The Tibetan People's Limited Options

A protest for Tibet outside the Chinese Embassy in London in March. (Photo: Chris Beckett)

A 47-year-old nun set herself on fire recently to protest against China's oppression of Tibet. Seventy percent of Tibetans now live below the poverty line. To make it harder for the Tibetan people, the Chinese government has made it easy for Chinese citizens to go to Tibet and either work there or live there permanently. With only about 6 million Tibetans left in Tibet, according to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), and with the influx of Chinese, Tibetans are now outnumbered. They are now the minority and effectively second-class citizens. Tibetan have had to either get used to the new system or flee the area they've long called home. Beyond that—and self-immolation—they have no other options.

The Tibetan Autonomous region, as the Chinese government calls it, was invaded by China in 1949. Since then a series of changes have been instituted for the Tibetan people and the Tibetan Plateau. When the Chinese occupied Tibet, the Tibetans did not have a seat at the United Nations, which made it easier for the Chinese to legitimize their invasion. Tibetans say that in the first 10 years (1950-1960) of Chinese occupation they lost their land. Over the next 10 years (1960-1970) they lost their political power. Over the next 10 years (1970-1980) they lost their culture. Last but not least (1980-1990), the Tibetan people lost their economic power, when the Chinese took over the job market. After all of these phases of loss, the Chinese government destroyed 6,000 monasteries and many religious artifacts in Tibet. This was done to ensure that the Tibetan people would not worship anything other than the Chinese Communist Party.

On Sept. 10, 2014, the 14th Dalai Lama, which Beijing refers to as a "wolf in monk's clothing" declared the continuation of the important Tibetan tradition of finding the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In previous years, the Dalai Lama threatened to end this tradition because the Tibetan people would not worship a Dalai Lama picked by the Chinese government. Robert Barnett, a leading scholar in Tibet and professor at Columbia University, stated, "The Chinese have a real chance of winning over the Tibetan population if they allow the Dalai Lama to come back and treat him well." Instead, the Chinese People's Party (CCP) denounced His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. And in 2007 the CCP passed a regulation that the new incarnations of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama would have to be approved by the state, thus further extending the arm of the CCP into Tibetans' lives.

The punishments for Tibetans not pledging allegiance to the Chinese government include incarceration and torture. Between 1996 and 1998, 492 monks and nuns were arrested, and about 10,000 were expelled from the religious institutions they were living in. While Tibetans are pushed out, Chinese are incentivized come in, through education, jobs and political positions. As John F. Avedon writes in "In Exile from the Land of Snows," "Vast Chinese 'new towns' engulf Tibetan old quarters. Two and a half million Tibetan nomads have been forcibly resettled into regimented compounds. China's colonial economy, having long marginalized the Tibetan underclass, plunders billions of dollars from lumber, minerals and tourism. … A new truism describes Beijing's rule: 'In Lhasa nowadays there are more Chinese than Tibetans, more soldiers than monks, and more surveillance cameras than windows.'"

Tibetan students are charged with unreasonable fees that Chinese students do not get charged with, adding to the list of grievances and reasons for flight. Tibetan seek freedom of religion, good education and a better life altogether, and a large diaspora has developed in India. However, China has cracked down on border crossings, and even that option is being cut off. Meanwhile, China has opened new railway lines into the country, giving China access to Tibet's mineral reserves.

Even though China systematically violates the human rights of the Tibetan people, no country dares to challenge China because of the international clout that China has accrued, especially economically. China has penetrated so many markets internationally that challenging it would invite trouble. As China continues to grow economically and politically at the international level, the Dalai Lama's visits to Western countries have decreased. In September 2014, the Dalai Lama's visit to South Africa was cancelled due to visa issues, but many know the cancellation of the trip was not caused by visa issues, but rather the South African government's desire to keep trade relations with China intact. With China the world's biggest exporter, the international community looks at the situation and does very little. International pressure will not emerge, and therefore the Chinese government will continue dissolving the country the Tibetan people once knew.