Law in Contemporary Society

What is the Tibet Problem?

-- By SunYi - 04 April 2008


The recent riot in Tibet has attracted much international attention. Scholars and reports have listed a number of reasons for the riot:

  1. Political independence;
  2. Religious freedom;
  3. Cultural preservation;
  4. Human rights protection;
  5. Environmental problems;
  6. It’s the economy, stupid.

Undoubtedly, they are all very important, but we need to have a priority, a focus. We need to identify the real problem before solving it. So what are the Tibetans really fighting for?

Political Independence

Although the Tibetans might have a right to choose independence, the political reality is undeniable: Tibet is under Chinese rule now. There is a huge political cost for the Chinese government if it lets Tibet become independent. Not only the government, but most Chinese people would not be in favor of such a proposition either. The bottom line for China is that “anything except independence can be discussed.” (Deng Xiaoping’s message to the Dalai Lama)

In response to this message, Dalai Lama had abandoned independence, but only demanded “autonomy” (I’m not sure of its meaning). He also insisted on non-violent, peaceful means, and actively sought negotiation with the Chinese government. However, China set another pre-condition for negotiations that the Dalai Lama could not accept—he had to recognize that Tibet has historically always been a part of China.

History and morality almost always subject to interpretation and perception, and they are not really helpful in reaching a realistic solution. As Dalai Lama has become practical in abandoning the “moral” issue of independence, China should put away the “history” issue as well. And then dialogues and negotiations could begin.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Once the issue of political independence is solved, the most urgent problem seems to be the economy.

Most people agree that under the Chinese rule, Tibetans’ living standards have been greatly improved. However, as Tibet becomes more prosperous, Tibetans did not benefit as much as the Han Chinese people. There is a stark economic inequality between the Han and the Tibetans.

Theories on Economic Inequality

Some scholars and reporters suggested a conspiracy theory for the disparity: Chinese government deliberately tried to benefit the Han Chinese solely, systematically excluding the Tibetans from the newly created wealth. However, the theory is based only on observance, and all that is observed is the effect. Those authors do not have sufficient evidence to point to a cause.

In fact, many other factors can help explain the situation:

  1. Culture: Perhaps the Tibetans do not want to participate in economic activities as much as the Han people do. They might be more interested in religious activities, spiritual well being, and moral construction, instead of pursuing material wealth.
  2. Education and skill: most Tibetans had a lower level of education than most Han people. Many Tibetans do not speak or write Chinese or other languages, thus unable to compete with them.
  3. History: Han people were already familiar with business settings and rules before they went to Tibet. They knew what could make money and how to make money. The Tibetans had very little exposure and experience in that field, and they could not be as successful as the Han people.

Many people perceive Tibetans as a special minority group who is the victim of the Chinese rule. However, the economic problems that the Tibetans have are not unique to them, but common to many Han people as well. Inequality is seen everywhere in China, between urban and rural areas, between the south and north, the east and west. It is doubtful that this result is what the government intended. There are pre-conditions that made some people better off than others.


Whatever the reasons is, I think the government could certainly do more to correct the economic inequality problem in Tibet.

  1. Education: in fact, the government has already been doing so. Not only the Tibetans enjoy free public education, but if the children go to school, the parents are paid a small amount by the government as compensation to the children’s work at home. Also, a Tibetan, as well as all other minorities, would automatically get ten more points in college admission. However, the government needs to do more. Tibet needs more schools and good teachers. Due to transportation difficulty and economic reality (parents need children to help out at home and in the field), it is probably still a luxury for the majority of Tibetans who do not live in Lhasa to get educated.
  2. Transportation and infrastructure: it is essential economic growth and the government should invest more in this area.
  3. Business favors: Right now the Han people and the Tibetans face the same regulations. The policies are mostly “face-neutral.” But that’s not good enough for the Tibetans. The government should design some measure to favor them. For example, the government could reserve a certain percentage of business to the Tibetans, grant Tibetans loans on a more favorable condition, relax some regulations for them, etc.

Other Problems

All the others problems listed in the introduction, including religious freedom, cultural preservation, human rights protection and environmental problems are not unique to Tibetans, but they are common problems to all Chinese people. Moreoever, cultural preservation and pollutions are probably concerns for many developing countries right now. The Tibetans are certainly not alone. It is arguably a global problem: how do we preserve our culture and identity when facing the massive globalization?


The Tibet Problem is probably not so much about “freedom” or “independence”, but the economy. Therefore, the many “Free Tibet” campaigns in the West which aim for its independence probably would not do much good. Instead, a more rational and effective approach would be to ask the Chinese government to put aside the “history” argument, to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, to listen to the Tibetans, and to deliver more economic benefits to them.

  • I don't know how you reach the conclusion here. I know how the Chinese governement reaches the conclusion that all Tibet needs is modernization: that's the geopolitical purpose that Tibet now serves for China. A modernized Chinese-held Tibet is the launching platform for Chinese possession of the natural resources of Central Asia, and the expansion of China at the expense of the Indian and Russian Powers on its borders. Tibet is the most important "high ground" in contemporary geopolitics, with the possible exception of Afghanistan. The Chinese invasion of Tibet with Russian permission in the aftermath of the British Empire's loss of India was a critical turn taken, and China has no desire whatever to return a prize that has immeasurably multiplied in value.

  • But from any but the colonizer's perspective, bellicose historical claims are irrelevant, and the absence of consent by the inhabitants to the continuation of colonial rule is flagrant. This is a military invasion followed by annexation to create a colonial regime, like the tiny Israeli Empire on the West Bank of the Jordan, and its revolted former province taken from the transitional regime, that even tinier sliver that is Gaza. The much larger but similarly evanescent Russian Empire in Asia has collapsed; the wars of its partition have so far been only slight ones. Because no other Power will intervene on behalf of the Tibetans, as one will on behalf of the Taiwan republic, China is at present easily able to maintain its hold. Assured of continued military control, facing only pressure from international public opinion, China could run Tibet like Leopold's Congo if it wanted to. And as you stress, it does not. It is trying, consistent with its own geopolitical requirements, to do for Tibetans what it can without annoying the Han who have acquired all the commercial and industrial opportunities that Tibet affords.

  • A non-CCP government of China would still have the same geopolitical objectives, and would be determined to maintain control of Tibet. But a government ruling a multi-party democratic state might be willing to grant Tibetans the kind of domestic local autonomy in federated arrangements that holds Spain together at the present time. Such an outcome, however, is inconceivable under CCP rule, because federalism not only contravenes the long and hard-won principle of China as unitary empire, but also presupposes localist parties acting as competitors for power with the ruling Party. Given that there is no prospect that the CCP will peacefully cede power to a multiparty regime, one can only assume that the Tibetans will continue to radicalize--slowly given their history; they are not the Vietnamese--and eventually will begin trying, by irregular efforts, to push out the Chinese. That rebellion seems to have been pushed past the lifetime of the Dalai Lama by his passivity on political questions, which one either very much admires or deplores depending one's view of the situation, but at any rate the idea of a "Dalai clique" bent on independence is facially absurd outside the range of Chinese state propaganda. So sometime in the next thirty years, after the Dalai Lama has gone and perhaps as a consequence of his replacement by a Chinese-selected puppet, a Tibetan resistance is going to begin that will be very painful for China to fight, and very difficult for parties outside the region, with their geopolitical attention to the Chinese marches divided between Tibet and Taiwan, to support. China hopes, by the time tension reaches that level, to have a large majority of Han living in and controlling the economy of Tibet, so that any resistance can be even more fully described by the "bandits and criminals" model that Chinese governments always try to use to describe anti-Imperial ethnic risings. The fight with the Tibetans may be one of the tragic genocides of human history, or only a dirty little war like the continuing suppression of the Uygur in Xinjiang. But there is every sign that its likelihood is constantly increasing.

  • So why are you right that what's going to fix the desire for decolonization is improved material conditions? Did that happen anywhere in the twentieth century, the century in which the global disaggregation of the great empires was the dominant geopolitical process? What is it about Tibet that makes the inevitable not only avoidable but ignorable? Surely, even if your conclusions are the same as the conclusions emerging from Beijing, you can reasonably be asked to give some independent reason to believe them out here, where the underlying issues--and the history--look very different.


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r3 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:15:35 - IanSullivan
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