May 18

“Fed Up With Peace” – Kristof writes again on Tibet

Written by Buxi on Sunday, May 18th, 2008 at 7:03 am
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As a follow-up to the previously published column on Tibet, Kristof returns with some stinging criticisms of China’s policy in Tibet. Refreshingly, he also criticizes everyone else involved:

The recent uprising by Tibetans underscores the utter failure of Beijing’s policies in Tibet. But it also reflects the failure of the Dalai Lama and of America.

The Dalai Lama has played a waiting game, but as China gains global power — and as more Han Chinese flood into Tibet — that has been a losing strategy. The Dalai Lama has won acclaim internationally, but that acclaim triggers the deep Chinese sensitivity to foreign bullying and thus has antagonized the audience that may count the most: China.

I think Kristof is right on several key accounts. I especially appreciate that in a few sentences, he’s captured all I’ve ever wanted to say about the history of Tibet:

Both China and the Dalai Lama exaggerate, and the historical evidence about Tibet is contradictory. One can make a good case that Tibet has been a part of China at least since 1720. One can also make a good case that Tibet became independent around 1911. The evidence is simply mixed.

In my opinion, he’s certainly correct about the failures of Chinese government policy in some respects. Forcing “patriotic education” on monks isn’t working; it simply isn’t possible to force this value set onto the monks. I also believe China can afford a more relaxed attitude when it comes to religious worship of the Dalai Lama; repressing such worship means non-political religious Tibetans are being dragged into this conflict. The law should be clearly and unambiguously enforced: religious and cultural freedom for Tibetans, but legal consequences for those who violate our constitution by being directly involved in separatist activities. I also believe government policy should be reformed in a few key ways. For example, while I’m not sure the Tibetan Autonomous Region party secretary must be Tibetan, I think it’s time for a Tibetan to be promoted to that number one spot *somewhere* in China.

I also believe Kristof is completely right about the failures of the Dalai Lama. The propaganda being pumped out by the Dalai Lama and his political machine in Dharamasala is simply unbelievable to the vast majority of Chinese. Quite simply, we know he’s lying about the present situation, and that he’s exaggerating and manipulating the past. As long as that is the case, how can he possibly think that we have any interest in his views for the future?

The Dalai Lama and many of his closest political advisors know little about modern China. While they bombard the world with information in English, they issue only a few tiny drops of information in Chinese… even then, typically in traditional Chinese rather than the simplified Chinese used on the mainland. The Dalai Lama has rarely ever spoken to the Chinese press, and he’s simply expressed little interest in reaching out to the Chinese community on a political basis. If he claims that he’s ready to be a member of the Chinese (zhonghua minzu) family, as he wrote in a letter earlier this year, then he’s doing a very poor job of trying to get to know his relatives.

There are some signs that after the 3/14 riots he’s realized his mistake, as he held a few press conferences with the overseas Chinese media… but subsequently, he’s been back on the road and seems far more interested in speaking with Deutsche Welle than shijie ribao.

I believe that road is a dead-end. Has he really not noticed that German politicians are carefully avoiding him on this tour, while the Chinese community continues to simmer with a great deal of anger? Does he really believe Germany, or any other Western nation, will be able to force a political solution onto an antagonistic Chinese nation?

However, Kristof doesn’t get it all right. He talks of the impending threat of a militant, terrorist movement. He speaks of Hamas and the Irish Republican Army. Frankly, I don’t see any reason for the Chinese people to be concerned about the existence of such a militant movement. It’d make the hard-liners job easier, for sure; it’d give them the justification to eliminate the independence movement through force. Maybe we could even send for American trainers so that we could learn the finer skills involved in water-boarding.

But there’s simply no realistic way that there will be a prolonged military conflict involving militant Tibetans. The demographics simply do not support it. The Tibet Autonomous Region share a land border with Chinese provinces with 50+ times the total Tibetan population… compare that to the situation with Hamas and the IRA. Just the civilian police force in Sichuan province could probably defeat any armed uprising with over-whelming force.

If China makes a serious attempt to compromise along the lines that Kristof suggests, it’ll be because we respect Tibetan culture and we treasure the opinions of our fellow Chinese citizens… not because we’re afraid a small minority are threatening to break the law.

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6 Responses to ““Fed Up With Peace” – Kristof writes again on Tibet”

  1. Eugene Zhao Says:

    FYI. My posting on this subject at NY Times.

    Mr. Kristoff,

    I would not miss the chance to give you some input on your latest articles on Tibet, although I agree with some readers that the timing seems rather unfortunate to be talking about this while the whole Chinese nation, to some extent, the world community, is in deep sorrow over the massive loss of lives in the Sichuan earthquake.
    There are several reasons why I take you seriously on the issue of Tibet and even China in general. #1, you are a very smart person with a lot of intelligence and substance, I respect you for that. It really stands out in the field of journalism; #2, you have a genuine interest in issues involving China (including Tibet), and you do your homework; #3, you have access to the main stream western media (NY Times).

    The one thing I would like to question you is the statistical significance of your latest observations about what the young monks are thinking in Tibetan regions. Have you interviewed monks who have different views? What was your sampling method? You probably got introduced to those monks through Dalai Lama’s channels? If you had interviewed the monks who are aligned with the views of Chinese government, you clearly would run the risk of having your secret trip cut short since it was against official rule, as you admitted.

    Your recommendation of a compromised solution to the Tibetan issues actually has a lot of merit – if you objective is to help the Dalai Lama and Tibetans-in-exile to get the best deal possible before it is too late. And I am sure that it would be carefully considered by the officials on both sides, with or without you bringing it up.

    However, I think that the Chinese government has the option of taking a much harder line position than the one you proposed. Tibet is a complicated issue, and it is also a long term issue, but time is on China’s side. The tide of globalization will make China a much stronger nation, and will also include Tibet in the process of getting modernized, although at a delayed phase. The result of the changes brought upon Tibet by modernization will make the Tibet Independence movement weaker and weaker. For example, the role of religion on the society will decrease. The influence of the Dalai Lama will diminish – if for no other reason, it would be because of the fact that the Dalai Lama does not bring much value to improving the average Tibetan’s life. In many Tibetans’ view, he actually brings distraction and negative value to the economic and social development of Tibet by organizing and instigating unrest / protests / riots in the Tibetan regions. Essentially, the Tibetan Independence cause will die a slow death due to lack of market. On the other hand, the Chinese government will have people’s support all across China in taking a hard line towards Tibetan Independence or any unreasonable demand for greater autonomy.

  2. Buxi Says:

    However, I think that the Chinese government has the option of taking a much harder line position than the one you proposed. Tibet is a complicated issue, and it is also a long term issue, but time is on China’s side.

    I completely agree, Eugene. As I said elsewhere, there are 50+ other minorities in China who have managed to find balance between their identities as “Chinese” and their own cultural and ethnic roots.

    I believe the presence and attitude of the current Dalai Lama is a huge reason why independence sentiment exists. When he is gone, there might be a temporary flare-up… but the Tibetan independence “problem” will have largely resolved itself.

    That’s not the best scenario… because I’d like to avoid the flare-up, and I legitimately would like Tibetans in China to better preserve their culture and religion. But it *is* a far more acceptable scenario than allowing Tibetan independence.

  3. Wu Kong Says:

    Poster “Gene T” left a very insightful comment on the NYT page, I hope he doesn’t mind my reposting it here.

    BTW, fantastic blog and wonderful job you are doing, thanks very much, Mr Tang!


    It’s interesting how an essay that is largely sympathetic to the Tibetan cause could trigger so much negative reaction from the pro-independence commentators. Nick has been walking a tight rope on this topic, with plenty of good intentions, but one does get the sense that his sympathies are wearing thin in places, as the inherent weakness of the Tibetan position, coupled with the irrational intransigence of its main actors (in part fanned by a misreading of the motivation of their Western supporters), have become all too apparent to him over time.

    I’ve seen Tom Grunfeld being called a PRC stooge often enough, but Melvyn Goldstein? So unless an author narrates the conflict from an obviously pro-Tibetan independence perspective, he/she is necessarily biased against the Tibetans? What a funny way to define bias!

    These endless debates about historical justifications and moral imperatives are an interesting academic exercise, but they change nothing when it comes to the cold hard realities on the ground today:

    The PRC government has exercised de facto AND de jure (internationally recognized; therefore legitimate, in the most basic sense) control in Tibet for almost 60 years. The Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile presently have neither, despite receiving overwhelming sympathy from their Western supporters.

    Realistically, there is nothing the exiles can offer that the Chinese government doesn’t already have. Western sympathy is the Tibetans’ greatest asset, but it’s not something the exiles have full control over or can use in a trade for meaningful Chinese concessions. Indeed, the Dalai Lama can’t even promise to control the Tibetan Youth Congress, whose members have expressed a willingness to resort to violent means to achieve their independence objectives, which they have vowed never to abandon, regardless of what the Dalai Lama says. So what exactly is there for the PRC government to gain by negotiating with the Dalai Lama, besides some fleeting appeasement of China-critics in the West?

    Unlike the period between 1910 and 1950, the current Chinese government is relatively stable and is able to exercise full control over its territories (with the exception of Taiwan, which is governed by a different “Chinese” government). The Tibet “problem” today is one of international perception, not of domestic administration (one riot in 20 years is not that bad, compared to, say, what happens regularly in France). The Chinese are in no danger of losing control over Tibet, no matter how unhappy some of the monks and nomads are.

    China was arguably a much weaker nation in 1959, yet it easily put down the Tibetan rebellion, and kept the CIA-sponsored guerrillas in check until the US policy towards China changed. As several commentators already pointed out, if the Tibetan exiles and their associates in Tibet abandoned their “middle way” approach in dealing with the Chinese government, it will only free the Chinese government to take off the gloves entirely and hasten the full integration of Tibet within China -American style.

    The irony is that if China had practiced what it is accused of doing – decimating Tibet through physical and cultural genocide for the past six decades, there would have been no Tibetan cultural and religious practices left to save, and no “authentic” Tibetans to save those practices for. The reason Nick is able to take nice pictures of himself in front of a famous monastery and with healthy-looking monks is that on balance, post-Cultural Revolution China considers these cultural and religious traditions largely benign, and an integral part of its multi-ethnic national heritage, needed to help maintain social stability. The moment these artifacts and practices become a net destabilizing force, it’s not hard to imagine that the Chinese government would take whatever actions they deem necessary to neutralize or eliminate them. All governments would consider this a legitimate exercise of their basic mandate to maintain peace (look at what happened to the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, for an example of how the US government would respond to individuals or organizations who harbor anti-government tendencies and who choose to violently resist law enforcement actions for the sake of their religious beliefs).

    Internationally, the adoption of violent methods by the advocates of Tibetan independence would mean that India will be pressured to expel these no-longer-peaceful “guests” from their Dharamsala sanctuary, the same way the Taliban were “asked” to give up bin Laden after 9/11. Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress will find that Western governments in London, Paris and Berlin will not fawn over them quite the same way they did with the Dalai Lama. Hollywood celebrities would gradually seek out other politically chic causes to latch onto. This would be the beginning of the end of China’s Tibet “problem”.

    The people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain in this waiting game are the Chinese, not the exiles. Yet the latter seem too wrapped up in their self-deluding fantasies to fully appreciate this, egged on by their well-meaning, but frequently misinformed and misguided Western well-wishers (plus Desmond “The Arch” Tutu).

    Yes the window of opportunity for “meaningful” settlement over the autonomy issue is closing – if it hadn’t already slammed shut in 1959 – on the Dalai Lama and the exiles. The descendants of former serfs may or may not be crazy about Chinese rule today, but they are not exactly nostalgic about the way things were under the Dalai Lama either. They make up the ruling class among ethnic Tibetans today. They, not the Chinese central government, were the ones who scuttled the previous rounds of talks, because they had found the Dalai Lama’s demands unacceptable. They have political power that they never would have had under the Dalai Lama, and are not about to surrender it to any returning noblemen or lamas who spent the last few decades overseas. More significantly with respect to the potential success of future talks, these people know that statistically, they stand a good chance of outliving the current Dalai Lama – and with him, the bulk of international support for the exiles’ case.

    Given the Dalai Lama’s penchant for jetting back and forth between Europe and Hollywood, and his apparent lack of effort to reach out to the ordinary Chinese in order to appeal to their sense of fairness, and rally their support for his arguably moderate positions (which would be a whole lot more effective than the disruption of the torch relay in helping to soften Chinese hearts and minds), one might think that he either a) made a deal with the Chinese government whereby he would refrain from appealing directly to the Chinese people, or b) he simply likes the way things are now. The traveling around the globe; the meetings with world leaders and movie stars; the paid lectures in stadia packed with throngs of worshippers and admirers; the way every one of his words is studied and given deeper meaning by fawning academics and journalists alike. None of that is waiting for him back in Tibet.

    Is it possible that he is not in a huge hurry to fulfill his professed deep desire to return to the life of a simple monk back in his isolated homeland, and put an end to this obviously miserable life of a wandering exile?

    Gene T

    — Posted by Gene T

  4. nanheyangrouchuan Says:

    “China was arguably a much weaker nation in 1959, yet it easily put down the Tibetan rebellion, and kept the CIA-sponsored guerrillas in check until the US policy towards China changed.”

    Wrong, the Tibetan resistance was doing well. It wasn’t until Nixon sought China has a hedge against the USSR that Mao had a chance to put a stop to the PLA’s losses. Zhu Rongji and Kissenger negotiated to stop support of the Tibetan freedom fighters as a condition of Nixon’s visit.

  5. Buxi Says:


    I guess we’ll just have to disagree on how “well” the Tibetan resistance was doing, if it was still fighting 13 years after the Dalai Lama into exile.

  6. Opersai Says:


    I do agree with many, many of your points, in fact, almost all of them! But I have a few questions on the following passage:

    //In many Tibetans’ view, he actually brings distraction and negative value to the economic and social development of Tibet by organizing and instigating unrest / protests / riots in the Tibetan regions.//

    Did you mean in some Tibetan’s view, Dalai Lama is “organizing and instigating unrest / protests / riots in the Tibetan regions”, or did you mean, Dalai Lama did all these actions and was responsible? In the latter case, I disagree. Although, there’s suspicion, but there’s no clear, hard evidence that Dalai Lama was responsible for any of above mentioned actions.

    Second, you wrote “in many Tibetans’ view”, may I ask where did you get this view? Through personal means? Online discussions? I did remember reading some open letters addressed to Dalai Lama said to be written by local Tibetans. But, I’m not sure if these could be represented as “many”.

    I look forward to your answer. =)

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