In western China, the low-grade civil war that has brewed for decades in Tibet has recently expanded. The upcoming 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959, combined with China’s Olympic games this summer, have created an environment that Tibetan separatists believe to be especially conducive to achieving their goals. The emotional power of the date and the chance to act while China is incapable of closing itself off due to the presence of foreign journalists have emboldened activists both within and outside Tibet. As a result, the protests now threaten to erupt into a full-scale rebellion that could create widespread violence across the four provinces with large populations of ethnic Tibetans.

To understand these events and determine the best course of action, however, requires clearing up some misconceptions about the protesters and the Chinese government. The media often present these protests as based in religion. Monks and their supporters thus battle against the Red Army, with the main goal of the Communists being the destruction of the Tibetan religious tradition. But the targets of violent protest by the Tibetans have been businesses owned and operated by Han Chinese, who traveled west looking for opportunities after the construction of new railroads and factories to modernize Tibet. The targets, by and large, have not been government offices or army posts. That the ire of the protesters is focused on economic symbols rather than political ones suggests that the anger of the people is not aroused directly by the government, but rather as a result of policies perceived to benefit the Han minority at the expense of the Tibetan majority.

The ability of the average ethnic Tibetan to provide for his or her family is hampered by the same inflation and difficulties procuring services that plague the rest of China. However, their attempts to do so are further exacerbated by the economic and social discrimination they suffer as a result of government industrialization policies. Beijing’s policy of bringing in settlers from the east to run the new machinery, most of them ethnically Han Chinese, makes it increasingly difficult for Tibetans to pursue their traditional lifestyles.

Another complication is the divide within the Tibetan movement between the older Tibetan faction, led by the Dalai Lama, and the younger generation that heads up several secular movements to free Tibet. The older faction seeks more and better-protected autonomy for a Tibet that remains a part of the People’s Republic. This group is also strongly committed to nonviolence. The younger faction, on the other hand, is much more secular-minded, despite paying respect to the Dalai Lama as the symbolic head of the Tibetan state and people. They also tend to believe that the only true solution for Tibet’s problems is complete independence and that violent action is a legitimate tactic to gain this independence.

Under this system, the lamas serve as rallying points for a unified Tibetan movement. But this state of affairs is able to continue largely because the religious leaders do not challenge the secular ones. In an environment in which so much of the protest seems to be driven by the tactics of the secular leadership, which subvert the ideals of the religious, the religious leadership may not be able to stop the protests simply because they are the titular heads of the opposition.

Beijing’s Position

On the Chinese side of the equation, Beijing derives tremendous value from the existence of Tibetan Buddhism. The infusion of tourist dollars would quickly end if the temples were destroyed. For this reason, Beijing has been pouring money into the renovation of temples and religious sites. This fact suggests that Beijing’s continued harsh actions are guided by motivations that are not based on anti-religious impulses.

In this confused environment, it is easy to see the entire situation as simply another example of Chinese human rights abuses that require the same harsh response from the rest of the world that any other abuse would warrant. This view is reflected in the comments of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who strongly condemned the actions of the Chinese government, stating in a press release: “We know from the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights that the human rights situation in China and Tibet continues to worsen and the repression of religious freedom has increased.” A week later, during a meeting with the Dalai Lama, Pelosi went on to comment “if freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China’s oppression and China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world.”

Pelosi’s comments, however, fail to acknowledge earlier U.S. involvement in Tibet. In the early 1950s, the CIA took steps to train and equip Tibetan farmers to battle the Red Army and maintain internal pressure. Heightening discord where before there had merely been disagreement, the CIA helped to produce a situation guaranteed to bring about a harsh reaction from the Chinese government. After the uprising in 1959, the CIA continued to support the Tibetan insurgents, even providing the Dalai Lama with funding and easy access to the United States. This state of affairs continued at least until 1973, when relations with the People’s Republic were reinstated.

Washington’s Next Moves

This is no excuse for the current actions of the Chinese. However the historical situation does not really give the West and the United States in particular the ability to speak with moral authority on the subject of Tibet. Instead of lecturing the Chinese, the United States should first acknowledge that the Chinese have sovereign right to Tibet, a fact that the Dalai Lama no longer disputes. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently did an excellent job of supporting the Tibetan people while acknowledging that the Chinese do possess a valid claim to Tibet and the right to have a say in its future. The United States should then quietly encourage the Chinese to deal with the Dalai Lama now, rather than attempting to wait him out. The Chinese hope that if they wait for him to die or to be forced from the world stage, the Tibetan people will lose someone who can unite the various political factions and rally international support. Attempts at diplomacy should point out the fact that the loss of the Dalai Lama would lead to a much younger crop of leaders taking control, leaders who would prove even more difficult to deal with and who would likely make Beijing’s life even more difficult.

At the same time, the United States should encourage the Dalai Lama to resolve the divisions that exist within his movement. Unless the younger Tibetans can be encouraged to accept less than total independence, any peace agreement will be doomed to failure. He must address these issues, and if he cannot resolve them then he must step aside and allow a more representative body to carry out the negotiations.

While pushing the Chinese and Tibetans to compromise, the United States should refrain from encouraging anything that might encourage the situation to spiral out of control. For instance, the proposed boycott of the Olympics would only strengthen the idea among the Chinese that they are being picked on by western powers still intent on controlling Chinese affairs. The Chinese and Tibetans must be encouraged to find a way for both parties to live together peacefully and with respect for both parties’ culture and interests, both for the sake of future coexistence within China and for the example that such an agreement would set for other areas facing separatist movements.

Ross Gearllach is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and an analyst at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

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