The unraveling of Sino-Tibetan relations

Since the invasion of Tibet in 1949 and the structural destruction generated by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the 14th Dalai Lama has been advocating for the autonomy of the Tibetan people. Following centuries of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, he served the dual role of the spiritual leader and political head of Tibet. In 2011, the Buddhist leader reversed this more than 350-year-old tradition and devolved his political authority to elected Tibetan officials of the government-in-exile, led by its first secular Prime Minister Dr. Lobsang Sangay.

Meanwhile, the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas remain under intensely repressive policies curtailing freedom of speech, religion, movement and association; more than 90 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 with the deadliest spate of seven self-immolations occurring in the week of Oct. 20. These fiery protests, normally reserved for monks or former clerics, are now increasingly used by regular villagers. Perhaps alarmed by this marked change, authorities have issued reward money of more than $30,000 for any information on planned self-immolations and more recently, have imposed murder charges for anyone “inciting” self-immolations. In keeping with past policies, the government exercises strict control of information and access to the TAR and other Tibetan areas prior to and during sensitive dates such as the third anniversary of the March 2008 protests and riots in Tibetan areas. This includes the observance of “Serf Emancipation Day” on Mar. 28, the 90-year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Community Party on July 1 and the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet on July 19.

On Jan. 30, the U.S. Congress passed legislation expressing support for the people of Tibet. They called on China to suspend its restrictive regulations on religious expression; allow unrestricted access to journalists, foreign diplomats and international organizations and resume a dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to resolve the issue of Tibet.

More recently, the American ambassador to China Gary Locke acknowledged that he had quietly met with Tibetan monks in two monasteries in Songpan near the town of Aba in the Amdo region of China, the epicenter of self-immolations. Citing the self-immolations as “deplorable,” Ambassador Locke professed that the U.S. held “great concerns about human rights in China.” Locke implored Chinese authorities to meet with representatives of the Tibetan people and address the underlying issues and grievances while re-examining some of the policies that have exacerbated the situation. Echoing the U.S., the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay issued a statement Nov. 2 urging China to allow independent and impartial monitors to visit and assess the conditions in Tibetan areas of unrest and lift restrictions on media access to the region.

Numerous calls on China from multilateral entities to have been issued to resume dialogue with Tibetan representatives, which has seemingly reached an impasse, the last round occurring in January 2010. China’s implacable response has been to cordon off Tibetan issues as internal affairs to maintain the status quo and absurdly accuse the Dalai Lama of inciting the recent immolations. President Xi Jinping must refrain from ignoring the underlying issues of the burgeoning unrest in Tibetan areas. Jinping must re-examine policies that are exacerbating problems, such as the marginalizing religious policy, ethnic minority policy and insidious projects such as the 2007 mass relocation of 100,000 Tibetan nomads in Amdo.

In a post-Mao era, China’s social and economic landscape has been transformed, yet through this period of economic progress, Tibetan areas have experienced an economic and social drought, which has exacerbated longstanding grievances. Its antiquated policies on Tibet and seeming indifference to the plight of Tibetans highlighted by retaliatory policies must be reassessed; otherwise rising tensions could erupt into violence reminiscent of the bloody Lhasa riots of 2008.