Can China’s Tibetan Crisis Be Resolved?

Robert J. Barnett, a leading expert on Tibet, says the Chinese government, which had hoped for a honeymoon period with the new Obama administration, is nervous as the fiftieth anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan revolt approaches.

March 06, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Robert J. Barnett, a leading expert on Tibet, says the Chinese government is nervous about the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan revolt, which resulted in China’s military shelling the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Beijing had hoped for a "honeymoon" period with the Obama administration following the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Barnett says. But growing tensions in Tibet "could undo this confidence booster for Beijing," he says. He says frictions over Tibet could be resolved but that it will require a major effort by the Chinese government, which Beijing has thus far resisted.

Fifty years ago, the Chinese army put down an uprising by Tibetans, which led the Dalai Lama and some eighty-five thousand followers to flee into exile in India. On March 10, Tibetans mark the fiftieth anniversary of that uprising. China, meanwhile, will celebrate its "liberation" of Tibet. What is the situation in Tibet today?

We’re looking at an unusual confluence of events and forces in Tibet at the moment. We have the anniversary the state wants to celebrate, and we have a very major military clampdown to prevent a recurrence of the protests that happened on March 10 last year on the same anniversary. In the last few days--and indeed in the last few hours--there have been several reports of small incidents across the Tibetan plateau. There’s also talk of a nonviolent, civil inaction movement, kind of a symbolic protest that is also reported to be taking place, sometimes within households. This is a rather tense situation for the Chinese government.

This is at a time when the Chinese government is holding its People’s Congress in Beijing. And, presumably, the last thing they want is bad publicity in the world media about Tibet again.

The Chinese face a bigger problem, which is that they just got the first taste of a possible reconciliation with the Obama administration. This honeymoon looked like it was in the offering after the Hillary Clinton visit, and this gave them some hope. We think they were pretty nervous ahead of time about Obama and the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton in particular.

"There’s a huge consensus amongst [the Chinese] people about the rightfulness of their government’s actions in Tibet."

She avoided the human rights issue while she was in China, didn’t she?

She mentioned it as a kind of second-tier issue. And in her speech to the Asia Society before she went on her trip, she did actually mention Tibet. It was the only example of human rights issues with China she mentioned in her speech, but it was only mentioned in the context of religion, and she phrased it as "Tibet and all Chinese citizens." The Chinese officials here read correctly that it was intended as America saying that Tibetans are Chinese citizens. So this was taken as a huge conciliatiatory gesture by the Chinese officials, and that was probably the correct reading for them. But what’s happening on the ground now in Tibet could undo this confidence booster for Beijing.

Last year’s uprising in Tibet, and even more significantly the protests that followed against the carrying of the Olympic torch around the world, must have been extremely unsettling to the Chinese. And we know that many Chinese living abroad protested the protestors.

You put your finger on something important, because the Tibet issue and particularly the factors and conflicts around the Olympics and the torch relay seem to have moved the whole issue into a very emotional landscape for many Chinese people. The Japanese have certainly seen this response from the Chinese people in recent years, in resentment toward the Japanese occupation, and there was some sense of it, but in a much more focused way, when the Americans bombed China’s Belgrade embassy during the Kosovo war [in 1999]. But now we’re seeing something much larger, which is the growth of Chinese nationalism that is a focused springboard to the Tibet issue. The Tibetans are being caught up in what is turning into a rather ugly positioning of certain Chinese intellectuals, particularly those living in the West and trained in the West, who feel that China is being pushed around too much, by a West which really has lost the authority to speak out and impose these values.

It began as a response within China on the Internet to the representation in the Western media of the protest in Tibet. And it began in particular on a Chinese website called, which attracted phenomenal interest among Chinese in cyberspace, and seeded a whole world of activism by Chinese, who we could call nationalists--in some cases a kind of ultranationalism. It’s a nationalism in defense of China about Tibet. These are often people who don’t agree with China on other aspects of the Communist Party’s policies. But there’s a huge consensus amongst many of those people about the rightfulness of their government’s actions in Tibet. And this has quite serious consequences, because it’s a much more emotional and a much larger issue than we’ve seen nationalists get agitated about before.

Is this largely because the Han Chinese believe China is actually helping out Tibet, and that the Tibetans are really ungrateful?

Yes, you put your finger on it. If we had to summarize the problem, that’s the way we should do it. We should try to imagine that for these Chinese people, many of them can’t see what the problem is because they feel that their government has consistently been helpful and generous towards these Tibetans.

China should "separate the difficult talks about autonomy and the Dalai Lama’s status, which they’re nervous about, from the easy issues, which are about religion, and migration, and development."

Let me move back to the present. Realistically speaking, what do you think is going to happen in Tibet? I don’t just mean this week, but over the near future. Is there a political solution?

It’s a strange thing about the Tibet issue. We’re not talking about Palestine or Israel or one of the really terrible conflicts that has been escalated to an unimaginable degree by rhetoric and bad policy. We’re talking about an issue that has actually almost entirely remained nonviolent through three decades or more, and has a single leader, the Dalai Lama, who says he’s ready to make his compromises and give up independence. So on paper, this should be very easy to solve. The easy way for the Chinese to solve it, if they wanted to, is to break the Tibetan problem into two kinds of issues. They should separate the difficult talks about autonomy and the Dalai Lama’s status, which they’re nervous about, from the easy issues, which are about religion, and migration, and development. Lots of Tibetans in Tibet have told them, "Stop demonizing the Dalai Lama, allow people to practice religion, and regulate the migration of non-Tibetans into the area." That’s pretty straightforward. Every other country in the world does that almost normatively. So these are the easy ways it could build up huge political capital very very quickly in Tibet, and that would be welcomed. The question is, does China have the political will that allows the leaders to take that kind of step? I think they will have to do that. It’s unsustainable, keeping one-third of your country under military garrison every so often. So [change on those easy issues] will come, but it would be much healthier if it would come fast, and not late.

Officially, Tibet is the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), but when the Dalai Lama says he just wants autonomy for Tibet, the Chinese say "no, you really want independence for Tibet." It’s a difficult dialogue, isn’t it?

You’re right. It’s not really a problem of substance or lack of substance. The Chinese had pretty good solutions for this under Hu Yaobang in the early 1980s, for example, and Mao had quite good solutions in the 1950s for a while. But the problem is a climate of distrust, perhaps on both sides. The Chinese side is convinced, and has unfortunately convinced a lot of people in China, increasingly in the last year, that the Dalai Lama is a hypocrite and that he doesn’t mean what he says. Now it’s true that the Dalai Lama risks that by continually going to the West and criticizing China forcefully and by meeting Western leaders. On the other hand, people would argue that if he didn’t do that, nothing would happen. And there is some evidence for that, actually. And so we see that they have an impasse here. How can trust be built between the two sides?

Right, good question. What’s the answer?

Actually, I think a listening exercise is the answer. We in the West, people like me who are quite critical of Chinese policy but study it quite closely, we have to train ourselves and everyone like us to listen to what the Chinese and their supporters are saying. Listening is critical, but the real problem is, can the Chinese listen to the Tibetan voice? That seems very difficult. We’re also not very good at listening to the Tibetan voices. As Westerners we tend to hear exile voices, which are much more broad strokes. They tend to be about vast principles like independence and human rights and freedom. That’s not the real listening. That’s just the appeals of the heart. Real issues are when you talk to people, usually inside Tibet, who can tell you in detail, "This is what is wrong with this policy. This isn’t a policy that works. This is why this leader is accepted," and so on. We all need to develop that kind of listening, and Chinese people especially, they need to listen to the details of what Tibetans are saying. They need to make the situation work. And actually, it’s not that difficult, what the Tibetans demand inside Tibet. As long as they can be de-escalated from the emotional, understandable emotions that many people feel, they’re quite pragmatic. There is potential here for trust building, but unfortunately we’re not seeing that at the moment.

How do the Indians view all this? Are there tensions between India and China on this issue?

People tend to forget the Indian part of the equation. And India would prefer they forgot it, because it’s a big complex problem for India and its relations with China. This causes a basic cleavage in Indian foreign policy. There is  a sector that is very keen on relations with China, especially through trade, even though it’s increasingly worried about dumping [the trade practice of selling goods below the cost of production], and it has taken a lot of steps this year to counter that. But there’s also a sector in India that has more of a military view that still regards China as its major enemy. They remember the 1962 war, and also an important border war in 1987 between the two powers over the Tibet border. So this is a very large issue. The nineteen rounds of border talks haven’t yet produced a result. And we have to remember that India has, very discreetly, created a Tibetan border force of 10,000 Tibetan high-altitude soldiers.

I didn’t know about that.

I wouldn’t say it’s a secret, but it’s not common knowledge, because India is nervous about China but doesn’t want to provoke China. And at the same time it wants to keep in its hands the trump card that it has with the Dalai Lama and now the Karmapa [a spiritual rival to the Dalai Lama]. These are very important for India’s dealings with China. It means that China has to be careful with India. And that’s important. But it does mean that if India gets closer to China, then the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans will come under more pressure. That’s happened at times. Increasingly, we find the Chinese putting pressure on India. The famous incident in the run-up to the Olympics last year, when the Indian ambassador in Beijing was called in for a demarche at two o’clock in the morning because they claimed that some Tibetan exiles were going to stage a demonstration at the embassy in Delhi. This went down really badly in India, that kind of humiliating your ambassador. So it’s quite a tricky balance there for India. And the Tibetans have to be careful not to blow the huge advantage they have of Indian hospitality. They don’t have that hospitality in Nepal anymore, so they need to be careful not to let that slip away. Large numbers of Tibetans have migrated to the United States in the last ten years, from India, often claiming, really very unfairly, that they weren’t safe in India, which is not really true. India doesn’t give them legal shelter, but it gives them practical shelter. The risk is that as these Tibetans see advantage in coming to the West, they could lose their biggest friend, India, which is much more of a steady friend than the United States.

The United States recognizes China’s sovereignty over Tibet, yes? There’s no question about that.

There is no question. That was different in the 50s and 60s [when the CIA backed the Tibetans], but there’s no question these days. The British have just changed their historic position and last October have in extremely controversial circumstances recognized Chinese sovereignty. So now, since October, there’s no major country that does not recognize the Chinese claim.

What will happen when this Dalai Lama dies?

We enter a morass, because the Chinese have already said, explicitly, a Dalai Lama can only be reborn within the borders of the People’s Republic, which I don’t know how they’re going to communicate that to "transmigrating consciousnesses." Maybe they have signposts up in the ether, but that’s what they’re saying, and they’ve also passed a law saying that only they can decide who we are reincarnating. So we’re heading for two Dalai Lamas; one that will be selected by exiles, and one from inside China. So this is going to be another source of conflict unless the two sides are able to work it out. They did for a time have talks about jointly agreeing on the Panchen Lama [the second-highest ranking Lama]. Then those talks broke down from the Chinese side for a reason that has never been revealed. The Chinese withdrew that option in 1993, when there was a brief thaw in relations for a couple of months. But we don’t see thaws on the horizon at the moment.

Except for the protests in Tibet last year, the protests have been largely nonviolent. But do you think the youth in Tibet will remain nonviolent, or are they apt to get more violent?

The number of violent incidents is pretty small. But it’s increasing, and the level of anger is increasing, and the more you throw troops at these people, people who are very unhappy who can’t control themselves as the Dalai Lama has asked them to, will get violent, and there will be violent incidents. And this is particularly likely to increase if the Dalai Lama dies, and even if, I fear, he gets ill in any way. Tibetans are going to find it very terrible if they feel that China has thrown away this historical opportunity to allow this man to come back to his home before he dies. That’s going to be a big test for China, and at the moment Chinese leaders seem to think they can just sit it out and use the troops to handle anything.