He May Be a God, but He's No Politician
By Patrick French

Nearly a decade ago, while staying with a nomad family in the remote grasslands of northeastern Tibet, I asked Namdrub, a man who fought in the anti-Communist resistance in the 1950s, what he thought about the exiled Tibetans who campaigned for his freedom. “It may make them feel good, but for us, it makes life worse,” he replied. “It makes the Chinese create more controls over us. Tibet is too important to the Communists for them even to discuss independence.”

Protests have spread across the Tibetan plateau over the last two weeks, and at least 100 people have died. Anyone who finds it odd that [U.S. House of Representatives] Speaker Nancy Pelosi has rushed to Dharamsala, India, to stand by the Dalai Lama’s side, fails to realize that American politics provided an important spark for the demonstrations. Last October, when the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Dalai Lama, monks in Tibet watched over the Internet and celebrated by setting off fireworks and throwing barley flour. They were quickly arrested.

It was for the release of these monks that demonstrators initially turned out this month. Their brave stand quickly metamorphosed into a protest by Lhasa residents who were angry that many economic advantages of the last 10 or 15 years had gone to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. A young refugee whose family is still in Tibet told me this week of the medal, “People believed that the American government was genuinely considering the Tibet issue as a priority.” In fact, the award was a symbolic gesture, arranged mostly to make American lawmakers feel good.

A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1987 when the Dalai Lama was denounced by the Chinese state media for putting forward a peace proposal on Capitol Hill. To Tibetans brought up in the Communist system — where a politician’s physical proximity to the leadership on the evening news indicates to the public that he is in favor — it appeared that the world’s most powerful government was offering substantive political backing to the Dalai Lama. Protests began in Lhasa, and martial law was declared. The brutal suppression that followed was orchestrated by the party secretary in Tibet, Hu Jintao, who is now the Chinese president. His response to the current unrest is likely to be equally uncompromising.

The Dalai Lama is a great and charismatic spiritual figure, but a poor and poorly advised political strategist. When he escaped into exile in India in 1959, he declared himself an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi took huge gambles, starting the Salt March and starving himself nearly to death — a very different approach from the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which concentrates on nonviolence rather than resistance. The Dalai Lama has never really tried to use direct action to leverage his authority.

At the end of the 1980s, he joined forces with Hollywood and generated huge popular support for the Tibetan cause in America and Western Europe. This approach made some sense at the time. The Soviet Union was falling apart, and many people thought China might do the same. In practice, however, the campaign outraged the nationalist and xenophobic Chinese leadership.

It has been clear since the mid-1990s that the popular internationalization of the Tibet issue has had no positive effect on the Beijing government. The leadership is not amenable to “moral pressure,” over the Olympics or anything else, particularly by the nations that invaded Iraq.

The Dalai Lama should have closed down the Hollywood strategy a decade ago and focused on back-channel diplomacy with Beijing. He should have publicly renounced the claim to a so-called Greater Tibet, which demands territory that was never under the control of the Lhasa government. Sending his envoys to talk about talks with the Chinese while simultaneously encouraging the global pro-Tibet lobby has achieved nothing.

When Beijing attacks the “Dalai clique,” it is referring to the various groups that make Chinese leaders lose face each time they visit a Western country. The International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington, is now a more powerful and effective force on global opinion than the Dalai Lama’s outfit in northern India. The European and American pro-Tibet organizations are the tail that wags the dog of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

These groups hate criticism almost as much as the Chinese government does. Some use questionable information. For example, the Free Tibet Campaign in London (of which I am a former director) and other groups have long claimed that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese since they invaded in 1950 [see comment]. However, after scouring the archives in Dharamsala while researching my book on Tibet, I found that there was no evidence to support that figure. The question that Nancy Pelosi and celebrity advocates like Richard Gere ought to answer is this: Have the actions of the Western pro-Tibet lobby over the last 20 years brought a single benefit to the Tibetans who live inside Tibet, and if not, why continue with a failed strategy?

I first visited Tibet in 1986. The economic plight of ordinary people is slightly better now, but they have as little political freedom as they did two decades ago. Tibet lacks genuine autonomy, and ethnic Tibetans are excluded from positions of real power within the bureaucracy or the army. Tibet was effectively a sovereign nation at the time of the Communist invasion and was in full control of its own affairs. But the battle for Tibetan independence was lost 49 years ago when the Dalai Lama escaped into exile. His goal, and that of those who want to help the Tibetan people, should be to negotiate realistically with the Chinese state. The present protests, supported from overseas, will bring only more suffering. China is not a democracy, and it will not budge.


Copyright 2008 Patrick French

This article originally appeared in the Opinion section of The New York Times, March 22, 2008.

Patrick French is the author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land.


Extracts from Michel Chossudovsky's
China and America: The Tibet Human Rights PsyOp

The violent riots in Tibet's capital in mid-March were a carefully staged event. In their immediate aftermath, a media disinformation campaign supported by political statements by Western leaders directed against China was launched.

There are indications that US intelligence played a behind the scenes role in what several observers have described as a carefully premeditated operation. ...

The planning of the riots was coordinated with the media disinformation campaign, which accused the Chinese authorities of having instigated the looting and arson. ...

The organization of the Lhasa riots are part of a consistent pattern. They constitute an attempt to trigger ethnic conflict in China. They serve US foreign policy interests. ...

[T]here are various Tibetan organizations linked to the Tibet "government in exile" which are known to be supported by the CIA and/or by the CIA's civilian front organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The CIA's involvement in channeling covert support to the Tibetan secessionist movement goes back to the mid-1950s. The Dalai Lama was on the CIA's payroll from the late 1950s until 1974 ...

The NED funds a number of Tibet organizations both within China and abroad. The most prominent pro-Dalai Lama Tibet independence organization funded by the NED is the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), founded in Washington in 1988. ...

Other NED funded Tibet organizations include the Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) ...

There is a division of tasks between the CIA and the NED. While the CIA provides covert support to armed paramilitary rebel groups and terrorist organizations, the NED finances "civilian" political parties and non-governmental organizations with a view to instating American "democracy" around the World.

The NED constitutes, so to speak, the CIA's "civilian arm". ...

The short-term objective is to discredit the Chinese leadership in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympic games, while also using the Tibet campaign to divert public opinion from the Middle East war and the war crimes committed by the US, NATO and Israel.

China's alleged human rights violations are highlighted as a distraction, to provide a human face to the US-led war in the Middle East. ...

With Tibet making the headlines, the real humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is not front-page news.

More generally, the issue of human rights is distorted: realities are turned upside down, the extensive crimes committed by the US and its coalition partners are either concealed or justified as a means to protecting society against terrorists.

[And so ...] Carefully timed demonstrations on China's human rights violations in Western capitals have been set in motion.



Note added by Peter Meyer, 2009-04-01: Those who are quick to proclaim "Free Tibet!" should consider the following. If China were to grant Tibet full autonomy (that is, to allow the Dharamsala "government-in-exile" to return to govern Tibet) then within six months there would be American missile bases in Eastern Tibet, with nuclear missiles targeted at China's major cities. In the event of an American attack on China (as an adjunct to an American attack on Russia) many millions of Chinese would be incinerated. Are the supporters of "freedom" for Tibet prepared to accept the likelihood of the deaths of many millions of Chinese people as a result of what they propose? If so they should be honest enough to say so. Chinese government control of Tibet is an obvious consequence of the Chinese government's commitment to the security of the Chinese people.

Second note, added 2009-06-29: The claim that the Chinese killed 1.2 million Tibetans is repeated by Lonely Planet in their India guidebook, 2007 edition, p.323. Perhaps the original source of this claim is a statement by the ex-Nazi Heinrich Harrer in an Epilogue (written in 1966) to his book Seven Years In Tibet, where he writes that "More than 1.2 million Tibetans lost their lives". He provides no evidence (and no reference to any source) to support this assertion.


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