The Struggle in Saffron

The fiftieth anniversary of Tibet’s uprising against the Chinese invasion of their country has come and gone, marked mostly by unprecedented tightening of Chinese security and the silencing of Tibetan voices. While the occasional blogger noted 50 years of totalitarian oppression, the world remained fixated on trying to guess when the other economic shoe will drop.

Ironically, it is this economic upset that holds the potential for a new model of politics and freedom in Tibet and the larger world.

Although Tibet is often depicted as a picturesque land populated by exotic monks, it is representative of much larger global trends – the struggle of a people to retain their land, culture and faith while occupied by a hostile power, and wider geopolitical entanglements in which small nations and enclaves are used as buffers and proxies by great powers. On the China-India border, Tibet is such a flashpoint.

The moment is right for the world to assist the Tibetans in achieving their freedom. The global downturn has exacerbated internal inconsistencies in China, and some analysts suggest China has suffered more from this than any other country. As unemployment and unrest spread, the failure to meet rising expectations is destabilizing the regime. Lacking any legitimacy other than force and concerned only with retaining its power, the Chinese government’s primary response has been greater repression. The financial and moral costs of this are high. Increasing those costs through a concerted campaign of non-violence could tip the balance to the point that freeing Tibet is the best option available.

Tibet is uniquely positioned for a mass social movement. It has a history and culture of non-violence and compassion and enjoys a largely sympathetic world. It has a highly regarded spokesperson in the Dalai Lama and visible supporters with access to significant resources and the Western media. Tibetans and their supporters can build on these conditions and inspire a new global model.

The model emerges from the new science of complex systems. It suggests a ‘self-organizing’ mass movement utilizing the latest understandings of social network dynamics, and communication and coordination technologies to pump renewed energy and hope into a seemingly hopeless situation. It also relies on new, ‘distributed’ leadership at every level.

Organizers must seize the narrative from the beginning, using fundamental values of liberty, justice, democracy and freedom. Chinese authorities (not the Chinese people) should be framed as the heirs to the Communist tyrants who murdered landowners and teachers, imprisoned millions during the Cultural Revolution, and invaded India and Viet Nam as well as Tibet.

Tibetans should be framed as people who have for 50 years been denied freedom of speech and religion and freedom to work in their own country. While their temples have been destroyed and their monks and religious leaders tortured and exiled, Tibetans continue to respond peacefully. Sympathy should also be expressed for the Chinese people, who have suffered under these tyrants even longer.

Simultaneous non-violent approaches should be applied, including civil disobedience, economic disruption and media saturation. The campaign should capitalize on fears about poisoned food and toys in nations consuming Chinese goods. Targeted advertising, petition drives and public demonstrations should be coordinated in North America and Western Europe.

The media initiative must be seized and maintained to continuously inform the world through a Tibetan narrative. A communications collaborative should manage a media strategy that includes a ‘10 minute news cycle’ with instant updates and responses that cannot be ignored. This will allow the Tibetan effort to ‘get inside’ the Chinese response cycle and maintain the initiative.

Another collaborative of technical experts should access technological avenues, not least cell and satellite phones, and live videos, podcasts and updates to mainstream media outlets and alternative networks, such as Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and My Space. The international press must be included and facilitated.

Serious retaliation is anticipated. We do not minimize the pain inflicted on the Tibetan people during such an effort through police and military / paramilitary attacks as well as extended and brutal detention. The Dalai Lama has urged Tibetans to ignore Chinese provocations, saying, “Any radical moves would give the Chinese government an excuse to take harsher steps. It is difficult to achieve a meaningful outcome by sacrificing lives.” The campaign should be prepared to publicize every vicious Chinese response.

The Chinese government will correctly view all mass action as an existential threat to the regime. Widespread unrest and discontent are likely if the effects spread and are multiplied by other internal stresses. Attempts to open back channel dialog with elements of the Peoples Liberation Army as well as Chinese economic moguls should be considered.

Any action is extremely time sensitive. A narrow window, 6-12 months perhaps, exists before global markets either stabilize or degrade to the point they divert attention from totalitarian responses.

Governments also have a significant role to play. In fact, a non-violent open source movement offers the United States – and China – a powerful opportunity to get on the right side of the world revolution. ‘Soft power’ has been helpful to China in the past, and the U.S. could help mediate the simmering border conflict between India and China. We could also move beyond our historical support for oppressive regimes in the name of ‘stability’.

If an open source, non-violent revolution in Tibet were to succeed, and the model and methods were adapted and spread across the world, the positive benefits to the U.S. and the world are incalculable. Imagine three billion new producers and consumers welcomed into a world of equity, justice and sustainability. Imagine what that inclusion could mean for peace, democracy and economic development.

The new science of complex systems tells us that in times of rapid change such as ours the only certainty is uncertainty, and the only security is strong relationships. We don’t get to know what will happen because the future is unpredictable, but we know that we have to get through it together. Tibet is our field of dreams, and now is the time for the whole world to step up to the plate. How apt that the future could begin where the past is so well preserved spiritually and traditionally, and where the best of it has resisted and could triumph over modern totalitarianism.

John Goekler and Merle Lefkoff, PhD work through The Madrona Institute, a center for breakthrough diplomacy and peacemaking and complexity-based solutions to intractable problems, located on San Juan Island, Washington, and in Santa Fe, New Mexico.