The Tibetan Intifada

How To Resolve the Tibet Crisis

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis


The current Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule has captured world attention and sympathy. Protests from Katmandu to New York have ensured it stays on TV screens almost everywhere — except China, of course.

China’s government, which has been preparing a massive, carefully orchestrated Olympic summer extravaganza in Beijing, has been deeply embarrassed and lost a great deal of face. The latest Tibetan "intifada" erupted just after China’s party congress was celebrating the nation’s economic upsurge and orderly development.

Who is right about Tibet? Beijing claims Tibet has always been and remains an integral part of China. The Dalai Lama, insists Beijing, is a dangerous "splittist" fomenting rebellion with Western help. Chinese civilians have been attacked by Tibetan mobs, says Beijing.

The Dalai Lama, his followers, and international supporters assert China is conducting "cultural genocide" in Tibet by bringing in settlers and drowning its ancient Buddhist traditions in a flood of Han Chinese newcomers.

Is Tibet historically part of China, as Beijing claims? Yes and no. The thirteenth century Mongol emperors adopted Tibetan Buddhism as their new state religion and hailed the Dalai Lama as their "teacher" and spiritual guide. When the Ming Dynasty took power in China around 1370, it adopted and continued this "priest-ruler" relationship.

Tibet’s Buddhist theocracy recognized the ultimate political mastery of China’s emperor, while he recognized the spiritual primacy of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa and Tibet’s total autonomy. Lhasa became the Vatican for the Mongol Empire and China’s Ming Empire.

In 1913, while China was in chaos, Tibet, backed by the British Empire, declared independence. War-torn China had no chance to reassert its claim to Tibet until the end of the civil war in May, 1950. Four months later, China’s People’s Army invaded Tibet and declared it "reunited" to China. Many Tibetans, particularly the warlike Champa, resisted furiously. A year earlier, Chinese troops had invaded and crushed the independent, four-year old Muslim Republic of East Turkistan — today called Xinjiang — whose Turkic-Mongol Uighurs, long fought Chinese rule and Han Chinese immigration.

The world laments for the Tibetan cause, but utterly ignores the unfashionable cause of Tibet’s northern neighbors, the Uighurs. After 2001, the Bush Administration even branded Muslim Uighur resistance movements "terrorists."

How many Tibetans are there? China has obscured census figures. When I met with the Dalai Lama, who inspired my book, "War at the Top of the World" — which is in part about Tibet — he told me there were over seven million Tibetans. About three million are in Tibet proper, and the rest in the neighboring Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai, to which protests have spread. The last two Chinese provinces used to form part of historical Tibet.

A primary cause of the Tibetan "intifada" is continuing settlement by Han Chinese. After what I call "ethnic inundation," ethnic Chinese settlers now outnumber Tibetans. The same process of inundation occurred in Inner Mongolia, whose people are ethnically close to Tibetans.

But we should be aware that China has also uplifted Tibet from frightful poverty and medieval superstition, brought education, hospitals, electricity, roads, and ended widespread serfdom. Last year, a remarkable new high altitude rail line linked Lhasa to Beijing.

When I last visited Tibet in 1993, people came up and begged me with tears in their eyes for a photo of their beloved exiled Dalai Lama. I saw anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa, and regiments of Chinese paramilitary police and soldiers. Resistance has simmered for decades. Now, the pot has boiled over.

So far, China, keenly aware of the upcoming Olympics and its world image, has been fairly restrained in suppressing the uprising. As of this writing, the uprising appears to be abating. But if it flares anew and gets out of hand, China will use much more force.

Another danger: China’s giant rival, India, would dearly like to drive China from the strategic Tibetan Plateau, which looms over northern India. China has built a score of air and missile bases in Tibet that deeply alarm India. Growing unrest could tempt India to back Tibetan resistance. In the late 1940’s, India also had its eye on Tibet but lacked the military power to take action. But it seems likely that had not China annexed Tibet, it would have become an Indian protectorate, like those other forgotten Himalayan kingdoms, Bhutan, Sikkim and Ladakh (known as "little Tibet").

Any Indian or American move to destabilize Chinese rule over Tibet would be met with a fierce response from Beijing, which considers the Tibetan plateau its most militarily sensitive region after the coastal stretch of territory opposite Taiwan and the Beijing military region.

So what can the world do? Some EU members urge boycotting the Olympic opening ceremonies. Similar calls are coming from North America. Others demand outright trade sanctions.

Such overt action won’t work. China will never voluntarily relinquish control of Tibet. No one is going to tell China what to do. A face-saving compromise needs to be found for this confrontation.

The best solution is the one proposed by the Dalai Lama: Beijing restores the old "priest-ruler" relationship. Tibet recognizes China’s political mastery and military presence, China accepts Tibet’s genuine internal autonomy, ceases Han immigration, and allows the Dalai Lama to return.

As globalization plays an ever larger role in China’s economy, its positive image abroad is extremely important. Stomping on Tibet is counterproductive. Beijing should respond with patience, and accord the Dalai Lama, a fierce pacifist and great soul, the same reverence and respect as did the Mongol and Ming emperors.