances towards the state when things do not go well. A growing Tibetan class that lives off land ownership and preferential policies also set negative examples for some other Tibetans, who may look up to the lifestyle of the local upper strata, yet vent anger at easy ethnic targets when incited.  

 

It is the emigration of those dedicated teachers and professionals - since the end of the Mao era - that has created many of the problems facing Tibetans today in remote and poor regions. As long-term and experienced talent moved out, schools have deteriorated, medical care lapsed, and the quality of public service suffered. Job mobility and the market economy have also made it easy for minority talent to depart for more attractive locales beyond the plateau. In counties where even villages had college-educated doctors during the Mao era, few college-educated individuals may be found in some recent years, to the great detriment of local residents' interests and welfare. The trend has reversed lately, as economic improvements have lured professional talent back to the remote mountain regions.

 

Historically, Tibet thrived when it was open and tolerant of outside ideas and influences, including the embrace of Buddhism itself. Now is especially not the time for Tibetans to feel insecure and exclusionist, when the free-market competition of ideas and skills has prevailed across China. New migrants may have initial advantages in some job skills and economic sectors, but they help elevate local Tibetans by setting positive examples and forcing them to acquire the necessary skills to compete. Complaints, protective policies and street riots are unconstructive and will only leave poor Tibetans further behind.

 

Migration is also a two-way phenomenon. Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province situated in the plains off the Tibetan plateau, has drawn nearly 200,000 Tibetans to the city proper and its surrounding counties in recent years. Wealthy Tibetans and retirees have bought apartments; middle-class families have sent their children here for schooling; young Tibetans have come for economic opportunities, and bustling Tibet-towns have sprung up. Such out-migration raises legitimate concerns about a brain drain but has also provided a healthy medium for cultural exchange and understanding among ethnic groups.

 

The Dalai's self-proclaimed "Middle Way" has won his cause much sympathy and support in the West. The avowed pacifism and renunciation of independence lend him a strong aura of reason, in contrast to the seeming intransigence of Beijing. Yet three facts undermine the sanctity of his Middle Way: the elusiveness of the concept, the existence of his government-in-exile, and the latter's official constitution that stipulates the goal of independence.

 

In the mid-1970s, the Dalai and his fellow exiles debated extensively on whether to adopt the "Arafat way" of a violent path to irredentism or the "Khomeini way" of a theocratic path. With much fanfare they decided on the "Khomeini way." It was in this context that the Dalai used an elusive Tibetan term to convey his chosen approach, which came to be translated as the Middle Way. The original Tibetan term, however, does not exactly mean the middle way, but "even-handedness from one's standpoint." The rendering of this phase as the Middle Way neglects the subjective voice in the original language: as one's standpoint changes, the meaning of "even-handedness" can shift accordingly.

 

Thus, though the Dalai says that he has been consistent in his post-1959 stand - ''We don't want complete independence. Beijing can manage the economy and foreign policy, but genuine Tibetan self-rule is the best way to preserve our culture" - all this has not prevented him from running a government-in-exile, accommodating an independent Tibet movement and the violent Tibetan Youth Congress, sponsoring a great deal of hostile propaganda material, and soliciting and accepting any kind of external help to destabilize Tibetan regions. The official constitution of his government-in-exile, in particular, stipulates independence as its political goal. It would seem disingenuous for the Dalai to disassociate himself from such stipulation, since he has been both the spiritual leader of the exile community and the president of his government-in-exile. The combined role here indeed makes him a present-day theocrat, and renders realistic the worry of both Beijing and secular Tibetans about the restoration of theocracy should the exiles return.   

 

Nor does the Middle Way square with the Dalai Lama's long-term performance on the international stage. From acceptance of foreign assistance for sabotage operations, to collaboration with Beijing's international enemies, from anti-Beijing lobbying in foreign capitals, to the disruption of the Olympics torch rallies, Beijing has come to see the Dalai group as demonstrably insincere and its actual demands as tantamount to independence, semi-independence or independence in disguise. It is in this context that Beijing has repeatedly stated that the Dalai should be judged not by his words but by his action. The Dalai has frequently blamed the more radical activities and voices among the exiles on grass-roots forces beyond his control. But this mere recognition lays bare yet another myth: if the Dalai cannot unite his fellow exiles, who number less than a hundred thousand, how can he speak for millions of whom he has had no direct knowledge for decades?

 

Beijing's approach to the Dalai and his fellow exiles have been consistent throughout the decades: first, keeping open the channels of talks with the Dalai; second, treating such talks as discussions between Beijing and the Dalai, rather than between Beijing and his government-in-exile; and third, focusing such talks on the return of the Dalai to China. In addition, Beijing welcomes the return of other Tibetan exiles and has resettled thousands of returnees. Given the long-standing consistence of Beijing's stand and its known resistance to outside pressure on sovereignty issues, it is unrealistic to expect abrupt policy changes.

 

On the Dalai's side, however, inconsistencies have been the rule. Demands were ratcheted up whenever international contexts seemed favorable. Gaps between his words and actions have been frequent. Rare historical opportunities were squandered, to the bafflement of even his sympathizers. Such inconsistencies may reflect disagreements among his exile community, as well as his own illusions and unrealistic judgment. Whatever the source, the impact has been to create perceptions of insincerity and untrustworthiness in the eyes of Beijing. Without a consistent stand, and a basic trust entailed by such, it is little wonder that rounds of talks have resulted in little progress.

 

A new realism is thus called for on the part of the exiles. This realism should be based on sound and factual information about Tibetan attitudes and affairs in China, rather than ad hoc and partial accounts from émigrés or dissidents. It should be based on taking genuine account of the welfare and interests of the great majority of Tibetan Chinese. Finally it should be based on the genuine Buddhist spirit of compassion and tolerance, rather than continued incitation of ethnic discord. It is the judgment of this writer – based on my personal experience of local governance in Tibetan regions, of Tibetan learning at a local monastery, and of research on Tibetan history and society - that the Dalai's idea of a Greater Tibet fails the test of the foregoing criteria for new realism. It is up to him and his fellow exiles to decide whether to embrace, or to continue to reject a new realistic approach based on unmistaken realities, sound judgment, and political wisdom.

 

Without the far sight of such a new approach, substantive progress is unlikely despite resumed talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. Radicalization of exiles will help halt, not hasten, progress.

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