“Tibet Q&A with Robbie Barnett”

Robbie Barnett is still on a roll, posting a Q&A at the Global Post about Tibet- always interesting to read what one of the most informed Tibetologists has to say:

What are the chances China will change its harsh policies?

In one sense the chances are higher than we think: The policies that are most provocative are not that difficult to reverse. Some Chinese officials also think them excessive — most Tibetans do — and it’s in China’s interest to reverse them. But there is no sign of the political will to do so.

In China, there is in general a cynical view of protests by Tibetans and other nationalities. Because there are some positive discrimination policies in place in China for Tibetans, many Chinese think that any protests by them are just attempts to get more funding and more privileges from Beijing.

They view Tibetan complaints as being all about the economy and about getting access to more economic goods. In that view, culture and religion are seen as secondary to economics, and a community that gets richer because of the state is expected to be satisfied with that.

There is also the fear of the internal domino effect. China is afraid that if it shows any flexibility to Tibetans, that will lead to more demands, which will ultimately lead to a heightened sense of Tibetan nationalism and demands for independence, which in turn will trigger demands for independence from other nationalities in China — and the areas inhabited by those nationalities cover some 60 percent of China’s landmass.

It’s not that China does not want Tibetans or others to have distinctive identities — people there enjoy superficial cultural exoticism and variety as much as Westerners do. But they want these to be ethnic identities, not national ones. They want them to see themselves as “ethnic groups” or “cultures” and not as “nationalities.” This seems to be why Chinese officials ordered in about 1995 that only the English word “ethnic” should be used to describe them, not the former official term, “nationality.”

So, the problems that stop them changing their policies in Tibet are political rather than practical; this is a very conservative leadership. There are many things they could do, practically speaking. They could limit the migration of non-Tibetans to these areas. They could appoint culturally-literate Tibetans as local leaders and create social partnerships with monasteries in terms of education and other issues. They could have true bilingual education policies, and they could stop the demonization of the monks and the practice of insulting the Dalai Lama.

If the Dalai Lama took a strong stand against the self-immolations, would they stop?

That’s a reasonable question that’s being asked by a lot of people. But it’s more complex than it seems if one considers the history and the context. The Dalai Lama has asked protesters to stop on many similar occasions in the past — when Tibetans have staged hunger strikes in India, for example. He has said that suicides for political reasons shouldn’t be encouraged. His government has said repeatedly that it does not encourage self-immolations.

But in the past when the Chinese have asked him to say something to calm the situation inside Tibet, and when he has done it, the Chinese officials have then demanded that he say something else that they want, as opposed to making a concession in return. This hugely damages trust, I think. That’s what happened in 2008: A major crisis was used as a bargaining opportunity to get the Dalai Lama to help. He tried to do that, and they then made more demands and more outrageous ones, while doing nothing on their side to calm the situation.

Can you see anything shifting in the near future?

Actually the Chinese have made some micro-changes to their policies in Tibet as a result of pressure from both outside and inside, but they are so small that most specialists don’t even mention them.

For example, the new party secretary in Lhasa arranged last month for almost all Tibetan university graduates to have jobs. This week he said that all monks — of course he only means the few recognized officially — will have pensions and minimum allowances. They are certainly pouring more money into the area now, especially the villages, and though the effects of this are very much disputed, it shows a certain urgency of response.

We can be skeptical, and we should be to some extent — the methods of Chinese modernization in Tibet and elsewhere are rushed, manipulative, top-down and so on. That’s our responsibility in a situation where a people is not allowed to speak out.

But these moves are proofs of principle: they indicate that pressure works. That does not mean that all kinds of pressure work of course, and inside pressure is much more important than outside pressure. But it suggests that a skillful balance of the two does sometimes get noticed.

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