What Tibetan Protests Mean for China, Dalai Lama

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Renee Montagne talks to Robert Barnett, professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, about the Dalai Lama and China. Barnett describes the Tibetan protests as a disaster for China, but he says the unrest is also a crisis for the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Olympic torch arrives this week in India, and more protests against China's crackdown in Tibet are likely to follow. India shares a border with Tibet, and it's home to about 100,000 Tibetan exiles, including the Dalai Lama and his government in exile.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader is in the U.S. Yesterday on this program, the Dalai Lama renewed his call for greater autonomy for Tibet within China, but China continues to denounce him as a splittist, someone who really is aiming to split Tibet from China.

Over the weekend, the Dalai Lama had this reply:

DALAI LAMA (Spiritual Leader, Tibet): Both sides have one mantra to repeat, to recite. My mantra is: We are not seeking independence, we are not seeking independence, we are not seeking independence. The Chinese government mantra: Tibet is part of China, Tibet is part of China, Tibet is part of China. That's the Chinese government's sort of mantra.

Now I think an additional mantra is Dalai Lama is a splittist, splittist, splittist…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: The Dalai Lama said he was only half-joking. For more on the tensions between Tibet and China, we called Robert Barnett. He's a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, and he's been keeping a close eye on recent demonstrations in Tibet.

Mr. ROBERT BARNETT (Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University): What we see in recent weeks is something that hasn't happened in Tibet for some 40 or 50 years. You know, there have been, by my calculations, 96 protests in Tibet in the past six weeks or so, and I think 78 percent of those, as far as I can tell, happened in basically rural areas of Eastern Tibet, the part that China doesn't even recognize as Tibetan, and most of those are coming from nomads, farmers and so on in the countryside who are the base of the communist party support. They're the ones that should have gained most from land reforms, from eliminating the aristocracy and so on.

So when those people rise up in significant numbers, it's really a challenge to the legitimacy of the party. When they plant the flag of Tibetan independence over a burned-out police station somewhere in the Eastern Tibetan plateau, I think they're saying to China: We gave you this loyalty that you demanded. Where's your side of the bargain?

And they're saying very specifically, we don't want an answer from your local cadres, we don't want more money and more investments. We want you to sit down with the Dalai Lama and talk with him.

So I think this is quite significant for China. It has to really worry about whether this is an Achilles' heel for the whole communist party project, whether it's a thread that could unravel the whole blanket.

MONTAGNE: Although when you say that China has to worry, that sounds a bit ominous for Tibet.

Mr. BARNETT: Yes, you're right, and we see the traditional response of the Chinese and, let's be fair, of most states to serious unrest and challenge, which is the crackdown.

China, of course, has a long history in knowing how to do crackdowns, and it's not clear that the international community can persuade China to take the path that the international community wants it to take but rarely does itself, which is to negotiate with its opponents.

China might do that, but the problem is that all international pressure on China makes China feel more humiliated and reminds the Chinese more and more of 19th century imperialism and so on. So it's really a very complex problem to solve.

MONTAGNE: Would you weigh in on whether these protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay, news that some Western governments will boycott opening ceremonies, is this good or bad news for the Dalai Lama and the cause he represents?

Mr. BARNETT: Well, one thing that's very clear is the Dalai Lama is winning the debate over the Chinese claim that Tibetans are happy. And we may see that as a joke or facetious, as political fantasy talk, but actually some of us think that Chinese leaders really did believe that, that they had won the battle because they poured so much money into Tibetan towns, and it did improve the wealth of the new middle class there.

They even were reported publicly, actually, that the fact that there were no Dalai Lama photos to be seen anywhere publicly inside Tibet was because Tibetans didn't like him anymore rather than the obvious fact that they were banned.

So that argument has been won by the Dalai Lama's side. Some Tibetans, significant numbers, are clearly not happy, but at the same time, the Dalai Lama does face a kind of crisis in that he is the leader of a movement which is in a sense now vindicated by its internal constituency, but it isn't a movement that can necessarily give China an easy solution.

It's so difficult for China to agree to sit down and talk with this man, and it's so much easier for China to condemn violence and to say these people are terrorists and to use the security policy to crack down on them rather than to talk.

MONTAGNE: Just on the subject of autonomy and independence, the Dalai Lama has insisted that he's only asking for autonomy. The Chinese insist that's a disguise for seeking independence. Why is it so hard for the Chinese to accept that he may only be asking for autonomy for Tibet?

Mr. BARNETT: Well, I very strongly feel that we have to consider that all Chinese claims and objections, however stridently they're expressed, have some real basis to them. They're based on a perception of some reality that then gets some kind of nationalist intensity added to it, and I think what happens here is that inside China, politics is really about unity, dissent and, complexity or not, things you express in public.

But in other states, and the Dalai Lama's clearly part of this, you try to infuse political speech, public speech, with emotion and sincerity and variety, and you try to express that you have different constituencies.

You talk to your domestic constituency and then to the world and, in the Dalai Lama's case, to your spiritual group that is interested in your other ideas, and this produces a kind of really wide range of discussion and phrases that the Chinese analyze in every particular, and they find differences.

They find him telling his ordinary people: You much continue your struggle. I appreciate what you're going through. You have suffered so much. And at the same time, he's saying publicly: I will give up independence.

We outsiders can square those differences. One is sympathy and the other is a kind of formal, political, diplomatic statement. For China, they read these as total difference. They read these as contradiction and hypocrisy. And this is fueled even more by a sense, very strong in China, much-generated by the media there, that there's a history of reversal in Dalai Lama politics.

China sees him as someone who historically has made friendly noises and then allowed an independence movement to come up from offstage. So these are deep differences in how people think about politics and how they think about words.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BARNETT: My pleasure, and thank you.

MONTAGNE: Robert Barnett is professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. And you can hear my interview with the Dalai Lama at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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