Tibet’s Dangerous Game

China take heed: a new generation of Tibetan youth is coming of age and these young people have little interest in playing by the rules of the game to which you are accustomed. As protests evolved into riots and riots turned into violence over the last several weeks in Tibet, it became increasingly clear that Tibetan youths do not plan on maintaining the status quo ante that has characterized Sino-Tibetan relations over the last generation. The recent escalation of violence between China and Tibet illustrates why China cannot continue to react to Tibetan discord in a typically authoritarian manner, particularly in light of the increasing role of exiled Tibetan youths in Tibet’s independence movement.

Given such grassroots changes, Tibet too would do well to reform its approach to its relationship with China. The cognitive dissonance within the existing independence movement – between those who urge action and those who urge dialogue – must be reconciled or Tibetan demands for freedom may ultimately fall on deaf ears. Tibet must present a unified position in its dealings with China and the world.

China, meanwhile, must develop a strategy vis-à-vis Tibet that allows it to preserve both face and regional stability. Both must acknowledge and adapt to the dramatic changes happening within the Tibetan independence movement. A failure to do so only ensures that both parties will continue with their mistaken belief that they are operating within the same framework that has existed since the attempted Tibetan uprising in 1959; the inevitable result of this political miscalculation can only mean more violence. Because a continued escalation of violence is a losing proposition for both parties, a new understanding between China and Tibet must come to fruition or all may be worse off.

The U.S. role in all this should not be an intervening or inflammatory one; rather it should be one of support that urges restraint on both sides. The United States must avoid the zero-sum balance between preserving regional stability on one side and promoting human rights and the right of self-determination on the other. If the United States leans too strongly in favor of regional stability at the expense of human rights, China may only be encouraged to continue its authoritarian response to civil disobedience in the name of harmony. On the other hand, if the United States leans too heavily toward human rights and self-determination at the expense of regional stability, it will unintentionally encourage continued Sino-Tibetan strife and geopolitical instability. Greater global economic troubles could easily result.

Different Game, Different Rules

By all indications, China appears to be treating the latest eruption in Tibet much the same way as it has treated every sizable civil disruption from Xinjiang to Shanghai over the last 60 years – with increased physical and electronic surveillance, arrests, and violence. Therein lies the problem. These latest Tibetan protests differ from those China has dealt with in the past and therefore require a response that differs from the routine authoritarian playbook. Attempts to quell Tibetan unrest using conventional Chinese tactics will likely only foment further unrest.

These protests are not specifically about democracy, land usage rights, or welfare provisions per se, all common protest themes of Han Chinese. Rather, they are about de jure independence. They are not limited to a single concentrated area or even a single country; instead, the protests have gone global and become highly diffused. Nor are the protests centrally organized, by the Dalai Lama or any other lead coordinator. On the contrary, these protests reveal a much-reported schism between the Dalai Lama’s historically moderate leadership and the comparatively radical views of the Tibetan Youth Congress and its affiliate organizations. Though the Dalai Lama has made great efforts to unite the Tibetan Youth Congress with the existing Tibetan power structure in a common cause, the previous generation differs too greatly from the new generation in both means and ends.

Consistent with the tenets of Buddhism and under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, Tibet has mostly pursued a “middle way” toward independence characterized by moderate positions, open dialogue with China, and a gradualist approach that more or less accepted the autonomy granted it in 1951. In contrast, the Youth Congress is composed of young Tibetans in exile, products of an imposed diaspora that has prevented most of them from ever visiting the land of their fathers. Their desire to “free Tibet” has as much to do with their globalized thinking and Western notions of self-determination as it does with their cultural heritage. And although they greatly admire the Dalai Lama and often claim Buddhism as their religion, they exhibit far less patience and far greater agitation with the current understanding China and Tibet have regarding their mutual relations.

Protests 2.0

Armed with information of a globalizing world and the requisite technology to access and disseminate it, the Youth Congress and others have gone global with their defiance of the status quo. Tibetans in exile can be found standing outside Chinese embassies throughout the world, staging hunger strikes and sit-ins, all the while calling impatiently for uncompromising concessions from Beijing. Their virtual global networks ensure that any Chinese brutality will be immediately captured and beamed around the world for all to see. Since the protests and riots coincide with an event as symbolic as the Olympic Games the Tibetan youth demographic have chosen to play every metaphorical card at their disposal. Increasingly, this decentralized, spontaneous, and highly digitized move toward greater pressure on Beijing resembles a new kind of brinksmanship, a dangerous political game traditionally reserved for nation-state actors.

Beijing’s decision to respond heavy-handedly is the result of a cost/benefit analysis. If history is any guide, China is willing to risk receiving demarches from countries that express opposition to Chinese brutality as long as the draconian tactics restore harmony or at least stability. The potential for miscalculation in this case stems from Beijing’s assumption that an oppressive response will silence the disquiet. It will not. The zealous and impatient nature of the globally enlightened, technologically savvy Tibetan youth movement virtually guarantees that an escalation of force from Beijing will be met with an escalation of outrage, which will only perpetuate a cycle of violence.

Such a devolution of Sino-Tibetan relations could result in Tibet permanently failing to secure independence. Meanwhile, China will see the erosion of its soft power globally, its hopes of leadership regionally, and its sense of unity nationally, all at a time when public image weighs heavily on whether the Olympics will be a success.

Tread Lightly

Under such circumstances, the highest priority for the United States should be to stop the cycle of violence in the most responsible way possible. In this case, declaring unabashed support for the protestors would only inflame China, embolden the protestors, and ensure that violence will continue. By contrast, the best chance for the violence to end resides in reestablishing unanimity within the Tibetan independence movement. A unified Tibet will, at a minimum, provide China with a coherent negotiating partner and a common voice on Tibetan issues. The United States should take a step back from a zero-sum understanding of human rights on the one hand and national, interest-based considerations for regional stability on the other.

The only discernable way to avoid such a zero-sum game is for Washington to put the full weight of its soft power resources behind aligning the opinions of Tibetan youths-in-exile with that of the Dalai Lama. The implementation of such a policy would be complex and challenging. But it would not compromise the U.S. stance on human rights because the issue of human rights would not be on the table. At the same time, such actions may encourage a cessation of hostilities that would help preserve regional stability. At the very least, it will allow the United States to do no harm, which should always be its first priority in foreign policy.

Tibet will have greater international credibility if its people speak with one voice. Staying on message will also increase the likelihood that the Dalai Lama will once again be able to exercise a degree of control over the Tibetan people. This may help to convince China that the Dalai Lama does indeed speak on behalf of his people. At a time when China needs peace in its restive regions more than ever, a unified Tibet may provide the only opportunity for China to consider an agreement with the Dalai Lama that both sides would be able to implement. At the same time, it will not be easy to unify the Tibetan opposition movement, since it has no discernable structure or decision-making authority. The United States should do what it can to help consolidate the Tibetan position but should also acknowledge that it has a necessarily limited role to play in this drama.

China, for its part, must realize sooner rather than later that to end the hostilities it must engage in dialogue and at least appear to make some kind of concessions. Official statements indicate that China is willing to engage in conditional dialogue, but these conditions – namely that the Dalai Lama first quell Tibetan unrest – need to be removed. These conditions reveal, among other things, that China simply is not accounting for the changes taking place in the Tibetan independence movement when they calculate their actions and reactions. China must realize that the nature of the game it normally plays is changing. China must change its game with Tibet – before it can hope to host a successful Olympic games this August.

Van Jackson is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and a frequent writer on Asian business and political issues. He is also a former East Asia Specialist with the Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.