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Softening the Intractable: Tibet, China, and Ethical Pressure

The prospects for Tibet entirely depend on how things go in China. China has been very obdurate, emphasizing the reunification of what they view as the motherland, which is really the previous dynastic aggregation of Han Central Chinese with Manchus, Mongols, Muslims in the west, and Tibetans. This is the last part of the Revolution's program not yet repudiated, and the part that speaks to Chinese nationalism, pride, and the regaining of its territorial sovereignty. So China is not in a very charitable mood when it comes to independence movements and even movements towards autonomy. In Chinese leadership circles, these issues just do not play very well.

International protest presents a paradox. On the one hand, it certainly pushes China and reminds it that the world is watching. China needs to gain that kind of consciousness about what it's doing. It can't just do what it wants. It's been isolated for so long, it's gotten into some very refractory habits. On the other hand, it also inflames the situation because it links the Tibetan question up with what the Chinese view as outside interference, further abridgments of its sovereignty. So, at the same time that it helps, it also hinders. It creates a very difficult situation for anyone seeking resolution.

The Tibet/China question has been absolutely intractable, and it will remain intractable until it ceases being intractable; and that moment will come when the leadership in Beijing—when somebody or somebodies—decide that there's mileage in resolving this issue because it's giving China too bad a reputation in the world at large. As I've said earlier, it doesn't play in leadership circles yet because anybody who seems soft on the issue of Tibetan independence or autonomy, anyone in the leadership, risks being accused of being virtually traitorous.

The Dalai Lama has bent over backwards to the point of practically falling over to try to make every concession he can without in effect immolating his own cause. But there's a limit to what one side can do; like a bad marriage, if one partner makes all the concessions, the other very easily becomes accustomed to assuming that resolution is only on the side and in the hands of the other person. Some Tibetans are hopeful that the Dalai Lama's concessions will lead to some sort of reconciliation. Other Tibetans are quite angry. They view their cause of independence as being compromised by any acknowledgments of Chinese sovereignty in exchange for the Dalai Lama returning back home and saving Tibetan culture. So it's a very, very perilous edge that the Dalai Lama has to walk on.

Most Chinese, whether in Tibet or outside Tibet have a rather simple view of things. They are very much victims of their own propaganda: they view Tibet as theirs. It is one of the great tragedies of a press that is not free that they have very little association with the notion of ethnic self-determination or other versions of Sino-Tibetan relations. It's a very complicated subject; the Chinese tend to be rather one-dimensional in their views of Tibet.

Recently there's been a very large, economically based migration of Han Chinese into Tibet. Tibet is in effect now gaining an actual market economy, rather than just a barter economy, and this is almost exclusively being run by Chinese. I think the attitude of most Tibetans is that the Chinese are colonials. Migration has brought some intermarriage, which tends to be difficult. In general, for Tibetans to get ahead, they basically have to learn Chinese and do long stints in China, and in a certain kind of very self-defeating sense, deny their own language, heritage, and ethnic ties.

The Chinese may be waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, and, after that happens, then the exile movement won't really have any figurehead around whom to coalesce. I think the situation will become more violent. The Chinese overlook the enormous potential to avoid violence should the Dalai Lama return to Tibet. It is incipiently quite a violent situation; there is enormous frustration, and should he die, I think there may be some huge upwelling of very frustrated sentiment. It's a kind of typical myopic Chinese view that the best way to manage a situation is to control it, to try to manipulate and stifle it, rather than to creatively use the various forces at hand in an imaginative and positive way.

I am not particularly hopeful, but I'm also mindful that there could come a time—and it will probably come very quickly—when someone in China will decide that it's time to reverse the verdict on the Beijing massacre of 1989, reverse the verdict on the famine that killed thirty million people in the early sixties, reverse the verdict on Tibet, and find some new angle of repose. It's not a difficult problem to solve. It's only difficult to solve from the perspective of Chinese sensitivities over sovereignty, and encroachment and all. The solution will only come when China gets a much more imaginative and independent- minded leader, someone who says, "Listen, this is absurd, China has suffered too much. The slings and arrows of world opinion are unnecessarily against us. There's much to be gained and little to be lost by resolving the Tibet situation in a way satisfactory for everyone." They couldn't have a more reasonable and cooperative partner than the Dalai Lama. I mean, God knows, Tibet's leader could be a Saddam Hussein or someone like that.