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An Effective American Policy on Tibet?

by A. Tom Grunfeld on Nov 5, 1997

Since Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s arrival in the United States on Oct. 26 he has been dogged by demonstrators. None of them have been more strident and belligerent than those advocating Tibetan independence. 

Supporters of Tibetan independence have been heartened by the growing popularity of their cause, the deification of the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and Hollywood’s successful romanticization of Tibet. They demand that President Clinton act forcefully to compel China to change its policies toward Tibet.

This growing pressure creates a dilemma for President Clinton because Tibet is insignificant. It has no economic, strategic, or political interests for the United States. China, however, is a burgeoning world power. Protesters raise moral issues concerning human rights and independence, emotional issues often in direct conflict with pragmatic foreign relations.

Protesters are not alone. With little understanding of Tibetan history and politics, Congressional and journalistic critics of the administration also badger President Clinton to act. Yet, in reality, there is little the United States can do directly to help Tibetans.

Publicly humiliating and bullying China is not a rational foreign policy even if it makes China-bashers feel good.  Nevertheless, to preempt criticism from them, President Clinton recently announced the appointment of a “special coordinator” to oversee American policy in Tibet. Since this “special coordinator” can do nothing to change the situation in Tibet, the president’s action can be interpreted as a cynical act intended to appease domestic critics and win popular approval for the Clinton administration.

Official U.S. policy has always been that Tibet is not independent but a part of China. So what is a “special coordinator” to do? Travel to Tibet will be impossible. Keeping public pressure on China is the only possibility, and that is already happening. Should a “special coordinator” be appointed for Palestinians in Israel? Would it be legitimate for the Chinese to appoint one to look into white police brutality against blacks in America?

And who benefits from the current U.S. policy? Critics will feel something is being done. Clinton will seem like an activist president without committing himself to very much. And the Tibetans?

In actuality, this “feel-good” appointment shows a woeful ignorance of the history of United States-Tibet and Sino-Tibetan relations. When the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious from their civil war against the Nationalists in 1949, they reasserted Chinese rule over Tibet. Not all Tibetans were pleased, and a revolt against Chinese rule began. It climaxed in an abortive uprising in the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa in 1959 which forced the Dalai Lama and some 60,000 Tibetans to flee into exile. 

From the early 1950s until 1971, this revolt was aided by the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency, which sponsored guerrilla activities inside Tibet — activities designed not to recoup independence but to destabilize the government of China.

When the fighting ended, Beijing and the Dalai Lama continued to hurl invectives at each other publicly while privately engaging in talks. These continuing secret talks, currently in a hiatus, remain the best hope for a solution to the Tibet question, however long and difficult that process may be.

We have known for two decades that government officials in both Beijing and Lhasa are split over how to deal with the issue of Tibet. One Chinese faction advocates striking a deal with the Dalai Lama. The simplest outlines of this compromise would be granting true autonomy to Tibet, freeing political prisoners, halting Chinese migration to the region, and granting religious and cultural freedom in Tibet under the Dalai Lama’s auspices.

For his part, the Dalai Lama would return to Lhasa, stop advocating Tibetan independence, and give up the idea of a greater Tibet that would encompass an area much larger than what is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region. For the past several years, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly expressed his willingness to return to a Tibet that is less than independent if other issues can be worked out.

The other Chinese faction believes Tibet to be a nuisance. It cares little about Tibetan culture and religion and would just as soon wait for the Dalai Lama to die. Meanwhile, its members encourage the migration of ethnic Chinese into Tibet to a point where the Tibetans will be a minority in their own land and their very cultural survival will be in jeopardy.

In China, the additional prominence given to the Tibet issue by a “special coordinator” can only strengthen the hand of the hardliners who repeatedly invoke the history of the Dalai Lama’s intrigues with foreign powers intent on creating domestic unrest within China. They now have additional ammunition in their attempts to quash any compromise solution with the Dalai Lama.

If the intent of the U. S. government is to help the people of Tibet, then its policy should be to work quietly through diplomacy to bolster the group in China that is willing to work for the Dalai Lama’s return to his homeland, not for their opponents as current U. S. policy does. President Clinton will have to choose which is his genuine priority: domestic politics or the people of Tibet. For the moment, unfortunately, he has decided on the former.


A. Tom Grunfeld is a professor of history at SUNY/Empire State College, the author of "The Making of Modern Tibet" (2nd edition, 1996), and a writer for the History News Service.