- Thomas Merton
In March 2008 Tibet, known for its deeply religious and peaceful Buddhist people, broke out in widespread protests all over the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as well as in the ethnically Tibetan areas of neighboring provinces. Some of these protests were peaceful, but others turned into riots and violence — including the burning and looting of stores owned by Han Chinese, China's majority ethnic group. "When violent rioting broke out in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 14, 2008, after four days of peaceful protests, businesses owned by Chinese were looted and burned. At least 19 people were killed, most of them Han Chinese." The Chinese government's response to the protests and riots throughout Tibet was swift and extreme. By some estimates, the March protests culminated in the deaths of over 100 "unarmed" Tibetans — many of them Buddhist monks.
Attempting to understand the mass Tibetan anger, this paper will begin by recounting a few of the recent events of Tibetan and Chinese history. In 1950, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), winners of the 1949 Chinese Civil War, launched an invasion of Tibet. From Tibet's perspective, this invasion interrupted centuries of independent nationhood. The Chinese, meanwhile, believed they were simply reestablishing control of part of their sovereign territory, which had been wrested from them during the past century of foreign imperialism and precipitating civil war. Later, a 1959 Tibetan uprising — partly nonviolent, partly violent, and largely inspired and led by the CIA, was violently squashed by the Chinese. Following these events, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for northern India. The Dalai Lama, who has as of yet never returned to Tibet, and the Tibetan Government in Exile have been based there in Dharamsala, India for the past half-century. The CCP created the TAR in 1965, nominally establishing Tibet's regional autonomy; however, in practice Tibetans enjoy minimal or zero autonomy, as Tibet's politics, economics, and increasingly its culture are controlled by Beijing.
With this context in mind, this paper will investigate the causes of violent conflict in Tibet, and it will provide some recommended solutions that could potentially lead to a more peaceful and just arrangement in the region.
The China-Tibet conflict is often viewed as an ethnic and/or religious conflict. This is understandable, given the prominence of ethnicity and religion in the conflict. First, while the native inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau are Tibetans, the majority ethnic group in China is Han Chinese. The Chinese government is made up mostly of Han Chinese, and it does not have a strong record of dealing with China's ethnic minorities — like Tibetans — in a fair way. Secondly, virtually all Tibetans are Buddhists, while ethnic Han Chinese are generally not, even though the Chinese people are becoming increasingly religious — including Buddhist — now that the ideology of Communism has collapsed in China (except in name only). Moreover, the Chinese government has a history of persecuting religious movements, especially those which draw large numbers of followers and which have the potential to transform into political movements that could potentially threaten the regime's hold on power. Tibetan Buddhism has this kind of following and transformative potential. For these reasons, headlines from the Tibet conflict often paint a picture of intense religious and ethnic conflict. While these are aspects of the conflict, they are better described as residual causes, or even consequences, of it.
There is no inherent reason that ethnicity or religion must cause violent conflict — in Tibet or anywhere else. Rather, the primary sources of conflict in Tibet are history and geography; Chinese security and sovereignty concerns; and the policies of the Chinese government in Tibet. While they bring attention to ethnic and religious differences between Tibetans and Chinese, these factors are what really drive the conflict in Tibet.
First, history and the different views on whether Tibet has historically been an independent nation represent a core cause of the conflict. In the Tibetan view, Tibet has been an independent nation — and at times a great empire — throughout the last several centuries. In this view, Mongolian rule over Tibet ended with Tibet reestablishing independence, and its relationship with China thereafter was not one of subservience. Tibet remained independent up until the Chinese invasion in 1950, which is therefore illegal.
On the other hand, the Chinese believe that Tibet's historically great empire greatly declined beginning in the 9th Century and then was finally and completely brought down by the Mongols centuries ago. Tibet then came under Chinese "suzerainty" in the 18th Century, and it remained under Chinese administration until the late 19th Century when Great Britain invaded Tibet, wanting to control Tibet as a buffer between China and British India. Moreover, China contends that Britain created the fantasy of an "independent Tibet", for this purpose of creating a buffer between China and British India. China then reclaimed Tibet when Britain came preoccupied with a rising Germany, and effectively gave Tibet back to China via a 1907 treaty. China was finally able to reestablish control over Tibet when it emerged from foreign imperialism and civil war in the middle of the 20th Century.
These competing claims are still debated in academic and policy making circles. However, Dickinson states that "Tibetans, by virtue of their lack of participation in the larger community during the first half of the twentieth century, by their failure to participate in international organizations such as the League of Nations, and by their failure to modernize, have been unable to mount a convincing case to establish that Tibet was an independent state at the time of the 1950 Chinese occupation." In fact, neither the United States nor any other major country recognizes Tibet as independent; they all recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. "As a result, China has been able to maintain its occupation and assert that Tibet was historically part of its territory, relying on other states not to interfere in its domestic affairs on a basis of territorial integrity."
Chinese concerns over its security and sovereignty represent another core cause of the conflict in Tibet. The Chinese see themselves as victims of foreign imperialism — especially during the century of humiliation, which remains fresh in their minds — and therefore feel that they must take (what others see as) a hard-line stance on sovereignty issues in places like Tibet. After all, if Tibet became independent, it could inspire similar succession movements in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan. These areas not only make up significant border territories as well as buffers against foreign influence but also are central to the Chinese sense of identity — which had been devastated in the last two centuries, given the China's once proud, imperial past. Moreover, China views the Dalai Lama, perhaps unfairly, as a "splittist" that could spark "Color Revolutions" throughout China.
U.S. policies have thus far not helped the situation. The CIA's 1950s and 1960s involvement in Tibet as well as the George W. Bush administration's belligerent anti-China policy (especially early in President Bush's tenure) have reinforced China's sovereignty fears. Moreover, recent U.S. policies have not only failed to moderate Chinese policy but have also inspired Tibetan exiles to keep lobbying for independence. Because of this, U.S. action on Tibet has tended to exacerbate China's fears that the United States is trying to destabilize China. This reality weakens the position of those Chinese willing to work with Tibetans, strengthens the hard-liners, and does nothing to actually help the Tibetan cause.
Another principal cause of the Tibet conflict has been Chinese governance — and the precipitating "Sinicization" — of the region. While the Chinese government claims that it has successfully raised the standard of living in Tibet, many Tibetans — both inside and outside Tibet — believe that the Chinese government's "modernization" policies have hurt the region.
China claims that the $45.4 billion it has spent in the TAR has helped make the region's 2003 GDP 28-times greater than its 1978 GDP. According to Newsweek, for the last four years, there has been a 13% per-capita GDP increase per year in rural Tibet, where 80-90% of the TAR's three million people live. As is the case for the rest of China, the CCP believes that a lack of political freedom is a small price to pay for this kind of economic growth.
The source of Tibetan frustration largely stems from the fact that while Tibet's standard of living has improved, most of the benefits have gone to the ethnic Han Chinese who have immigrated into Tibet. Moreover, Han immigration — encouraged by the Chinese government through tax incentives — is also, according to Tibetans, undermining Tibet's political, religious, and cultural freedom. Though the CCP disputes this charge, Tibetan exiles claim that 60% of Lhasa is now ethnic Han.
In fact, a recent study by a Chinese group called the "Open Constitution Initiative" concluded that the 2008 riots in Tibet were inspired by "legitimate grievances", as Tibetans are feeling increasingly "disenfranchised" in their own land. Supporting this claim, one scholar noted that many of the 2008 rioters were unemployed youth. Ethnic Han in Tibet have a "monopoly" on jobs; it is difficult to find a job if you are a Tibetan. Furthermore, only 300 of the 13,000 shops and restaurants in Lhasa are owned by Tibetans. To make matters worse, the ethnic Han generally send their incomes back home, so Tibet does not receive much of the benefit. Accordingly, a 2002 study found that while 15% of Tibetans benefit from the Chinese government economic programs, 85% live in abject poverty.
Tibetans are also angered by the Chinese government's intrusions on the political and cultural freedoms of their supposedly autonomous region. Despite Tibet officially having a "governor", real power resides with the Communist Party Secretary, who is Han Chinese. Also, there is a serious problem with local government accountability as CCP officials do a poor job reconciling the Chinese political system and Tibetan culture. Because of this, the Tibetan way of life in terms of its religion, agriculture, and wildlife is at risk. The CCP imposes certain restriction on religious freedom, such as the number of monks allowed at a given monastery. The Chinese government's preferred methods of farming have reaped poor harvests and subsequently led to hunger, and according to some, famine. Finally, Tibet's unique wildlife is being threatened by poaching and hunting.
These issues make up the roots of the tension between Tibetans and Chinese. To help resolve violent conflict in Tibet, possible solutions — which will be discussed later — must be implemented by the following actors.
The primary parties in the Tibet conflict are the Chinese and the Tibetans. The Chinese side includes ethnic Han — the majority ethnic group in China — living in Tibet and the Chinese government. The Tibetans can be further divided into those living in the TAR as well as its neighboring provinces versus Tibetan exiles living in northern India, or elsewhere in the world.
Tibetans — both inside and outside China — can be further divided into those that want to remain part of China, but with increased autonomy, and those who believe Tibet should be an independent country. Some of those who want independence advocate nonviolent means; others promote the use of violence in the cause of Tibetan freedom from Chinese rule.
No third parties have played a consistent and active role in mediating the conflict. The United States acted as an interested second party during the 1950s and 1960s, when the CIA was trying to destabilize a newly Communist China. However, it later lost interest in playing a concerted role, and the rest of the international community has been unable to put together a cohesive policy. However, third parties will be discussed later in the paper as an essential part of any solution to the violent conflict in Tibet.
Here is one vision of a possible future Tibet. Tibet would be more autonomous, but still remain part of China and under its sovereignty. However, Tibet would have more political self-determination. Economic development would continue, but in a way that genuinely benefits Tibetans, rather than only Tibet's Han Chinese immigrants. Moreover, these and other steps would help keep Tibetan culture intact. Gradually, this kind of self-determination and improved governance would be extended to the ethnically Tibetan areas of neighboring provinces. Finally, through a long term, incremental process, China — and therefore eventually Tibet — would one day become a liberal democracy.
The following are some of the actions that various parties to the conflict can take to bring about a just resolution, like that envisioned above.
As always in a violent conflict, one of the first steps should be to bring about reconciliation — in this case between Tibetans and Chinese. Of course, this is easier said than done. According to Lederach, relationships among members of society must be rebuilt in ways that address the conflict's emotional and psychological issues. Moreover, he says this process should lead, not just to the end of conflict and negative emotions, but the building of something new and positive. This process needs to take place at all three levels of society — the elite, the middle, and the grassroots levels.
The middle level — which Lederach calls the most important level because it can connect the other two levels — can play a key role in Tibet. One example of this might be bringing Han businessman together with Tibet's Buddhist leaders, which could help alleviate one of the main sources of tension. Tibet's religious leaders feel like their religion and culture are being undermined by certain business practices. Meanwhile, many Han business owners may simply want to earn a living to support their families and/or to help the Tibetans develop their society. Through relationship building, the two sides may be able to find common ground and reconcile their differences.
Also, the grassroots level would be crucial in Tibet, given that ordinary Tibetans and Chinese are divided largely by a lack of understanding of the other side's perspective. While Tibetans feel disenfranchised in their own land, most Han Chinese are bewildered by the Tibetans lack of "gratitude" for what they perceive to be a sincere and effective effort by their government to raise the standard of living of Tibetans.
Nevertheless, while action must be taken at all three levels simultaneously, the nature of the Tibet conflict calls for a solution focused more at the elite level. This is partially because of the potentially transformative role of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama would be central to any peace building process in Tibet. This is because he may be only actor who can simultaneously reassure and moderate hard-liners both in the Chinese government and in Tibet's exile community.
Despite the Dalai Lama's admiration around the world, the Chinese government does not trust him largely because of his connections to the extremely pro-independence elements of the Chinese Diaspora and its Western allies. They believe his "Middle Way" approach ("autonomy" without independence) to ameliorating the conflict is a guise for eventual independence in not only the TAR but also in "Greater Tibet" (those ethnically Tibetan areas of neighboring provinces), which combined represent one-fourth of China's territory. In order to gain the trust of China, the Dalai Lama may need to distance himself from the more extreme, pro-independence elements.
This would not represent an abdication of his mission to stand up for the rights of the Tibetan people. This is because most Tibetans actually living inside Tibet are more interested in better governance and more freedom than they are in undertaking risky endeavors for outright independence. As evidence that the Dalai Lama could convince Tibetans to choose to remain under Chinese sovereignty, Thurman points out that when the Dalai Lama said it was inhumane to kill animals for their fur, tens of thousands of Tibetans voluntarily discarded very valuable furs.
When the Chinese government sees the Dalai Lama making efforts to moderate the views of Tibetans on the issue of independence, it will likely be more receptive to the idea of negotiations on issues such as governance reforms in Tibet. Nevertheless, it may be difficult for either side to take the initial steps necessary to move the process forward. For this reason, third party mediators have a crucial role to play in the Tibet conflict.
Ideally, third party intervention should be as internationalized as possible. This is especially true in a case like this, where China has serious reservations — for historical reasons — about U.S. intentions in the region. However, the UN is handicapped by China's ability to veto resolutions. Meanwhile, the West in general has been unable to generate a consensus on how to deal with China on the Tibet issue. Therefore, the United States will need to play a strong role in bringing the two sides to the table. The initial steps could be taken by second-tier actors, which would set the stage for later participation by the U.S. and Chinese governments and the Dalai Lama.
Some question the notion, regardless of who takes the lead in mediating the conflict, that China would ever consider changing its behavior in Tibet. However, China has good reason to negotiate a settlement with the Tibetans. First, China recognizes how much it benefits from its participation in the international economy. Moreover, China's efforts to defend its human rights record — via white papers that adopt the language of the global human rights community — from global criticism show that it is not only concerned about its image but also responsive to international norms. Secondly, the Chinese government is beginning to realize, according to Newsweek, that its policies in Tibet — whether they have generated economic growth or not — have failed to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people. The CCP leadership may even be coming to the realization that its hard-line policies in Tibet are making China less secure both internally and externally by creating fear and anger among Tibetans and others around the world.
Through enlightened diplomacy, the United States must reinforce China's beliefs on these matters. The United States should emphasize to China how it can take a major step toward becoming a responsible global power — with all the benefits that entails — merely by adopting policies in Tibet that are in its own best interests anyway.
In summary, if the Dalai Lama is able to moderate the more extremist goals and activities of the Tibetan exile community, he may be able to gain the trust of the Chinese government. Moreover, through effective diplomacy, the United States may be able to push China the rest of the way to the negotiating table. Once this is accomplished, Tibetans and Chinese can begin to work out the details of a potential peace building framework. One of the first issues on the table should be the issue of Chinese governance in Tibet, which may be the primary cause of rising tensions.
According to Lederach, addressing economic and cultural concerns is critical to successful peace building efforts. In Lederach's book, Prendergast uses the case of Ethiopia to show that feelings of marginalization and anger were diminished in those areas where policies of poverty reduction and decentralization were implemented. Similarly, reducing poverty and CCP interference in Tibetan society are central to ameliorating the Tibet conflict.
While any peace building framework must involve Tibet remaining part of China, the Chinese government must do a much better job of preserving Tibetan culture and assuring that Tibetans benefit from the economic development being undertaken in Tibet. Granting Tibet more genuine self-determination should be the first step toward this goal.
First, Tibetans should be appointed to head all of the government and Party offices in Tibet — including First Secretary of the Party. As Tibetans gain more control over regional and local politics, they can also begin to exert more influence over the program of economic modernization unleashed by the CCP. Currently, the modernization program mostly benefits Han Chinese immigrants, rather than Tibetans. Solutions to this problem include ending the tax incentives that draw Han immigrants to Tibet and sending many of those already in Tibet back home. Exceptions can be made for those Chinese workers and business owners who exhibit a sincere interest in helping to develop Tibet, without undermining its culture; moreover, the Chinese government can divert some of the resources it has spent in Tibet to the provinces and villages these immigrants are leaving in search of better opportunities.
The modernization program has also been undermining Tibetan culture. To combat this problem, certain steps should be taken. First, the Tibetan language should be restored as the official language of Tibet's government and schools. Moreover, religious freedom — which has suffered under Chinese rule — should be enhanced. For example, restrictions on the number of monks allowed in a given monastery should be lifted. Finally, threats to Tibet's unique ecology and wildlife should be addressed — through sustainable agricultural practices and enforced bans on poaching.
As Tibetans will need to work side-by-side in government with Han Chinese, at least in the early stages of the peace building process, "power sharing" could help ease the conflict between Tibetans and Chinese. According to Roeder and Rothschild, while power sharing does not, in the long run, lead to lasting peace and democratization, it can help "initiate a transition from conflict." Moreover, the authors list a set of conditions under which power sharing can be more successful, some of which may apply to the Tibet case.
Power sharing works best when, for example, the elites — once they have reached an agreement to end violent conflict — have the ability to also stop regular citizens from continuing the fight at the grass-roots level. In China/Tibet, the CCP certainly has significant capacity — which it exercises on a daily basis — to control the behavior of its citizens through coercion and repression. Meanwhile, Tibetans are also very likely to refrain from violence if the Dalai Lama requests this of them, although for different reasons — the great admiration and respect they hold for him.
The chance of successful power sharing also goes up when the parties demonstrate a strong, sincere commitment to the agreement. While the CCP claims that the Dalai Lama is a "splittist" who is insincere about not wanting independence and therefore cannot be trusted, there is reason to believe Tibet's spiritual leader means what he says. The Dalai Lama points to his friendly visit to Taiwan, which also views Tibet as an essential part of China, as evidence that he is not interested in independence. Moreover, according to Newsweek, the world leaders who have met the Dalai Lama are convinced of his sincerity on this matter. Regardless, there are powerful elements of the Tibet lobby who strongly favor independence.
Power sharing, a reasonable short term strategy, is risky in the long run. An alternative political arrangement may be a better option in Tibet: power dividing. A power dividing arrangement works to protect minority rights by setting up a system of checks and balances. As governance reforms in Tibet begin to increase the number of Tibetans who hold real political power, power dividing could be used to reassure apprehensive Han Chinese who remain in Tibet that their civil liberties and rights as minorities will be protected.
Power dividing and its emphasis on civil liberties, checks and balances, and the protection of minority rights could even mark the first steps toward the long term goal of liberal democratization in China.
According to Paris, while the process of democratization can be destabilizing to nations coming out of violent conflict, the Wilsonian goal of liberal democracy remains the best long term goal for nations in transition. Because of China's fear of Western actors' propensity for inspiring succession and "Color Revolutions", democratization of China is not a policy that can be pursued in the short run — at least not overtly. Western actors can help nudge — by way of political engagement and economic interdependence — China toward democracy in small, incremental steps where the institutions that will eventually nourish democracy are slowly developed. Then via this gradual, evolutionary process — as opposed to the destabilizing policy of rapid elections — China may one day develop into a liberal democracy. Moreover, a liberal democratic China would be one that respected the political and human rights of its citizens — including Tibetans.
The Tibet issue remains a source of conflict and controversy in China and around the world. The differing perspectives of the Tibetans and the Chinese government — in terms of the history of Tibet and the benevolence of Chinese governance there — make resolving the impasse extremely difficult, even for the most enlightened and committed mediator. This paper has attempted to outline the kinds of steps that the conflict's various parties can take to bring about a just resolution to the violent conflict in Tibet. If this outcome is to be achieved, however, the United States and the rest of the international community must begin to treat this issue with the urgency it deserves. Escalation in the conflict between Tibet and China could cause great suffering not only among Tibetans but also could put China on a path of confrontation with the West — potentially leading to a new "Cold War" or even World War III. Meanwhile, if the United States and its allies are able to help Tibetans and Chinese reconcile their differences, not only might Tibetans enjoy peace and self-determination but China might also become a responsible global power that respects — even embodies — human rights and democratic values.
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Paris, Roland. At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict. Cambridge, U.K.; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Roeder, Philip G., and Donald S. Rothchild. Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil Wars. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Thurman, Robert A. F. Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World. New York; Hillsboro, Or.: Atria Books; Beyond Words Pub., 2008.
Wong, Edward. "Report Says Valid Grievances at Root of Tibet Unrest." New York Times (2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/06/world/asia/06tibet.html?_r=1.
 Edward Wong. "Report Says Valid Grievances at Root of Tibet Unrest." New York Times (2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/06/world/asia/06tibet.html?_r=1, 1.
 Robert A. F. Thurman. Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World. New York; Hillsboro, Or.: Atria Books; Beyond Words Pub., 2008, 136.
 E.V.W. Davis. "Tibetan Separatism in China." Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 21, no. 2 (2009): 155-70, 157.
 Robert J Barnett. "Can China's Tibetan Crisis Be Resolved?" Council on Foreign Relations (2010), http://www.cfr.org/publication/18707/can-chinas-tibetan-crisis-be-resolved.html?breadcrumb=%2Fregion%2F278%2Ftibet, 1.
 R. Dickinson. "Twenty-First Century Self-Determination: Implications of the Kosovo Status Settlement for Tibet." Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law 26, no. 3 (2009), 574.
 Melvyn C. Goldstein. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, 122.
 Ibid., 123.
 Davis, 158.
 BBC.com. "Inside Tibet." http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/guides/456900/456954/html/nn2page1.stm, 1.
 Isaac Stone Fish. "Charity Case." Newsweek (2010), http://www.newsweek.com/id/233726?obref=obinsite, 1.
 Davis, 158.
 Sudip Mazumdar. "Course Correction." Newsweek (2010), http://www.newsweek.com/id/232606, 1.
 Wong, 1.
 Davis, 158.
 Wong, 1.
 Mazumdar, 1.
 BBC.com, 1.
 Andrew Martin Fischer as cited in Bhattacharya, A., and A. Notices. "Chinese Nationalism and the Fate of Tibet: Implications for India and Future Scenarios." Strategic Analysis 31, no. 2 (2007): 237, 255.
 Mazumdar, 1.
 Wong, 1.
 Thurman, 132.
 BBC.com, 1.
 John Paul Lederach and United States Institute of Peace. Building Peace Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1997, 34.
 Ibid., 84-85.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 60-61.
 Barnett, 1.
 Goldstein, 111.
 Barnett, 1.
 Davis, 159.
 Goldstein, 114-115.
 Thurman, 165.
 Goldstein, 122.
 Dickinson, 580-581.
 Mazumdar, 1.
 Lederach, 87.
 Ibid., 165.
 Goldstein, 125.
 Ibid., 127.
 Thurman, 141.
 Goldstein, 125.
 Ibid., 127.
 Philip G. Roeder and Donald S. Rothchild. Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil Wars. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005, 49.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 43.
 Goldstein, 112.
 Mazumdar, 1.
 Roeder and Rothschild, 53.
 Roland Paris. At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict. Cambridge, U.K.; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 185.