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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Monday, May 10, 2004

8. Book Review: China's Tibet Policy -- Dawa Norbu (Asia Observer)

Routledge/Curzon Press, 2002

ISBN: 0-7007-0474-4
Tibet. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Sreeram Chaulia

Asia Observer

When Dawa Norbu is not teaching graduates at the School of International
Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, he is found squatting
cross-legged under banyan trees on campus, sporting Bermuda shorts and
worn-out flip-flops, and sharing a cup of chai with commoners. His
simplicity and humility are legendary, all the more so as he is a
leading Tibetologist and author of acclaimed books like Red Star Over
Tibet and Tibet: The Road Ahead. Instead of accepting plush jobs within
the Dalai Lama’s ‘government-in-exile’ in Dharamsala, India, he ploughs
away researching a solution to the vexed ‘Tibet Question.’ Norbu’s
latest offering is an accumulation of thoughts collected over nine
years, a classic ‘middle path’ Buddhist via media formula that can
resolve the tangle of Tibet in the best interests of China, the Tibetan
people and India.

Most Confucian and Inner Asian societies, which historically engaged in
tribute relations with China, have graduated from dependency to
independence, but “Tibet alone remains one of those vanished and failed
states.” (p.5) More than 40 years after establishing direct rule over
Tibet, China faces a never-ending “crisis of legitimacy” with ordinary
Tibetans, much more than with smaller national minorities like the
Uighurs and the Mongols. Norbu proposes that indirect rule or ‘internal
self-determination’ (a concept that is interestingly now the basis for
peace in Sri Lanka and Aceh) will assuage the sentiments and wishes of
Tibetans and also help neutralise and demilitarise a region that has
become a chessboard for Sino-Indian enmity.

History bears witness to the benefits that indirect rule and substantial
autonomy in Tibet have brought to China. Since the time of the late Tang
dynasty (AD 618-907), Tibet’s relations with Imperial China differed
from typical ‘barbarian tributary relations’ like Sino-Korean or
Sino-Vietnamese ties. Sino-Tibetan ties were characterised by “symbolic
domination and ceremonial relations”, buttressed by the Buddhist
Revolution (AD 840-1240) that changed Tibetans from the fierce warrior
tribes of the btsan into lamas bestowing spiritual grace to the ‘Son of
Heaven’ in Beijing. Patron-priest relations morphed “superiority into
seniority”, with the favoured lamas acting as gurus to a string of
Chinese Buddhist emperors and getting military protection for a Tibet
that was a non-coercive state.

The Sakya Pandita’s deep religious influence on Godan Khan and the
Phagpa Lama’s tantra initiation of Kublai Khan meant that by the 13th
century, Tibet “enjoyed full and genuine domestic autonomy or
self-rule”, while acknowledging the Yuan emperors’ suzerainty. Diarchic
structures ensured that local administration was in Tibetan hands and
hardly any Chinese troops entered Tibet. As a special Buddhist country,
Tibet was exempt from Chinese taxes and military service. Reigning High
Lamas of Tibet continued to be shown reverence and respect by successive
Chinese dynasties, even when they did not convert to Buddhism. Confucian
Ming emperors, for instance, ranked the Lamas as being “higher than any
wang (king) in East Asia” (p.61) and honoured as many as 8 of them with
major titles.

With the rise of the Gelugpa sect in Tibet, the Dalai Lama was
identified as an instrument of indirect Chinese rule in Tibet and he
came to occupy the position of ‘imperial guru’ for Manchu emperors. In
the 18th century, the Dalai Lama’s position was “symbolically, subtly
and delicately ‘near equal’ to the Chinese Emperor.” (p.74) Tibetan
perceptions of China were restricted to aristocrats and Lamas, as the
peasant nomadic laymen never got to see even one Chinese armed battalion
on the Tibetan plateau.

Two factors changed this equation for worse from the late 19th century-
the rise of Han nationalism and European ‘Great Games’ in Inner Asia.
‘Elite culturalism’ was converted into nationalism in Han China,
threatening the security of minorities. “Confucian ideocracy was
transformed into a Han-dominated nation-state which tolerated no
separate entities or identities like Tibet.” (p.97) What spurred the
unitary drive of the ‘Han man’s burden’ was British and Russian
strategic thrusts into Tibet, starting with the 1904 Younghusband
Expedition. British proclamations that they wished to keep Tibet “free
from the influence of any foreign power” raised suspicions in Beijing of
yet another imperialist ploy to open up China from its southwestern
‘backdoor’, Tibet. Chinese strategic thinkers saw British interest as
“iron clad proof that imperialists coveted Tibet that would later be
used as a base to attack China proper.” (p.164)

During KMT rule, China promised and practised genuine autonomy in Tibet,
as Chiang Kai Shek had no intention of “total integration and
assimilation of Tibet with China proper.” (p.107) The ‘sinicisation of
Tibetan identity’ was never attempted before Communist victory. However,
what passes for autonomy today in Tibet is “an effective extension of
the Chinese Central State located in Beijing.” (p.112) Tibet Autonomous
Region’s (TAR) economic policy is still decided by the centre, and
“religious freedom in China proper is much wider and more real than in
Tibet.” (p.118) No Tibetan has ever been appointed to the powerful post
of Communist Party First Secretary in Tibet. As many as 200,000 PLA
forces pan out across the Tibetan plateau, invoking fear and resentment
in the minds of simple, religious peasants.

How did this ‘liberation’ of Tibet come about in 1950? Norbu identifies
a continuation of security dilemmas as the main factor, with Maoist
ideological fanaticism acting as bridesmaid. The full-scale military
invasion of 1950 was prompted by threat perceptions of a US intervention
by mid-October. That strategic fears were foremost in Beijing was proved
when Chinese negotiators insisted that the 1951 Seventeen Point
Agreement on Tibet allow PLA entry into Tibet to “consolidate national
defence.” Nehru, fearful of losing Tibet as buffer against China,
advised Tibetan negotiators to resist this point “at any cost.” In the
end, it was agreed that no more than a chun of PLA would be posted on
Tibetan borders and Tibet’s special status was confirmed with promises
of full administrative and religious freedoms. “In several technical and
functional respects, it was similar to the one country two systems
status now offered to Hong Kong and Taiwan.” (p.208)

But theory and practice differed in a yawning gap. Spontaneous
rebellions broke out in Inner Tibet (Kham and Amdo) from 1953 in
opposition to CCP policies of forcible social re-engineering and
‘revolutionary equality.’ A series of major uprisings started in Kham in
1956, moved to Amdo in 1958 and finally swept into Lhasa in 1959. Again,
“what China feared most at the time was foreign intervention” that could
threaten the very existence of Communism. Top-secret CIA trained
guerrillas and propaganda were being regularly dropped over Inner Tibet,
starting in 1957. More than 87,000 Tibetans were killed in the military
suppression of the revolts. The Dalai Lama fled to India for fear of
being arrested by approaching PLA units and the 1951 Agreement lay in

To further consolidate Tibet militarily, China started constructing
strategic roads on a war footing. By 1997, 4 billion Yuan had been spent
on connecting Tibet to the mainland. Construction of a railway to
quickly transport troops in the event of rebellion or war with India is
estimated to cost a staggering 20 billion Yuan. Tibetan airfields were
expanded and new air bases with fighter aircraft were also installed.
Kham and Amdo have been used for Chinese nuclear and missile research,
bolstered by Chinese military calculations that “our missiles placed on
the roof of the world can strike anywhere in the world.”

American clandestine aid to Tibetan rebels ended after Kissinger and
Nixon secured a rapprochement with Beijing, but to this day, the Chinese
government is highly suspicious of “imperialist plots” to destroy
“China’s Tibet.” Norbu says that the American message is this: “either
negotiate with the Dalai Lama for autonomy or we will support the
Tibetan struggle for freedom.” (p.275) American concerns for human
rights in Tibet are also high on the agenda, a topic President Clinton
raised on his historic China visit in 1998. China has also touchily
interpreted “free public expression of democratic rights for Tibet in
democratic India as involvement in Tibetan unrest and interference in
internal affairs.” (p.289) Tibet is integral to the intractable
territorial dispute between the two Asian giants, with Indian views that
the 1914 McMahon should be the basis for settlement and Chinese views
that the McMahon line implies Tibet to be an independent treaty-making
state. The fear that “India might gang up with the US and Western powers
in Tibet” is as fresh in Chinese strategic thought as it was in the 1950s.

Norbu backs the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Statement of 1988 as the means
for breaking free from this impasse and delivering justice to Tibetan
people. It eschews claims to Tibetan independence, but calls for greater
degree of domestic autonomy. Chinese negotiators with the Dalai Lama
have remained obdurate in the past, maintaining, “Tibetans have already
been granted one autonomous region, ten autonomous areas and two
autonomous districts.” Norbu notices a growing bureaucratisation of
Tibet policy, wherein Chinese Mandarins are “allergic to initiative and
change.” They have entirely rejected the Dalai Lama’s demands for
cessation of Han population transfers and nuclear activities in Tibet.

But the problem with retaining status quo is that “Tibetan people are
not quite reconciled to Chinese rule and revolt whenever they find the
necessary social space.” (p.340) Complete marginalisation of Tibetans
from local power structures cannot ensure human security. “In the long
run, neither structural violence nor military coercion can solve the
Tibetan problem.” (p.351) The only way forward in a post-Mao and
post-Communist China is to recognise a federalist polity and devolve
powers to the autonomous regions. A decentralised arrangement that
allows internal self-determination, self-government and
self-administration will satisfy the Tibetan people’s desire not to be
‘other-determined’ and simultaneously smother the security dilemmas of
China and India.

Concluded by a 16-page bibliography and copious notes, China’s Tibet
Policy is a major work of longstanding value. Norbu has not minced words
criticising either the Dalai Lama or the Chinese authorities for various
commissions and omissions. His heart lies in the welfare of common
Tibetans and his ideas lie in the realm of imagining a better tomorrow
for the whole of Inner Asia. The publisher should consider the
scholastic appeal of Norbu and the relevance of the subject matter to
reduce the extravagant price of the book and make it more accessible to
individual buyers.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Unwelcome ghosts (Guardian)
  2. Chinese PM to meet Blair amid Tibet protests (AFP)
  3. Blair to discuss human rights with Chinese premier (The Guardian)
  4. Blair's backing for China trade angers activists (Scotsman)
  5. Wen, Blair agree to annual Sino-British summits (AFP)
  6. Blair plans annual UK-China summit (The Guardian)
  7. BSU professor part of Tibet's struggle for freedom (Star Press)
  8. Book Review: China's Tibet Policy -- Dawa Norbu (Asia Observer)

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