Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Tibet - A Self Made Trap For China
Corriere della Sera - March 5th 2009

If you were planning to visit Tibet this month, then you had better think again. It is closed. Foreign visitors have been banned, amid a big security clampdown in what China calls the “Tibet Autonomous Region”, as well as parts of the four neighbouring provinces. The reason is that this is an anniversary month, of a very unhappy sort. It is the 50th anniversary of the failed uprising by Tibetans against Chinese Communist Party rule in 1959, as a result of which the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India with about 100,000 followers. So it is also the first anniversary of the protests last year on that same date that so shocked the Chinese rulers in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. As it showed last year, China is certainly strong enough to maintain its secure grip over Tibet for as long as it wants to. But even so it is in a trap of its own making.

            China wants Tibet to be part of China, and to feel content about being so. Mao Zedong invaded China in 1950 for strategic reasons: he wanted China’s western border to be the impregnable Himalayan mountains rather than the easily crossed Tibetan plateau. That is also why the last Chinese imperial dynasty, the Qings, had maintained control (though not direct rule) over Tibet from the 17th century until the dynasty fell from power in 1911.

            The trap, however, is that the more effort that China makes to maintain its control over Tibet, the more that Tibetans of successive generations resent it and become determined eventually to break free.  More than half a century after Mao’s invasion, and following several decades of rising standards of living in Tibet, the urge for independence remains strong. That is what last year’s protests confirmed. It was shocking to the Chinese government that those protests happened at all, but it was even more shocking that one of the main features of the riots was violence against Chinese settlers in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and other Tibetan cities.

            China’s hope appears to be that economic development and the eventual death of the current Dalai Lama will reconcile Tibetans’ to their fate as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. The Dalai Lama will be 74 years old this year. As the leader who fled into exile in 1959 he remains the focal point for Tibetan dissent. But would a successor be any different? The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, has insisted on the right to choose the reincarnated successor to the current Dalai Lama when he dies. By doing so, however, it is guaranteeing a huge dispute at the time of the succession.

            Many other countries, faced with a determined separatist movement in a province with a clear ethnic and religious difference from the dominant population, have seen that in the end they cannot win: the battle will go on until either independence or a genuine form of autonomy within the country has been granted. That was Britain’s experience with Ireland, which was part of Britain for just as long as Tibet has been under China’s control; and it is Spain’s experience with the Basque province. Eventually, China will have to grant a proper form of autonomy to Tibet.

            If you look at the official name of “the Tibet Autonomous Region” you might be fooled into thinking this has already happened. But within China, Tibet in fact has no autonomy. Such self-government was promised by Chairman Mao to the Dalai Lama in 1951, but the promise was broken, which is what triggered off the 1959 uprising (though CIA support probably also played a part). The other problem is that Tibet is not Tibet: to weaken Tibetan opposition, Mao broke the country up, handing large parts of historical Tibet to the four neighbouring provinces of Yunnan, Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai. So to grant “autonomy” to “Tibet” would require the Chinese government to re-draw its own provincial boundaries. This Tibetan trap is going to be very hard to escape from.


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