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The Problem with Tibet

A New Round of Talks with the Dalai Lama, and U.S. Diplomacy Fails Again
26 January 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

The Dalai Lama’s representatives are beginning a new round of talks with the Chinese government, after a 15-month hiatus. Though this has not been widely reported, the U.S. government is involved in facilitating this round of talks. But despite renewed attention to the Tibetan issue, there is little reason to believe this round of talks is any more likely than before to lead to a breakthrough. Another failure for U.S. diplomacy?

The problem of Tibet, though it appears to be about ethnicity and culture, is at its root an economic and geopolitical issue. Ben Hillman’s “Rethinking China’s Tibet Policy” is an excellent article from a couple years ago that starkly reveals the economic piece of the puzzle: Han Chinese investment in Tibet has benefited Hans far more than Tibetans.

And geopolitically, Tibet is loaded with meaning: it gets to the core of China’s concept of its national strength and the fear of foreign intervention to undermine it; it is an emotional issue in the West, which allows China to  make demands of others in exchange for even the most superficial concessions, such as agreement to meet the Dalai Lama’s representatives; it unifies nearly all of China behind the communist party against “enemies” foreign and domestic; it provides justification for claims on Indian territory and for China’s continued efforts to preoccupy India within its borders; and so on.

Given all this, it is hard to see why the Chinese government would settle with the Tibetan government-in-exile any time soon. The biggest wild card is the Dalai Lama himself, though the Chinese government seems quite willing to wait until he is no longer. The Dalai Lama’s death could provoke a groundswell of new protest and riots within China, but would leave the Tibetan movement fractured and severely weakened. I vividly recall visiting, in April 2008, a major monastery in Western China that had experienced riots and protests a couple weeks earlier. One of the monks who had protested told me, in tears, that his entire world would fall apart upon the death of the Dalai Lama, whom he called the sun of the Tibetan people.

So Chinese leaders have a few options. They could seek a political settlement with the Dalai Lama that gives Tibet limited autonomy. This is very unlikely, particularly since the Chinese media continues to treat the Dalai Lama as a pariah whom the Chinese people should–and do–hate. They could seek to reorient development assistance so that it actually reaches the Tibetans who need it most.

Or they could do nothing: this seems likeliest of all. Xinhua recently ran a headline that China’s recent policies in Tibet have been entirely correct.

The Obama administration may have believed that not seeing the Dalai Lama a couple months ago would spur the Chinese into being more flexible on this issue. Indeed, China may be participating in these talks as a gesture to the United States–as it has done many times before.

But will we see a meaningful change in Chinese policy? Very doubtful.

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  • Tsering said:

    Interesting and informed post, maybe it would have benefitted from some reference to the fact that Tibetans are not facing, torture, bayonetts, bullets and tanks simply to demand improved economic and social conditions, but to resist the injustice and tyranny of what is the illegal occupation of Tibet. Tibetans are struggling for their rightful independence as revealed during the National Uprisings of 2008. More here: http://tibettruth.com/tibets-2008-uprising/

  • Daniel Michaeli (author) said:

    Tsering, though I am not convinced that Tibetans have a chance of gaining independence as long as the Chinese state is intact, I do agree with you on the relevance of national (and, especially, cultural) aspirations to Tibetans. In its effort to secure its position in Tibet, the Chinese government has been incredibly brutal in its treatment of Tibetans and their culture. The stories I heard in China from Tibetans themselves were heart-wrenching.

    Still, I think if Tibetans were given a real stake in Chinese success–if they were profiting at least as much as Han Chinese from economic development in China’s west–that most Tibetans would be quite content with a kind of limited autonomy that gave them special rights within the Chinese state. A practical solution (which has been quite clear for some time) would be something like this description by Christian Le Mière in Foreign Affairs.

  • Tsering said:


    Thank you for your interest and support of our nation and struggle for freedom. While the idea of improved economic circumstances may serve to distract and alleviate the traumatized people of Tibet, what beats most strongly in Tibetan hearts is a desire for national independence. As you know Tibetans have decades of brutal experience of Chinese rule, the harrowing nature of which has burned itself upon the minds of Tibetans. That cannot be erased by social and economic improvements, the bars would be gold-plated and Tibetans remain in China’s prison. Tibetans therefore desire independence, and when looking at the over one hundred nations which regained their independence since World War Two, ask themselves, why should Tibetans settle for anything less?