WASHINGTON—Chinese government control of information on Tibet has left the Chinese people ignorant of the region’s real history and opposed to efforts to promote Tibetan autonomy, according to regional experts and Tibetan activists in exile.
Because of this, the Dalai Lama now seeks direct contact with the Chinese people, these sources said.
After an August meeting in Geneva called Finding Common Ground, more than 100 Tibetan and Chinese scholars declared that “the Beijing government’s claim that ‘Tibet has always been a part of China’ is factually incorrect.”
“The root cause of the Tibetan issue is not a conflict between the Chinese people and Tibetan people,” they said in a statement, “but rather the autocratic rule of the People’s Republic of China in Tibet and its cultural genocide in Tibet.”
China defends its presence in Tibet by pointing to its investments in the economic development of what it calls a "backward" region.
“I think it has been the approach of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership to reach out as much as possible to the Chinese people,” Bhuchung Tsering, director of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, said in an interview.
“[This is] because they believe that one of the issues underlying this lack of progress in the Tibetan talks is that the Chinese people do not have access to the real positions of His Holiness or what the Tibetan people really want.”
Talks break down
An eighth round of formal dialogue between Chinese officials and envoys of the Dalai Lama broke down last year amid disagreements over proposals for greater autonomy for Tibet as a part of the People’s Republic of China.
Though China’s leaders routinely accuse the Dalai Lama of trying to “split” Tibet from China, the Dalai Lama himself has said he wants only to secure more cultural and religious freedoms for Tibetans under Chinese rule.
Chinese troops marched into the self-governing Himalayan country in 1949, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India 10 years later following a failed national uprising.
In March 2008, a peaceful demonstration in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, erupted into a riot that left at least 22 dead and ignited protests in three neighboring provinces in China.
The Tibetan government-in-exile in India says about 220 Tibetans died and nearly 7,000 were detained in the subsequent region-wide crackdown.
In part because of the Chinese government’s control of information about these events, the protests appeared to cause a “significant nationalist backlash among many Chinese people,” Dennis Cusack, co-chair of the London-based International Tibet Support Network, said.
“But I think we have to be skeptical about how deep that nationalist feeling runs, because it’s very difficult—if not impossible—to get a very clear picture about what a true cross-section of Chinese society really thinks about anything.”
Force for change
The Tibetan freedom struggle may emerge as a “powerful driver” for wider political change in China itself, Cusack, author of the book Tibet's War of Peace, said.
“I think it’s that sense of identity that allows the Tibetans to take more risks and speak more loudly—and speak in a way that they will be heard above the constant simmering feelings of unrest and anxiety that exist throughout China.”
The Chinese people may increasingly come to recognize “this huge strength, this huge value, in certain aspects of Tibetan culture—such as religion and philosophy,” Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar based at Columbia University, added.
“This will change the chessboard, so to speak,” he said.
“It doesn’t change what the politicians do, and it doesn’t directly involve the Chinese people demanding this or that political outcome. But it changes the framework within which Chinese leaders would have to think.”
For now, though, China’s position is that as long as talks on Tibet’s status can be delayed, “the greater the advantage for China, and the less pressure for them to do anything,” Barnett said.
A new generation?
Jamyang Norbu, a U.S.-based Tibetan writer and advocate for Tibetan independence, said that there is no chance in any case that these talks will help Tibet.
“This is because of the nature of the communist regime, which tends to be totally cynical about these things,” Norbu said.
“They use people, and they’ve learned to play a game with the Dalai Lama.”
“It is naïve to think of reaching out to the Chinese people, when the Chinese people themselves are deprived of many rights that people in the West have.”
Though Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile continues to support the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” call for autonomy instead of independence, “there is a sense that there is really no way forward with this,” Norbu said.
There is a new generation of Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, who believe that Tibet should be fully independent, Norbu said, and Tibetans in exile should consider openly forming a political party to promote this view.
“There is some hope here—not immediately for Tibetan independence, but at least to get the movement going, to rejuvenate the whole thing. And that’s all I guess we have for the time being.”
“But for me, that’s good enough,” he said.
“In the end, we have to be sensible. After all, we are up against communist China, and it’s a huge deal. Just to be able to take it on is a tremendous thing.”
Original reporting by Richard Finney. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.