The Tibetan movement is at a crossroads, facing increasing Chinese oppression and a shortage of international attention and support. If the international community and the United States continue to ignore one of the last and most afflicted nonviolent resistance movements, the implications will reach far beyond the Tibetan Plateau.
The Tibet issue intersects three huge global trends: the surge of nationalism, the retreat of human rights and democracy promotion, and the rise of China. Thanks to the last two, the Tibetan people’s struggle for survival, dignity and autonomy is steadily losing visibility. That prompted the Tibetan government-in-exile here in northern India to convene a first-of-its-kind conference this weekend to determine the path forward.
Called the Five-Fifty Forum, the conference sought to chart a five-year plan for pursuing a return to dialogue and negotiations with China. If that's unachievable, the Tibetans will plan for another 50 years of resistance to China's occupation, systematic repression and attempted cultural genocide in Tibet.
Freedom House's latest index ranked Tibet the second-least-free place, slightly better than Syria but less free than North Korea. Yet the situations in Syria and North Korea get far more media coverage, thanks to the crises' threats of terrorism and nuclear war. Tibetan leaders lament that their nonviolent movement is ignored while violent movements and violent regimes succeed.
"Now, the rational, reasonable, nonviolent peaceful method doesn't get traction," said Lobsang Sangay, the elected president of the Tibetan government-in-exile. "Whereas beheading, kidnapping and gunning down people gets the attention and the response from governments."
Tibetans are nationalists, but they are not seeking ethnic purity in Tibet like the militant Buddhist nationalists in Burma. Nor are Tibetans seeking their own state, like the Kurds in Iraq. Instead, the Tibetan leadership is pursuing a "middle way approach" that seeks limited autonomy within the Chinese system.
Some 150 Tibetans have burned themselves alive to protest China's repression since 2009, but no one else was harmed in those incidents. Nonviolence is part of the nation's identity, Sangay said, but even Tibetans have their breaking point.
“It’s in the hands of the Chinese government,” he said. “If you want to know China, you have to understand what is happening in Tibet.”
The Dalai Lama has held the Tibetan movement to a strict policy of nonviolence for decades. But when the 82-year-old spiritual icon passes on, that commitment to peaceful resistance could go with him. The window for striking a deal with Beijing could close as well.
Chinese authorities kidnapped Tibet's second-holiest official, the Panchen Lama, when he was 6 years old and appointed an impostor in his place. When the current Dalai Lama dies, Beijing may appoint a fake Dalai Lama, which could cause the crisis to boil over.
Meanwhile, China's strategy to erase Tibetan history, religion and language from Tibet is advancing apace. Under the rubric of development, China has bulldozed hundreds of Tibetan religious and historical sites. Massive numbers of Chinese citizens are being migrated into Tibet and given jobs, altering demographics to make Tibetans a minority in their homeland.
China is also securitizing the Tibetan Plateau with everything from advanced electronic surveillance and monitoring to the establishment of a fear culture that turns neighbors into spies. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said security and stability in Tibet are the goal. His policies are destined to have the opposite effect.
President Trump may not prioritize human rights or the viability of nonviolent movements, but supporting Tibet is also in the United States’ national interest. The Tibet issue could provide the pressure point Trump has been seeking in his dealings with Beijing. Economic leverage hasn’t worked to influence China’s calculus on matters such as North Korea, but adding the Tibet issue to the U.S.-China agenda would get the Chinese leadership’s attention.
To put the issue back on the map, Trump could bring up Tibet during his upcoming visit to China, encouraging a return to the dialogue that ended in 2010. The administration could also fill the vacant position of special coordinator for Tibet at the State Department.
Trump should meet the Dalai Lama, as President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama did four times each while in office. Trump and the Dalai Lama may not agree on things such as climate change, but they are natural allies in the effort to manage China's rise. These steps won't solve the Tibet issue, but they would, at least, prevent China from realizing its goal of taking the international community out of the equation.
In the long term, dealing with China’s emergence as a world power mandates confronting the regime’s most egregious and massive offenses. If China’s Tibet strategy is allowed to succeed, every other actor in the path of China’s expansion, including the United States, will be in greater danger.