How should we read the present flare-up? Does it mark any new phase in the Tibetan struggle?
I think the initial trigger was that the Dalai Lama was awarded the Gold Medal of the US Congress at the end of last year. Why a follower of Mahatma Gandhi would want to take a medal from the bloodstained hand of President Bush at the height of the Iraq surge is another matter. This event was broadcast over the Internet by Voice of America and Tibetans saw it as a sign of support from the American government for Tibetan freedom, and misinterpreted it to think it might lead to some real political backing. In fact, it was a meaningless symbolic gesture designed to please Americans. Monks in Lhasa celebrated and were arrested, and last week’s demonstrators went out to call for their release. This, combined with the Dalai Lama’s statement on March 10 (the anniversary of the uprising), which was much more critical of the Chinese government than his usual March 10 statements, seems to have been the initial cause. But it morphed very quickly into an economic protest by ordinary urban Tibetans in Lhasa who are angry that all the economic advantages that have come to Tibet in the last five or 10 years have gone to the Han Chinese or Hui Muslims. That is why you saw such anger against Chinese shopkeepers.
What do you think of India’s reaction to the protests?
I think the Indian government is in a very difficult position in relation to China and the Tibet issue. India has given hospitality to about 100,000 Tibetan refugees since the 1950s. Everyone feels very bad about the Tibetan exiles being dragged off as they try to march to the border, but it’s very hard to see what else India can do. India can’t run its entire China policy on the fact that it’s got Tibetan refugees living here.
Is the idea of a free Tibet a naive dream? Are there rifts within the Tibetan community on this?
When I was in Tibet for three months, researching Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, I found a lot of Tibetans who were working within the bureaucracy simply because they felt they had no option but to compromise and collaborate. Underneath that, of course, most of them would rather the Dalai Lama came back and Tibet ruled itself. But I think the battle for Tibetan freedom was probably lost 49 years ago when the Dalai Lama went into exile. The key point here is: the Chinese government is a nationalist, xenophobic, nominally communist administration that is never going to give up control over Tibet. The only way you could have freedom in the sense of genuine autonomy or independence would be if there were a change in regime in Beijing. That’s not going to happen any time soon.
Do Tibetans want to be rooted in the old culture or do they want to embrace a modern, globalised world?
A lot of the more ambitious, younger Tibetans actually speak Chinese fluently and go to China to get an education because the education system in Tibet is so poor. They realise that in order to get ahead they have no choice but to become part of some wider world community.
Is a productive assimilation at all possible between China and Tibet or is the clash of cultures too strong?
The cultural difference is massive. There is very little friendship or intermarriage between the Han Chinese and Tibetans. Almost all of the Han Chinese are in Tibet just for the business opportunity; they all go back to their home provinces when they can. Tibetans, in fact, find it very difficult to do business with Chinese because they drive such hard bargains. The Tibetans always feel the Chinese have an upper hand and are more successful. They are completely marginalised in urban places like Lhasa. They can practice their religion to some extent, but it is very restricted. For example, the ability to choose a reincarnate rimpoche has been largely taken away from Tibetan Buddhists. You have this absurd situation where an atheist communist government is choosing the reincarnation of a figure such as the Panchen Lama.
How accurate is the clichéd view of Tibetan as the peaceloving monk in the ochre robe?
If you go back to Tibet pre-1950, it wasn’t a particularly peaceful culture. You had full-scale battles, for example, between rival monasteries in Lhasa, so the idea of nonviolence was more an idea that the Dalai Lama took up from India or from the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi when he came to exile in India. The interesting thing about the Dalai Lama is that he seems to believe in non-violence rather than in non-violent resistance. The key to Gandhi is that he went on his marches and hunger strikes at great personal risk, but in 49 years of exile, the Dalai Lama has never personally pursued the line of non-violent resistance. He has never converted his moral authority into direct political action in the way that Gandhi succeeded in doing. If he, rather than his followers, were to march to the Tibetan border, it would be interesting to see what happened.
So, there is no political center for the protest?
Yes, the younger Tibetans feel politically leaderless. I don’t think there’s a coherent political strategy any more from the exiles. What happened was that at the end of the 1980s, when China liberalised, the Dalai Lama linked up with Hollywood and generated huge popular support for the Tibetan cause in America and western Europe. This strategy made some sense at the time. The Soviet Union was falling apart, and a lot of people thought China might do the same. By the mid ‘90s, it was clear this political strategy had failed, yet the government-in-exile and the western lobby groups have gone on with it, although it has proved wholly ineffective in persuading the Chinese government to alter its policy or behaviour in Tibet. In fact, it has outraged the Chinese, and made them crack down harder. The Dalai Lama should have closed down the Hollywood approach in the early 90s and concentrated exclusively on very quiet, backchannel diplomacy with the Chinese government. The trouble with the well-meaning lobbying and protesting in Bonn or London or Washington is that it has achieved precisely nothing, and the situation for Tibetans living inside Tibet is no better now than it was 20 years ago.
Why did you give up the Free Tibet campaign?
Because I realised it wasn’t working. The European and American pro-Tibet groups hate criticism as much as the Chinese government does. When Tibet, Tibet was published in the USA, every single Tibet organisation in New York refused to give me a platform. This was a book that has been published in twelve languages. I became a non-person. That was five years ago, and they have continued down the same path, achieving nothing for Tibetans. They prefer to keep their heads buried firmly in the sand.
So what is a fresh, productive way to look at Tibet, beyond empty empathy?
The reality is that Chinese rule is here to stay. The only thing Tibetans inside Tibet can do is to survive within that system, and hope for change in the future. In an ideal world, the Dalai Lama would be allowed to go back, and Tibet would have genuine cultural and political autonomy, but there is no indication that is going to happen.
What is the modern Tibetan state that Tibetans even dream of? A theocracy? Democracy?
The thing you have to remember is that access to education and information is very restricted inside Tibet. For the most part, they don’t even know how the rest of the world works. I don’t think they’ve got to the point where they know what they’d like as an alternative, all they know is that they are not happy with things as they are. They are ruled by fear, and have very little opportunity to engage in proper political thinking.
Western powers, the UN etc have intervened in other countries where there have been gross human rights violations. Why has Tibet not merited that? Is the scale of the oppression less? Or is it not worth it in terms of rich resources and geopolitical advantage?
China is too powerful for foreign intervention to be feasible.