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Tibet’s Place in Asia’s Future: Repression, Resilience and Relevance

Tibet’s Place in Asia’s Future: Repression, Resilience and Relevance

Dr Tsering Topgyal is a lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Political Science and International Studies of the University of Birmingham

Tibetans are experiencing very challenging times both inside and outside Tibet. Under Xi Jinping’s stifling authoritarianism, Tibetans inside Tibet are being subjected to an extraordinarily heavy dose of securitised assimilationism and generalised repression and surveillance. Consequently, large-scale and dramatic forms of resistance, comparable to the 2008 uprising and the self-immolations between 2009 and 2022, have receded, compelling a leading China scholar to confide to me that Tibetans are the new model minority. Beijing has also employed a policy of vilifying the Dalai Lama and the India-based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing has not resumed since 2010.

In exile, the aging Dalai Lama’s reduced international activities and the polarisation of the diaspora community along ideological and regional lines have reduced the profile of the Tibetan cause. The ascendance of the Uyghur and Hong Kong issues further eclipse the visibility of Tibet in the international media and public forums.

What does all of this portend for the future of Tibet in Asia? Has Xi Jinping succeeded, where all his predecessors failed, in eroding the distinctiveness of Tibetan identity and stemming their political aspirations for rights, autonomy and independence? Has Tibet become immaterial to regional and international affairs? Is the CTA doomed to implosion? Will the diaspora become irrelevant to internal developments in Tibet? This piece reviews these formidable challenges, but argues that, even then, Tibet will remain a challenge for Beijing and relevant to international affairs.

The situation was bleak even before President Xi took over, but he has unexpectedly presided over a highly repressive set of practices characterised by wide-ranging campaigns of securitisation and Sinicization. As early as 2013, Xi told the delegates representing Tibet at the 12th National People’s Congress, “To effectively govern the country, we must first govern the frontiers, and to govern the frontiers effectively, we must ensure stability in Tibet.” He reinforced this call for Tibet’s securitisation in terms of China’s ‘overall national security’ in successive speeches at the 6th and 7th Central Tibet Work Forums in 2015 and 2020 respectively. Local officials adapted this directive to mean that to stabilise Tibet, they need to control the monasteries and lamas in order to win over the surrounding communities.

Securitization entailed viewing everything Tibet and Tibetan as an actual or potential threat to the security of China and the Communist Party. This involved proscribing any expression or act critical of Chinese rule, including criminalising any one committing or suspected of aiding self-immolations, following the Dalai Lama or communicating with foreign entities. Securitisation also exacerbated the multifaceted dragnets of surveillance, censorship, grid-management, blacklisting, prevention and early warning systems relying on new technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence. Reports of DNA harvesting and Iris scanning campaigns in the Tibetan regions in addition to other biometric data are troubling, not least the use of Western technology, e.g. Thermo Fisher’s DNA kits, in these efforts. The combination of harsh punishment meted out in the form of arbitrary detention and long-term imprisonment for protesting, writing and singing in opposition to Chinese rule and for merely communicating with exiled Tibetans and listening to the Dalai Lama’s teachings or possessing his images, the carrot-and-stick application of economic instruments, and the preventative strategies have caused a lull in the more attention-grabbing forms of resistance. However, since 14th February 2024, Tibetans in Derge County, Eastern Tibet have been protesting the building of another Chinese dam on Drichu River, which will submerge their village and a number of culturally and historically important monasteries in the region. The self-immolations have declined from a high of 84 in 2012 to 2 in 2022. The crackdown extended to the flow of Tibetan refugees such that only 55 Tibetans reached India between 2020–2023. Those who manage to flee are still subject to Beijing’s transnational repression.

Part of the securitization drive was the problematization of Tibetan distinctiveness and the need to foster stronger identification with a Chinese national identity, which called for an extensive campaign of Sinicization. Understandably, most of the attention falls on the cultural and psychological transformation of Tibetans to Chinese, which is indeed the end-goal. The remoulding of Tibetan children into ‘Chinese citizens’ in state-controlled boarding schools, imposing Mandarin Chinese and curbing the teaching and use of Tibetan language, and the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism - promoting ‘Chinese culture and endeavour to integrate religious tenets with Chinese culture’ in Xi Jinping’s words - are core elements of the assimilationist programme.

However, Sinicization is subtler and more multifaceted than the radical cultural and psychological remaking of Tibetans. It includes everyday measures such as compelling Tibetans to install portraits of Chinese leaders in their homes, while banning the Dalai Lama’s images, hoisting Chinese flags on their roofs, and lining the streets with Chinese flags and lanterns every few steps. Sinicization also asserts the Chineseness of Tibetan history and cultural traditions and products. The historical Tibetanisation of Indian Buddhism is now described as Sinicization and Tibetan cultural products such as Tibetan medicine, opera, circle-dancing and the Gesar epic, to name just a few, are all being appropriated as ‘Chinese’ culture. Another phenomenon is the promotion not just of the narrative of historical Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but also emphasising the historical exchanges between Tibetans and Chinese, particularly the narrative of Chinese contributions to the development of Tibetan culture. Even Tibetan residential and temple wall murals are not spared in the search for Chinese influences on Tibetan culture. Finally, ‘Tibet’ itself has been replaced by ‘Xizang’ in the official documents and online sources in English. Clearly, Chinese and Tibetan officials and scholars are increasingly creative in responding to Xi’s call to Sinicize Tibet, and it is difficult not to be disturbed by these developments.

Meanwhile, the exile establishment is beset by a panoply of challenges: Beijing’s containment strategies, the Dalai Lama’s advancing age, depopulation of schools and monasteries driven by China’s clampdown on cross-border traffic, out-migration to Western nations and falling birth-rates, and a debilitating polarisation driven by a mix of ideological differences and regional loyalties to two leaders who competed for the top position of Sikyong (political leader) following the Dalai Lama’s devolution of political authority to democratically elected leaders in 2011. This clash of egos and interests at the top is being fanned by mostly regionally defined social media echo-chambers traversing the global diaspora. This polarisation is now infecting even the minds of intellectuals and children born in exile and taking attention away from developments inside Tibet. The implosion of CTA, an unthinkable prospect even a few decades ago, is now a distinct possibility when the uniting force of the Dalai Lama’s presence is absent. Indeed, the challenges are considerable but they are partly self-inflicted.

Yet, even in the face of these daunting challenges at home and abroad, it is safe to say that Tibet and the Tibetans will persist and remain relevant to Asian affairs. As much as China’s repression and assimilationism today is severe, Tibetans have weathered far worse in the past: the genocidal crackdown against the uprisings in the 1950s, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. In fact, the repressive Sinicization could very well strengthen Tibetan identity and resistance just as the uprising in 2008 was triggered partly by memories of historical atrocities. Indeed, Tibet is in the safe hands of the Tibetans inside Tibet for now. Overall, they epitomize resilience, resourcefulness, dedication and loyalty. Tibetans are taking a break from the dramatic acts of protest, rightly so I think, instead engaging in subtle, everyday forms of resistance, but their spirits are as strong as ever. A recent hit song declared:

‘When I was born, my beloved father entrusted me to the birth-mountain,

And said, “My darling child should have a self-will firmer than the mountain.”

When I was born, my beloved mother entrusted me to the grassland,

And said, “My darling child should have a heart more spacious than the grassland.'”

The polarisation in exile is to some extent part and parcel of democratic politics, particularly during the early stages of democratic transition. However, exiled Tibetans need to get over their tribal approach to democratic politics and leave behind their chauvinistic regionalism and spoilt-by-freedom internal rancour. They need to reform the exile electoral system so that elected officials are accountable to the entire electorate, not just to regional and sectarian bases, thereby restraining extremism and brinksmanship. Nothing less than the implosion of the exile establishment is at stake. Emigration to Western nations is not without its upsides as it opens up opportunities for enhancing human resources, building social capital in Western societies, and contributing to financial self-sufficiency of the refugee community. Successful and financially well-off Tibetans should patronise artistic, literary and cultural productions and the academic ambitions of other Tibetans, not just bankroll the building of physical infrastructure in India and elsewhere. The only way the small diaspora population can remain relevant to the Tibetans inside Tibet after this Dalai Lama is to produce high quality and innovative cultural, literary, musical, cinematic, scholarly, and philosophical treasures that can captivate their attention. This is a tall order, but the alternative is mutual irrelevance. Internationally, Tibetans need to study the shifts in power and relationships in regional and international affairs in minute detail, reconfigure and reframe Tibet’s place in these relationships, and advance a strategic narrative that eschews the image of Tibetans as just objects of pity and Tibet as just a humanitarian cause. They need to assert and demonstrate that they are significant contributors to their host societies and experienced partners in dealing with China.

Finally, Tibet will continue to play a role in regional and international politics. Geography alone will ensure that Tibet impinges upon India-China relations, particularly the intractability of the border dispute. The transnational force of the cultural commonality of the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas with Tibet and the presence of the exile community, most prominently the Dalai Lama and CTA in India, will also ensure Tibet’s relevance to India-China geopolitics. India’s deployment of the mostly-Tibetan Special Frontier Forces during its confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army in Ladakh (2020) and the presence of Tibetan soldiers on both sides of the confrontations illustrate the complex encroachment of Tibet into India-China competitions. The transnational space of Tibetan Buddhism will be another site of Tibetan engagement with Asian geopolitics, not the least of which is the looming contest for control over the next Dalai Lama. Tibet’s bountiful natural resources, particularly resources for producing new technologies such as chips and its freshwater reserves that feed billions of people downstream in China, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, should not be underestimated. As a human rights issue, Tibet will factor in China’s relations with Western nations and international institutions, which in US-China relations will also acquire some geopolitical significance. It is interesting that the legislative language of the US Congress on Tibet is transcending the erstwhile human rights strait jacket to challenging China’s designs over the Dalai Lama’s succession and recognizing the unresolved status of Tibet. Tibet’s geopolitical import will be directly proportional to the severity of China’s rivalry with other great powers and the magnitude of its domestic political challenges, particularly the economic resources for subsidising and subjugating Tibet.

Irrespective of these external variables, Tibetans inside Tibet and their future generations and changes in Chinese politics will be the key determinants. History and politics between China and the Tibetans will continue just as Tibetans have survived foreign incursions since the 13th century. History shows and current events reinforce that Tibetans inside Tibet will put up a valiant fight for their identity and rights. The question is: how will the exile community and international partners answer the call of history?

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

Read more from Dr Tsering Topgyal

China and Tibet: The Perils of Insecurity
Over sixty years of violence and dialogue have brought China and the Tibetans no closer to a resolution of their conflict. Tsering Topgyal argues that it is China’s sense of insecurity, its perception of itself as a socio-politically weak state, which has disproportionately influenced its policies towards the religion, language, education and economy of Tibet. It is a probing enquiry into Sino-Tibetan relations, both at the level of high politics and everyday interactions exploring why prospects for dialogue are so weak and explaining why each side continues to harden its position.

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