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Distrust in Tibet

by Alex Pasternack, Far Eastern Economic Review, March, 2009

New York, USA -- Alex Pasternack, a Beijing-based free-lance writer, interviewed Robert Barnett, adjunct professor of contemporary Tibetan studies and director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, on March 6.

Question: Last week, the governor of Tibet abandoned the official line--that the Dalai Lama had instigated violence last year in Tibet--and told reporters that the protests grew out of dissatisfaction with Chinese rule among “all kinds of people.” Does this mark a significant shift?

Barnett: The big question for China is how come China deals with a protest of thousands of people in China by sacking the local leader and sending in an investigation team to figure out what was wrong, whereas in Tibet they deal with any protest by sending in the troops and promoting the local leader.

This is the first sign that an official is prepared to consider policy changes. Maybe this is just camouflage to get Westerners to calm down or maybe they're finally saying, “We've done a year of showing strength, now we can start talking about policy issues, and maybe in five years' time we can admit there was a policy mistake.” Chinese leaders probably listen to the wrong people in Tibet--Chinese officials and Tibetans who are terrified of saying what they think--and so risk getting the wrong answers. It's a matter of time before the message gets upstairs, and upstairs plucks up the courage to rein in these local officials. That’s going to happen. But is it going to happen in 25 years, 10 years or two years?

Question: Did anything in particular surprise you about last year's events?

Barnett: A big question for China, which would have brought the government down in any reasonably healthy state, is why didn’t it defend Chinese people from having their houses burned down during the riot? The police didn't turn up for five or six hours. They let the protests escalate. Tibetans there--people who supported the protests but not the scale of violence that emerged later in the day--at the time were sending messages asking, "Where are the police? Why aren't they keeping this incident contained?" It seems few people in China have been asking this.

Question: How have the economic dividends of Chinese development in Tibet been received by Tibetans this year in particular?

Barnett: It's a high profile strategy, but it seems not to have worked. The authorities pay huge amounts of money in the form of salaries to Tibetan officials, a massive increase, low cost housing, and they pay for infrastructure. But this is a weak strategy because first, it mainly benefits urban areas and the middle class, leaving out 85% of the population who are in the countryside. And secondly, it's linked to a notion of development and economic growth that is based on developing urban infrastructure, which necessarily draws in Chinese migrants. So you're creating an even bigger problem at the same time as delivering your dividend. It's not hard to see why speeding up migration leads a city to implode. And they've increased that strategy of investment in infrastructure since last March. So that's odd. It may have been well intentioned, but it's not a winning strategy.

I think the average Chinese leader would think they're being incredibly generous. But they have to be somewhat limited not to see that encouraging migration and limiting discussion of migration is going to negate any possible gains. Or undermine any possible gains from investment.

Question: That crackdown since last March seems to have focused the West's attention on religion as the major source of separatist trouble.

Barnett: Chinese officials are not attacking religion per se. They'll put up with religion when they consider it to be neutral, or some would say neutered. The question about their religious policies is who advised them that trimming Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama was a smart move? Is it like cutting Jesus Christ out of Christianity? Not really, but it's in that direction. This was an apparently arbitrary, unnecessary decision made at a meeting in 1994 chaired by Jiang Zemin known as the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet. This meeting was the centerpiece of the whole Tibet problem in the post-Cultural Revolution era. Demonizing the Dalai Lama was not just a backwards turn, but a downward dive inflaming problems in Tibet instead of curing them.

Question: After all of the tough rhetoric against him this year, is there a chance for reconciliation with the Dalai Lama?

Barnett: Along with branding Tibetans as terrorists, much in the same way the Uighurs have been branded, the Dalai Lama is now branded as a hypocrite. That's a shame. That makes it hard for Beijing to negotiate with him. It is quite true that the Dalai Lama does travel around the Western world saying he wants to negotiate with China’s leaders while still saying aggressive things about them, which must seem provocative. And China does the same sort of thing in reverse, saying it wants to talk to this man but describing him as a jackal.

But I would never rule out the possibility of talks. There are some views that say it is in Beijing’s interest, and it appears to be in their interest unless one really distrusts the Dalai Lama and distrusts Tibetans. Whether Beijing can do it is another problem. They've stoked up hatred and demonization to such a degree that you would have to have really significant political capital to be a leader who says, despite all my official abuse of him, I'm going to talk to this man. Unfortunately the odds against this happening are longer than ever. This past year they've fanned a hail storm of antagonism inside China against Tibetans. Now more and more people there distrust the Dalai Lama, distrust religion, distrust Tibetans. The odds are getting longer.

Question: How nervous are you about this year's anniversaries in Tibet?

Barnett: Usually a heavy military presence in Tibet means people don't do a lot. They wait until it goes away. Also, on the plus side from the Chinese point of view and everybody's point of view really, Tibet has seen in recent years more sophisticated, symbolic gestures of civil inaction, like their boycott of the New Year. The Chinese officials, by overreacting to that, turned it into a successful tactic. And the pick-up by the Western media of the New Year boycott may have sent a message to Tibetans that you don't need to go out on the streets [or] do things that get people killed and get officials upset. And the Dalai Lama has made an appeal for that. But having said that, there's a lot of very upset people in Tibet. And they’re getting more upset.

Question: What are the chances that the West--in spite of an increasing deferral to Beijing on various issues--will try to have more influence on Tibet?

Barnett: China is a strong country getting stronger in a world where other formerly powerful countries are getting weaker. The West has bungled its human rights record and its policy credibility with Iraq and Israel, and now it has a financial crisis. We’re not looking at a small country that gets told by anyone what to do or feels that it should accede to major pressure from anywhere, inside or outside. So the equation is different, and we’re looking at a very proud China that gets very upset at criticism, sometimes rationally and sometimes not. But it’s a much more powerful and competent China than we’re used to. This is a good thing, but we have to think about what that means.

Question: What are the implications of China's growing power in Tibet for the whole of China--and for the rest of the world?

Barnett: We’re looking at a new model of the effective state. Five years ago, we thought, “China needs harmony.” It may not have achieved that harmony in full and it’s busy wrecking what harmony it could have had with Tibetans. But in the new model, post-financial crisis, post-Iraq, post-Guantanamo, states thinking they have to have uniform harmony may be an outdated idea. Perhaps a state that has a third of its country garrisoned off may still appear to be a viable state if the rest of its economy and politics are strong. India for instance functions with a low level of disintegration all the time, let alone a high level of poverty. And China is economically more successful. So the Chinese may say, “Change your model,” and we might. We in the West no longer have an intellectual, moral or practical mandate to really contest that. Because we’ve torn up our models and thrown them away.

Question: What does it mean that this criticism of the West--born in the response to last March's riots--has filtered down to intellectuals and other levels of the Chinese population?

Barnett: The Chinese intellectuals are not just saying, “We're talking about anti-CNN.com, we’re criticizing your support for Tibet.” Increasingly they’re saying, “We’re looking at your whole system, and calling your bluff.” And this becomes significant when someone who lives here in the West says it. Someone fluent in our languages and our systems, someone who might be much brighter than you and me, who says, your system is a bluff. Your elections are manipulated by people who have vast amounts of money, and you sentence people who are innocent, invade countries on fabricated secret evidence, and so on and so forth. This is not idle criticism. Someone in the West is going to have to work very hard to explain why our model is the natural model. Because our bluff has been called and we’ve been found wanting, seriously wanting.

Question: If you were speaking to a senior Party official in charge of Tibet governance now, what would you advise him to do?

Barnett: Very simply, divide the issues. I would ask China to do what it did with India, where it separated border issues from trade--dividing the hard issues from the easy issues. Separate the hard issues, those of autonomy and the Dalai Lama’s status, take a long time to solve them, and build up good will by solving the easy issues immediately: Tomorrow it could stop bans on religion, stop banning students from religion, stop banning worship of the Dalai Lama, stop banning his photographs, immediately bring in commissions to regulate the migration of non-Tibetans. It could stop pushing short-sighted GDP growth and do human capacity-building instead. In this way it could build itself 10 years of good will instantly. This would solve half the problem, and put Tibet vaguely in line with the rest of China.

Of course the political climate is such that they don’t want to do that. They don’t trust the West, they don’t trust the Dalai Lama, and they don’t trust Tibetans. But China needs to listen to its Tibetan citizens. That takes political will to accept criticism, and we have not seen that yet.

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