Tibet’s Last Hope?

The election of Harvard Law School fellow Lobsang Sangay as the Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, of the Tibetan government in exile has been framed as a much-needed repackaging of the Tibetan political agenda to meet the needs of the Tibetan struggle after the 14th Dalai Lama passes away.

However, an important new book, Tragedy in Crimson by Tim Johnson, McClatchy’s Beijing bureau chief for six years, [1] questions the effect that the marginalized and impotent emigre government in India will have on the spiral of repression, anger, resistance, and more repression that characterizes the lot of many Tibetan monks and lay people inside the ethnic-Tibetan regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Johnson’s book is an important contribution to what might be termed an “exit interview” genre of China correspondents.

On new assignment, and relieved of the worry of expulsion and conscious and self-conscious self-censorship, Western journalists can be frank in their choice of subjects and conclusions while writing their China books.

That wasn’t easy while working in China, as Johnson makes clear.

Since an initial trip in 2007, I had submitted multiple letters and faxes seeking permission to return to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, all to no avail … One foreign journalist asked [Jampa Phontsuk, chair of the Tibet Autonomous Region government] why authorities blocked foreign journalists from traveling to Tibet. Without a trace of mockery, he responded: “We very much welcome journalists … The ‘problem’ of not allowing foreign journalists to enter Tibet does not exist.” (pages 46-47)

While Johnson was still working in China, Chinese diplomats met with McClatchy’s chief executive officer to discuss his Tibet book – a book he hadn’t announced yet – advertising that they had obtained the information by monitoring his e-mails and phone calls.

With this context, it is easy to see why Chinese government claims concerning events in Tibet – indeed any events – receive a less-than-sympathetic hearing from Western journalists and their editors.

Johnson’s book is especially valuable because of the overarching theme he has chosen – China’s ethnic policy, with a focus of Tibet – and, in its first-hand testimony and cumulative detail, providing a unified picture of China’s aggressive efforts to secure its borderlands, from Tibet in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Inner Mongolia to the north.

It is clear that China is playing the economic integration card, pouring investment and Han immigrants into the Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongolian regions of the PRC.

Inner Mongolia counts as a victory for the Chinese policy. However, in Tibet, Qinghai, western Sichuan, and Xinjiang, the flip side of this economic and demographic incursion is local dissatisfaction, coupled with ferocious repression by security forces.

Even if the PRC government had a genuine “hearts and minds” approach to social control, apparently the best and brightest don’t end up in China’s remote westlands as security personnel and administrators.

The Chinese government may be able to build a 21st-century green train across the plateau to Lhasa, but the local cops have the mindset of good, old-fashioned racist goons of the type that used to deliver injustice in the American south.

Near the Labrang monastery, Johnson had conversation with a young monk and his sister:

I asked about the mood of the town, and he said it was tense. Tibetans faced discrimination. “If you look at government offices, there are hardly any Tibetans. Tibetans go to university and study hard, they can’t get a job … “. He told me how, during protests a year earlier, police raided the monastery, took fingerprints of all the monks, made them sign papers in Chinese characters that many didn’t understand, and ripped up all the photographs they could find of the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned in China … “We really, really hate Chinese people,” the sister said … “It isn’t the monks. It’s us young people.” (page 35)

In Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, Johnson spoke with Jamyang Kyi, a well-known local celebrity and writer, who sent off a text message passing along a report that several Tibetans had been killed in Qinghai during the 2008 unrest:

[P]lainclothes officers in Xining … took her away, first to the Public Security Office, then after a few days to an undisclosed location. During her captivity, she was bound to a chair with rope and interrogated at length. Over 21 days, she was given food on only 14 of them … She was barred from leaving Xining, she said, and all her telephone and Internet communications were monitored. She was not allowed to use the Internet at state-owned Qinghai Television, where she had been a writer, news editor, and producer … for some two decades, … before police let her return home, one officer said that her life held the value of a wadded piece of paper that could be cast away … (pages 198-200)

Mistreatment is not just for monks, activists, and sympathizers:

“[The brother of Johnson’s interview subject], a nomad, had taken a girlfriend on a love trek to Lhasa … when Lhasa erupted in protest … police … accused him of being a troublemaker because he’d come from outside the autonomous region. They tossed him in a truck and piled so many other detainees on top of him he almost lost consciousness. Police held him for 48 days, keeping a hood over his head for much of the time. Authorities transferred him many times during his detention, and when he was finally freed, it was in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, outside the Tibetan region. Police kept his shoes, sending him out of the door barefoot. (page 30)

Wholesale detention without due process or just cause, combined with brutal treatment, has predictable results:

Robin [alias of a young Tibetan in Qinghai] described the region as a cauldron of tension. Tibetans still were infuriated by numerous arrests in the wake of the 2008 protests. But local Tibetans had not organized themselves. “They are very angry at the Chinese government and the Chinese people,” Robin said. “But they have no idea what to do. There is no leader. When a leader appears and somebody helps out they will all join.” We … heard tale after tale of civil disobedience in outlying hamlets. In one village, Tibetans burned their Chinese flags and hoisted the banned Tibetan Snow Lion flag instead. Authorities … detained nine villagers … One nomad … said “After I die … my sons and grandsons will remember. They will hate the government.” (page 29)

This brings us back to the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, aka the Central Tibetan Administration or CTA, and its capacity to provide leadership to angry and abused Tibetans within the PRC.

Especially among frustrated younger Tibetan exiles, there is support for going beyond the Dalai Lama’s policy of negotiation with China towards autonomy, and agitating for independence instead.

The militant franchise in Dharamsala is held by several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), chief among them the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Gu Chu Sam association of ex-political prisoners, the Tibetan Women’s Congress, the National Democratic Front, and the Students for a Free Tibet (India), as well as the charismatic activist/author, Tenzin Tsundue.

In 2008, these groups, with the vocal leadership by Tsundue, banded together to form the imposingly named Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement.

Its manifesto stated:

It is time for Tibetans to take control of our future through a unified and coordinated resistance movement. We must now proclaim to the Chinese and to the world that the desire for freedom still burns in the heart of every Tibetan, both inside Tibet and in exile. In particular, the time has come for Tibetans in exile to boldly demonstrate that even after 50 years, we long to return to our homeland. A return march from exile in India back home to Tibet is being organized and will revive the spirit of the 1959 Uprising.

The 2008 Olympics will mark the culmination of almost 50 years of Tibetan resistance in exile. We will use this historic moment to reinvigorate the Tibetan freedom movement and bring our exile struggle for freedom back to Tibet. Through tireless work and an unwavering commitment to truth and justice, we will bring about another uprising that will shake China’s control in Tibet and mark the beginning of the end of China’s occupation. [2]

The “return march” fizzled under the disapproving gaze of the Indian government, which employed arrests, delays, and permit requirements to make sure the marchers never got near the border.

Nevertheless, the commencement of the march – on March 10, 2008 – was also the day that several hundred monks turned up at the Bokhara – the heart of Lhasa – for a silent vigil that promptly deteriorated into a security forces assault and a bloody anti-Han riot that claimed dozens of lives and sparked demonstrations and crackdowns at monasteries and towns throughout the Tibetan areas of the PRC.

March 10 is the anniversary of the date in 1959 when thousands of Tibetans gathered to protect the Dalai Lama at the Norbulinka Palace in Lhasa before his flight to India, and serves as a traditional occasion for Tibetans to reflect, make speeches, and demonstrate to protest the occupation of their homeland.

The march on the border and the appearance of the monks in Lhasa, therefore, may have simply been a coincidence.

Virtually all observers dismiss the TPUM as an amateurish and quixotic venture and question its reach inside China. The TPUM itself disavowed any direction of the unrest inside Tibetan China.

However, the Dalai Lama did denounce the violence by Tibetans and went as far as to threaten to resign his leadership of the Tibetan movement if it didn’t stop – a stance that would have an immediate effect on incitement emanating from the tiny community of Dharamsala but would have been almost impossible to convey into Tibetan areas of the PRC, given the total communications lockdown put in place by the Chinese government once the riots broke out.

In any case, TPUM evaporated as a political presence, and the leaders of the TYC and other groups interfaced with the media solely in their capacities as leaders of their respective NGOs.

Today, the consensus is that emigre Tibetan militants, whether affiliated with NGOs or seeking other outlets, have extremely limited capacity in coordinating activity inside the PRC or, for that matter, even engaging in hostile rhetoric, given the desire of the Indian government to keep a lid on Tibetan dissent.

Thierry Dodin director of the research and analysis organization TibetInfoNet, told Asia Times Online:

There is doubtlessly communication, partly indeed intense communication, between Tibetans within and outside the PRC. Coordination, though, is as good as nonexistent.

Tim Johnson speculates that whatever contacts the TYC has inside China, they probably do not extend far beyond the network of returned graduates from the Tibetan Children’s Village schools in India.

In 2011, Johnson told Asia Times Online that he doubted the effectiveness of the TYC as a voice for militancy in the Tibetan emigre community:

One look at the dilapidated headquarters of the TYC in Dharamsala is all it takes to realize it is little more than a shoestring operation. Its leaders may have a lot of passion but they have little capacity to fulfill their goals.

Thierry Dodin commented that the Tibetan Youth Congress would have to grow beyond its agitator mindset in order to gain influence in the Tibetan government … and avoid further fracture of the emigre movement to Beijing’s benefit:

TYC is nowadays what we would call in the West, particularly in Europe, a fundamental opposition movement or a “protest party” … At the moment they live from projecting themselves as radical … In order to get anywhere, become an efficient organization, they would have to completely re-think themselves … They would also have to shed their populistic character. There have even been (minor) cases of violent altercations by TYC functionaries against people not agreeing with them. So it is not unlikely a possible ‘awakening’ of TYC would become an internal exile conflict. Perhaps this is what China is counting on …

In this context, any rhetorical show of militancy from Dharamsala would probably be welcome to the PRC, as it would provide political cover and justification for the brutal headknocking it metes out to its Tibetan citizens daily as a matter of security and social control.

The TYC received more publicity thanks to the Chinese government – which elevated the group to the status of a terrorist organization sowing unrest, propaganda, and weapons throughout Tibetan areas of China in order to justify the 2008 crackdown – than it had enjoyed in the previous 30 years of its existence.

The TYC is dismissed as a “paper tiger” by Dodin:

It is a paper tiger pushed up by Chinese propaganda in 2008. In Tibet they hardly knew TYC before 2008, and even today they don’t really know what this is supposed to be. Despite all solidarity, the gap between exiles and Tibetans inside is huge.

Unfortunately, Beijing’s discovery of a militant faction among the emigre movement served primarily as a pretext to tar the Dalai Lama with the extremist brush and further delay negotiations with the vigorous but aging leader.

Without a capacity to organize or direct events inside China, and their effective function limited to providing second-and-third hand accounts of Chinese outrages to the foreign media, Dharamsala’s militants may find themselves serving primarily as China’s external national security excuse for its heavy-handed internal ethnic policies

Therefore, it appears that Dharamsala will have little ability to further the Tibetan agenda, either through moderation or militancy.

As the title of his book (subtitled How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China) indicates, Tim Johnson is pessimistic about the future of the Tibetan political project, and the Tibetan identity itself:

More and more Han migrants will arrive on the Tibetan Plateau, and almost inevitably Tibet will head the way of Inner Mongolia and other regions of the mainland subsumed by the vast Han majority. The race is nearly over. (page 299)

Returning to the subject in 2011, after the Arab Spring, Johnson told Asia Times Online:

I believe some Tibetans hope that an exogenous factor to their own struggle may open a door for them. Whether that is internal strife on the mainland or some other event, they (and we) don’t know. And the chances of this may not be great. That is why I choose a term from American football to describe it, that what they seek is a chance at a “Hail Mary pass” in which a losing team attempts an all-or-nothing play to avoid defeat. Clearly that calls for a confluence of circumstances to be successful, as it was for Timor-Leste in 1999. Is such an opportunity likely to open up for Tibetans? I have serious doubts.

However, the same escalating domestic repression that is enabled by Dharamsala’s lack of diplomatic, political, and organizational reach may elicit such dug-in opposition from ethnic Tibetans that China, sooner or later, may have to deal with it instead of crushing it with truncheons or sweeping it aside with a flood of economic development, Han immigrants, and tourists.

Dodin emphasized that the emigre community operates near the periphery of awareness for Tibetans within the PRC, and to focus on Dharamsala, even with the presence of the 14th Dalai Lama and especially after he is gone, is to ignore the main and important drivers of Tibetan activism:

We should not commit the mistake China seems to commit all the time, namely to consider that the exile community is the alpha and omega of everything … . Dissatisfaction, alienation and frustration are the cause for the Tibetan issue. The exiles are a product of that too. They have a role to play, for sure, or rather they can play a role if acting congruously and with a clear sense of purpose and without exaggerating their significance, but real and powerful movement can only come from within Tibet. It is dissatisfaction, alienation and frustration that creates troubles inside China, not the Dalai Lama. Hence that will also go on after his passing away.

It appears that moral and political leadership of the Tibetan cause will more and more fall to religious leaders within the PRC.

In Tragedy in Crimson, Johnson writes about the case of a charismatic monk, Jigme Phuntsok, whose modern monastery, Serthar, in western Sichuan, has attracted over 1,000 monks and nuns despite intermittent efforts by the Chinese government to raze it or, alternately, assert control over it:

Local leaders said [in 2008] the soldiers amassed at the gates had announced that they would enter the community and hoist China’s red national flag over the entire settlement. “The rinpoche told the Chinese that 90% of the monks would kill themselves if their soldiers entered and raised the Chinese flag,” … he warned the holy men and women to hold passions in check. “Every day, he tells monks and nuns, ‘Don’t do bad things … Practice compassion, and be patient.”

The Dalai Lama, who is now 76 years old, made the prediction that he might outlive the PRC. That seems unlikely. But perhaps in the future the PRC will find it necessary to reach out to Tibetans inside its borders and in Dharamsala to overcome the demoralizing consequences of bad policies, bad decisions, and bad karma.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.


1. Tragedy in Crimson, Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China, by Tim Johnson. Nation Books, New York, Feb 2011. ISBN-10: 9781568586014. US$26.99, 352 pages (hardback).

2. Black Days for the Dalai Lama, China Matters, Mar 18, 2008.



Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.