The Chinese-Tibetan conflict is a complicated issue for Beijing’s new leaders. Perhaps a peaceful solution based on mutual trust, respect and communication could end the dispute.
Two Tibetans immolated themselves last month in Lhasa, reported by Chinese Xinhua news agency. Since 2009, there have been over 100 reported self-immolation in Tibet. Most Tibetans who committed self-immolation are monks and nuns, and among them are plenty of youths.
It is reported that these people set themselves on fire to protest against the Chinese Communist Party’s rule over Tibet. The Chinese-Tibetan conflict is an issue so complicated that it involved severe ethnic tensions. The struggle between the two ethnic communities has become one of the toughest social crises in China. But what are the causes of this almost irreconcilable ethnic conflict?
First of all, there is a geographic disagreement over the territorial concept of Tibet. For exiled Tibetans, Tibet includes not only the current Tibet Autonomous Region partitioned by the Chinese government, but also Qinghai Province, certain areas of Sichuan Province, Gansu and Yunnan Province, which constitute almost 25% of China’s geographic territory.
Obviously, the Chinese government would not allow such division. It fears the partition of a quarter of Chinese territory would directly induce Tibet’s declaring of independence from China. Thus Beijing only identifies the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) with most Tibetans actually living outside the area.
China claims that these areas—Qinghai Province, Sichuan Province, Gansu Province and Yunnan Province—were never historically under administrative rule of the Dalai Lama, and Tibetans only respected him as a spiritual leader but never a political leader. Yet the Dalai Lama argues that all the Tibetans in these four areas should be allowed to live under the same administrative region since they share the same ethnicity and religious belief.
That argument leads to the second conflicting issue between both sides: their different recognition over Tibetan Buddhism
China’s main Han ethnic group are not defined by any religion or ideology. The mainstream definition for Han ethnicity is based on the differences it has with other ethnic groups, meaning those who don’t belong to any minority ethnic groups. Hans are believed to have already lost their cultural ethos over the years.
But in comparison, the Tibetans have Tibetan Buddhism as their shared beliefs. Tibetan Buddhism functions as a spiritual and moral guide for Tibetans, yet to most of the Hans, it is nothing but a superstition. Thus, when it comes to the issue about the separation of religion and politics, it is almost impossible for the Hans to fully understand the role religion plays in .
Third, there is a major contradiction over environment preservation and economic development. Enough ink has been spilled in quarreling over the exploitation of Tibetan natural resources, yet apparently that is not enough to find a proper solution. It is believed that Tibet is the “Last Pure Land.” But with the rapid economic growth in China there is a large need for natural resources.
Local residents are promised to be provided with job opportunities by private energy companies only if they are allowed to exploit the region. Yet in reality it became known that only two of the coal miners in the recent landslide that killed 83 in Tibet were Tibetans – the rest were all Hans.
Tragically, the local residents did not obtain any promises for job opportunities. Not only did they not benefit from the exploitation of natural resources, but their living environment is harshly damaged. For instance, the dramatic decrease in the number of wild animals, especially the Tibetan antelopes in Hoh Sil area, the pollution of Sacred Lakes, which are admired as goddesses in Tibetan culture, and the deterioration of grassland in Shigatse area. It seems the Tibetans are asked to bear more than they are promised in benefits.
Finally, historical understanding differences is another cause of tension
From the Tibetans’ perspective, Tibet has never been part of China but rather constituted a tributary role. But for Beijing, Tibet is without a doubt part of the territories of Mainland China. The reason is that Tibet had indeed once been conquered by the Qing dynasty, although the dynasty shortly collapsed which left Tibet’s status as undeclared.
However, the period after that saw the Chinese civil war and the two world wars. China’s nationalist government had never been able to fully take control over the region. To the CCP, they are entitled to take over this territory after they won the civil war. Yet to the Tibetans, since the government in mainland China never had a claim to official rule over this area, the Tibetans believe they have the right to refuse recognizing their control.
How the Chinese government should resolve the Tibet crisis remains a top concern for the new leaders. Perhaps the best yet most challenging way would be a peaceful solution based on mutual trust, respect and communication.
Mia Wang is a MA student in Comparative Politics at the New York University. Her research concentrates on the US-China relations. She is now interning at Asian American Writer’s Workshop – a nonprofit literary arts organization founded in 1991 to support of writers, literature and community that mainly with Asian backgrounds, based in New York City. Before attending NYU, Mia received two BA’s in both International Relations and French Literature at the Ohio State University. She wants to pursue a career in journalism after graduation. Read other articles by Mia.