Tibet’s Political, Cultural, and Religious Future

By Victoria Turley '12

Buddhist Traditions of Tibet and the Himalayas

For Victoria Turley’s paper, the assignment was to speculate on the problematic future of Tibet in the wake of that country’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. Students were required to engage with relevant outside sources, especially Melvyn Goldstein’s The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama. I chose to submit Victoria’s paper, first of all, because I felt it was well-written. Secondly, the assignment I devised turned out to be one that led most students to express a pessimistic viewpoint (ie Tibet’s future appears to be hopeless). Victoria’s essay resisted that easy response, and she tried to envision a more positive future for Tibet. That made her paper stand out.

-Michael Harris

In his last statement, imprisoned Chinese dissident and recent Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo stated that:

Political beliefs are based [on] convictions and personal experiences; I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop, and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme. (Mackey 1)

In a move echoing threats in 1989 when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize and warnings to President Bush in 2007 not to honor the Dalai Lama when he visited America, the Chinese enlisted other countries to protest the ceremony and have fired off numerous injured comments, playing the victim. When the Dalai Lama was honored with the Prize, Wang Guisheng, a counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Norway told the press that

It is interference in China’s internal affairs. It has hurt the Chinese people’s feelings. Tibet’s affairs are wholly and purely China’s own business. The Dalai Lama is not simply a religious leader but also a political figure [who is seeking to] divide the mother country and undermine national unity. (Rule 1)

In his statements, Liu claims to be optimistic about the future of China and seems hopeful that their strict brand of communism will soon abate, but it seems to me that the officials in the Chinese government are in denial. As we have seen in the past, when the Chinese government believes that it is under attack, or when it faces riots or protests, it assumes that its policies are too lax and immediately tightens control on its people. A prime example of this was the government’s reaction to the 1987-89 riots in Tibet. According to Melvyn C. Goldstein in his book The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama, “Many officials felt strongly that if China did not stop ‘coddling’ the reactionary and superstitious Tibetans, matters could get completely out of hand” (91). It was this attitude that led to the subsequent crackdown by Chinese officials and police and surveillance officers on Tibet.

In her article “Why Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize Matters to Tibet,” Kate Saunders writes: “This year’s Peace Prize matters in Tibet because Liu Xiaobo is among those Chinese intellectuals who link Tibet’s destiny to their own — by arguing that a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Tibet needs to involve the Dalai Lama, and is ultimately in China’s interests” (Huffington Post). Liu Xiaobo – like the Dalai Lama and other writers, speakers, and protestors inside and outside of Tibet – brings to light Chinese inequities and helps further Tibet’s cause by making it known globally. Saunders goes on to say:

Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize also honors individuals like Woeser, Migmar Dhondup, Kunchok Tsephel, and hundreds of other Tibetans whose silencing by the state now speaks more loudly than before. Their courage in speaking truth to power is of critical importance for Tibet’s future – and China’s. It has never been more true than it is this year to say that the prizes to Nobel Peace Laureates who cannot attend the ceremony are among the most important of all. (Huffington Post)

What dissidents, including the Dalai Lama, need to do is take their cause globally, showing it to the world until both China and the global community can no longer ignore the human rights violations, the injustice and the lack of freedom faced by Chinese and Tibetan citizens. As Liu Xiaobo believes, as long as Chinese and Tibetan citizens push their issue and continue to speak out, not only will Tibet be free, but China will also become a much freer country, because it cannot ignore the cries of its people forever.

In the past, compromise between the Dalai Lama/ Tibetan Government in Exile and China has often seemed impossible. Although the Dalai Lama has been perfectly willing to modernize Tibet from the beginning (Goldstein 51), his style of modernization seems to be different from China’s. Goldstein quotes the Dalai Lama as stating this opinion in an interview:

When we arrived in Gyantse [town] I had heard that the Phala family had a small school there, and I had strong feelings about improving schools in the rural areas, and we talked about that. I also thought that taxes like the corvee labor taxes, were extremely bad, and I also did not like the difficult custom [of people being saddled with] old debts [passed down from generation to generation]. When I was small the sweepers [in the palace] told me about these things. (51)

While the Dalai Lama wants to focus on liberating his people from old customs that are harmful to them, China seems to be intent on stripping them of their culture entirely. Although China has recently begun to relax control and restrictions on Tibetan culture and religion, Goldstein asserts that “in the period after the 1959 uprising Buddhism was destroyed and Tibetans were forced to abandon deeply held values and customs that went to the core of their cultural identity” (Goldstein 60).

Another example of the Chinese-Tibetan disconnect and inability to co-operate is the 1982 reconciliation talks. These were to occur after a fact-finding delegation was sent by the Tibetan Government in Exile to Tibet, in which the delegation found what they believed to be a “powerful bargaining chip”—that Tibetan people were still fiercely loyal to the Dalai Lama (Goldstein 71). As a result of this, “there was no consensus in Dharamsala as to political and territorial concessions, and there was pressure not to create one for the negotiations in Beijing” (Goldstein 72). While this attitude was pervasive on the Tibetan side, Beijing had their own un-cooperative attitude: “Beijing wanted rapprochement, but did not want to enter into a genuine give-and-take with the exiles over the issue of changes in political control of the Tibetan Autonomous Region” (Goldstein 72). The Tibetan Government in Exile felt that political and ethnic Tibet should be an entirely free country; China felt that it should not, and both of them were virtually unflinching on these positions. Consequently, nothing was accomplished during these talks.

Although the situation seemed bleak in the early 80s, in 1987 the Dalai Lama reformed his policy, and the resulting “Five Point Peace Plan” led to his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. The plan outlines five steps that should be taken in order for Tibet and China to reach a lasting peace. The Dalai Lama stated that the first action should be to designate “the whole of Tibet, including the eastern provinces of Kham and Amdo, be transformed into a zone of [peace]” by withdrawing Chinese troops and establishing a trust between the two nations (Gyatso). Second, China must abandon their “population transfer policy” because the Dalai Lama believes that “for the Tibetans to survive as a people, it is imperative that the population transfer is stopped and Chinese settlers return to China. Otherwise, Tibetans will soon be no more than a tourist attraction and relic of a noble past” (Gyatso). Thirdly, the Dalai Lama states that “Respect for the Tibetan people’s fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms” (Gyatso) must be returned. Fourth, in accordance with both the proposition of turning Tibet into a “zone of peace” and the revival of respectful attitudes toward Tibetans, China must promise to “restore and protect [Tibet’s] natural environment and [abandon] China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste” (Gyatso). Lastly, the Dalai Lama states that to establish a peaceful and acceptable solution, “earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet and of relations between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples” must begin (Gyatso). If these provisions are met, then the Dalai Lama will accept the Chinese claim to Tibet. In a statement in 2008 where he reiterated his “Middle Way” approach, the Dalai Lama stated that “all Tibetans must be governed by similar administration that enjoys meaningful National Regional Autonomy and all the provisions in it, self-rule and full decision-making, except for matters concerning foreign relations and national defense. However, I have said it from the beginning that the Tibetans in Tibet have the right to make the final decision for the future of Tibet” (Gyatso). Essentially, what the Dalai Lama has begun to advocate for is a Tibet that is technically under Chinese control but is ruled for the most part by a Tibetan government. Despite the easing of the Dalai Lama’s position and his frequent public calls for discussion, China has continued to refuse major negotiations and peace talks. Politically, Tibet is still in a precarious position, and hopefully as Tibetans become more vocal, and the Tibetan Government in Exile and Dalai Lama continue to lobby for their cause globally, the situation will relax and honest, respectful negotiation will be possible.

As I previously alluded to, it has always been the goal of China to eradicate Tibetan culture and religion in Tibet. Tibetans in their own country are forced to lose their identity, and the Chinese banning of pictures of the Dalai Lama is a huge indicator of this. Tibet has been under not only political, but also spiritual rule by a Dalai Lama since the 15th century, and for China to suddenly forbid recognition of their cultural, political and spiritual leader was an earth-shaking change for most Tibetans. Outside of Tibet, however, Tibetan culture and mainly Tibetan Buddhism seem to be flourishing. During his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the Dalai Lama stated that: The awarding of the Nobel Prize to me, a simple monk from faraway Tibet, here in Norway, also fills us Tibetans with hope. It means, despite the fact that we have not drawn attention to our plight by means of violence, we have not been forgotten. It also means that the values we cherish, in particular our respect for all forms of life and the belief in the power of truth, are today [recognized] and encouraged. (nobelprize. org)

After his forced exile by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama was able to turn to India for support and establish the Tibetan Government in Exile. Because he had a supportive ally in India, as well as a firm base of operations, the Dalai Lama was then able to travel around the world spreading his religious ideas and messages of peace, expressing desire for the freedom of his country. Like a third dissemination of Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama traveled around the world, he took his ideology with him, and although it is not his goal to proselytize, those who hear him speak are often deeply affected and become curious about his religion because its message of peace is appealing. Tibetan Buddhist temples have sprung up all around the world, and many heads of state honor the Dalai Lama in various ways. It seems as China turns toward a stricter, more authoritarian policy within Tibet, externally Tibetan culture and religion have become more and more respected and prosperous.

Because the political situation in Tibet is so bleak and the two sides of the Tibet Question are continually unable to find a suitable answer for both sides, the future of Tibetan culture and religion within its borders is also bleak. As long as Tibet is controlled by China and their strict communistic, antiindividualist values, Tibetan culture will be squelched. However, there is hope for Tibetan Buddhism outside of the borders of Tibet. As the Dalai Lama gains popularity globally, so do his ideas and religion. Around the world, people have begun to consider themselves Tibetan Buddhists and friends of Tibet. As long as these people and dissenting voices within Tibet itself continue to speak out against the stringent, authoritarian climate imposed on Tibet by China, the Tibetan situation will continue to improve.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Melvyn C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama. California: University of California Press, 1999. 1-131. Print.

Gyatso, Tenzin. “Five Point Peace Plan.” Tibetan Government in Exile, 21 Sept 1987. Web. 30 Jan 2011.

Gyatso, Tenzin. “Nobel Lecture December 11, 1989.” Nobel Prize, 11 Dec 1989. Web. 15 Dec 2010.

Gyatso, Tenzin. “Statement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to all Tibetans.” Tibetan Government in Exile, 06 April 2008. Web. 30 Jan 2011.

Mackey, Robert. “Text of Chinese Dissident’s ‘Final Statement’.” New York Times (2010): 1. Web. 15 Dec 2010.

Rule, Shiela. “Dalai Lama Wins the Nobel Peace Prize.” New York Times (1989): 1. Web. 15 Dec 2010.

Saunders, Kate. “Why Liu Xiabo’s Nobel Prize Matters to Tibet.” Huffington Post 9 Dec. 2010: 1. Web. 11 Dec. 2010.