Debating Tibet: A Reply to Michael Walzer

Debating Tibet: A Reply to Michael Walzer


Let me add a few thoughts to Michael Walzer’s insightful comment “The Tibetan Intifada.” As Walzer says, one clear difference between Tibet and Palestine is that a two-state solution is not possible in China, nor is it requested by the Dalai Lama. But there are other differences. The Chinese government has been pumping money into Tibet rather than driving it into poverty: GDP has been rising an average of 12 percent per annum since 2000, and incomes have also been rising with double-digit growth recorded for both rural and urban residents (see Ben Hillman, “Money Can’t Buy Tibetans’ Love”, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2008). The problem is that development projects have not always translated into opportunities for Tibetans and there is an increased gap between economic expectations and the social reality. But that is not to say Chinese “settlers” to Tibet should be viewed as oppressors. They are largely poor farmers from Western parts of China who migrate for economic reasons, and some return “home” once they earn money (I realize that some settlers in Palestine also go for economic reasons, but they are typically not as poor and substantial numbers are also religious fanatics).

Perhaps the clearest disanalogy regards the numbers game. Israel feels itself to be a relatively small and beleaguered country in the midst of hostile territory, and it worries about its population being marginalized relative to Palestinians. In contrast, there are less than six million Tibetans (including areas outside of Tibet province) and 1.3 billion Chinese. The closest analogies, to my mind, regard nations, especially from developing countries, that have mistreated minority groups perceived to be separatist forces: the Turks crushing of Kurdish pleas for linguistic and ethnic autonomy, the democratically-elected Russian government’s brutality in Chechnya (over 75000 civilians killed), and India’s repression in Kashmir. One might mention the mistreatment of aboriginal groups in the Americas. As Fareed Zakaria puts it, “China’s attitude towards Tibet is wrong and cruel, but, alas, not that unusual” (Newsweek, April 12, 2008).

We can argue about the factual basis of some of Walzer’s statements. Walzer says that terrorism has never been “debated as a possible strategy” but the exile group Tibetan Youth Congress has made extremist statements keeping the option of violence open (even lauding the Palestinians as their model). In fact, one of the reasons for negotiating with the Dalai Lama now is that it will be harder to control advocates of violence after he passes away. Also, Walzer says that there is now a Han majority in Tibet, but if he is referring to the province of Tibet the Tibetans are the majority group. Finally, Walzer says that “most commentators” assume that the violence of the repression has been greater, but if he is referring to the number of people killed since the uprising in March 2008 there is no conclusive evidence (thus far) that the number of people killed by Chinese security forces is greater than the number of Chinese (mainly civilians) killed by Tibetans on March 14. The whole Tibetan area has been sealed off and we cannot get reliable numbers at the moment.

Regarding solutions to the problem, Walzer raises the point that there is no opposition party in China. But I’m not sure if electoral democracy would help, given that most Chinese seem to be distinctly unsympathetic to the Tibetan cause. Freedom of the press is more important because it would allow for informed debate of the issues at stake. In fact, one article in the influential Chinese-language Southern Weekly (April 2, 2008) by political analyst Cao Xin urges pragmatic policy changes on the part of the Chinese government based on the recognition of the reality of Tibetan Buddhism’s powerful influence among the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama’s influence as the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism. This article is unusual—a point of light in an otherwise uncompromising public discourse—and media openness would allow for more such articles that offer different perspectives to leaders and intellectuals best poised to bring about a change of policies in Tibet.

Perhaps the closest analogy with the Israeli/Palestinian dispute is that the broad outlines of a solution seem obvious: a two-state solution roughly along the lines of pre-1967 borders in the case of Israel/Palestine and religious autonomy/cultural freedom under Chinese sovereignty along with some sort of affirmative action program for Tibetans (similar to what Malaysia did after communal riots in the late 1960s when minority Chinese shopkeepers were forced to hire Malays from the majority community).

What is missing is the will to implement these solutions. I actually think there are more reasons to be optimistic—or maybe I should say less pessimistic—in the case of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is a moderate leader with moral authority who can bring his followers into line, and the Chinese Communist Party has some progressive elements that have promoted more tolerant minority policies in the past (as in the 1980s under Hu Yaobang) and may do so in the future (see Willy Lam, “Hope for a Better Tibet Policy”, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2008). The CCP learned to act more reasonably in the case of Taiwan—not overreacting in the case of provocations from pro-independence forces and thus paving the way for better relations—and it may do so in the case of Tibet. Now that the negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s representatives seem to be back on track, we can expect progress if both sides pragmatically strive for the end goal.

Daniel A. Bell teaches political theory at Tsinghua University. His latest book is China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society(Princeton, 2008).