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Tibet 2014 in Review: Winning by not Losing?

posted Dec 30, 2014, 5:13 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Dec 30, 2014, 5:31 PM ]

By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review  

Photo: Woeser (Lhasa, December 2014)
As 2014 draws to a close, it seems like a good time to look back at what the past year has meant for the cause that animates every Tibetan heart: the struggle for freedom in Tibet.  There are many ways to look at this question, and we encourage authors to send in their own perspectives.  In the spirit of furthering this discussion, there are a few developments this past year that we think may impact the ground reality in Tibet.

The year 2014, tragically, saw the number of self-immolations inside Tibet since 2009 rise to 136, and a total of 142 including Tibetans in exile since 1998.  These numbers each represents a human being who chose to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation and their religion.

This year was the 55th anniversary of the 1959 Uprising, the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Tenth Panchen Lama, and the 25th anniversary of HH the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize.  It was also the 26th anniversary of His Holiness’s Strasbourg Proposal that laid the foundation of the Middle Way proposal, as well as the 25th anniversary of martial law in Lhasa and the Tiananmen massacre a few months later.  These anniversaries are important milestones to see where we have come from, and to ask where we are headed.

Winning by not Losing?

There are a few different ways to look at developments in Tibet in 2014, and it would be understandable to look at them with a certain amount of despair.  From one perspective, the odds for Tibet seem long, the obstacles great.  From another perspective, however, there is actually a great deal of hope for Tibet’s nonviolent cause – hope that is grounded in military strategy, no less.

According the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes, “it is an axiom of guerrilla warfare that insurgents can often win simply by not losing.”  Essentially, a weaker group can prevail against a foreign occupier by holding on and altering the occupier’s cost-benefit analysis.  The occupier does not know when or where the next challenge to its authority will come, so it ratchets up its control everywhere.  This simultaneously alienates the local populace (even those who are normally not political) and also increases the material and psychological cost to the occupier.  Through this dynamic, the passage of time actually puts increasing pressure on the occupier.

There is a great deal of literature on this, from T.E. Lawrence and films like The Battle of Algiers, to the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  Even Mao Zedong’s “People’s War” is based on similar premises.  SFT’s Tibet Action Institute has a brilliant analysis of altering the occupier’s cost-benefit analysis in the Tibetan context.

Applying this to Tibet

All this is to say that Chinese rule in Tibet in 2014 may have gotten less secure, not more.  In large part because of the nonviolent self-immolations, Chinese armed forces have been forced into a posture similar to that of an occupier facing a guerilla movement.  One only has to look at Woeser’s photos of armed police and brigades of fire-fighters surrounding the Tsuklhakhang in Lhasa during Ganden Ngamchoe.  In using such bluntly oppressive tactics, the Chinese forces have abandoned any pretense of vying for the “hearts and minds” of the Tibetan populace more than 50 years after the occupation began.  Indeed, greater suspicion is even falling on Tibetans who are Party members and others who, ideally, would form a group that an occupier would seek to coopt.

Photo: Woeser (Lhasa, December 2014)

Meantime, leaked Chinese military documents released by TCHRD describe the “psychological traumas” caused by the horrors of their jobs for the Chinese armed forces in Tibet.  Obviously the Chinese leadership has proven itself willing to use whatever force it deems necessary to protect its rule.  But at the very least, an occupying power that has alienated the local populace, and whose own armed forces are suffering psychological trauma from the occupation, is probably not moving the situation toward a successful resolution.

So could Tibetans be winning by not losing?  Certainly one shouldn’t be too confident, but one can make a case for suggesting that the answer to this question is: “Maybe”.  In this scenario, the Tibetan strategy would be to “not lose”, i.e. to hold on, and to do what is possible to drive up the costs of the Chinese occupation.  If so, then these developments in 2014 seem significant:

• In February 2014, the U.S. appointed a new Special Coordinator for Tibet, whose rank as Undersecretary ensures that the Tibet issue will get visibility in the State Department, and demonstrates to China that the issue is not going away for the U.S., which is China's most important foreign relationship.

• His Holiness made a high-profile visit to the U.S. Congress in March, and continued His travel and teaching schedule around the world, continuing to bring attention to Tibet in an unparalleled way.

• Sikyong Lobsang Sangay and Speaker of Parliament Penpa Tsering also traveled around the world, drawing attention to Tibet and lobbying for support.  Every such visit drives home the narrative that Tibetans have their own leadership, and are not represented by China.

• While the Chinese government did have some successes in intimidating world leaders into not meeting with His Holiness in 2014, China suffered a major defeat when it failed to bar His Holiness from the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit.  Thanks to an innovative “Boycott and Relocate” campaign led by the Tibetan National Congress, Nobel laureates boycotted the Cape Town summit until it was relocated to Rome.  This campaign is worth studying (Beijing surely is) and replicating because it demonstrates that Tibetans can beat China’s bullying tactics with smart strategy.

• In June, Congressmen McGovern and Pitts introduced a bill calling for reciprocal access to Tibet, which is a great example of how the diplomatic principle of reciprocity can be used to target China’s attempt to isolate Tibet.

• In July 2014, the journal Nature published a study confirming that Tibetans have a unique DNA segment that makes them especially well-suited for life on the high plateau.  Notably, Chinese people do not share this DNA segment, making it harder for them to adapt to long-term settlement of Tibet.

• In May 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi established a new precedent and made a statement by inviting Sikyong Lobsang Sangay to his inaugural ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan.  In September, when Xi Jinping came to India, Xi was unable to get India to acknowledge Beijing’s one-China policy, with India’s minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj arguing that “for India to agree to a one-China policy, China should reaffirm a one-India policy”.  Indian leaders have traditionally backed down from fear of offending China, but with Modi we may finally have a strong and assertive Indian leader who will re-write the rules of India-China relationship.

• A delegation from the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile successfully lobbied the members of India’s Lok Sabha, or Lower House of Parliament, to re-establish the All-Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet (APIPFT).  The revival of APIPFT was formally announced on 15 December at a reception in New Delhi and was attended by 30 members of the Indian parliament from 28 major political parties who extended their support.

All these developments support Tibetans’ ability to “win by not losing”, by simply keeping the struggle going and denying China the ability to settle the issue even after a half-century of occupation.

Photo: Woeser (Firefighters, Lhasa, December 2014)

Meanwhile in China in 2014, Xi Jinping consolidated power through purges, including of leaders with powerful bases such as Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua (incidentally, both of whom with their own connection to Tibet policy).  Xi has even broken the cardinal rule of post-Tiananmen Chinese politics (that Politburo Standing Committee members are immune from purges), which is either bold or desperate or both.  At the very least, it is clear that Chinese politics is in a state of dramatic flux.  This comes at a time when the much-vaunted Chinese economy is facing a major slow-down as well as unsustainable speculative bubbles in the real estate and fixed-asset sectors.

On its periphery, China in 2014 has faced a simmering insurrection in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, a new and vibrant pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, increasing skepticism in Taiwan, and outright alarm by neighbors with territorial disputes such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

On the world stage, China’s alliances in 2014 have faced challenges.  Russia is now facing Western sanctions and a plummeting currency.  China’s former vassal Burma is moving away from its orbit (but worse for Tibet, China is exercising more control over Nepal, a development India can hopefully reverse for the sake of its own security).  Even Cuba, China’s long-time fellow Communist state, appears to be on the verge of a new and more positive relationship with the U.S., with implications for its traditional closeness to Beijing.

Looking Ahead to 2015

What are the implications for Tibet of all these developments in 2014?  As amateur observers we are not in any particular position of expertise.  But from our perspective, there may be cause for long-term optimism despite how desperate the situation may look at times.

2014 has seen acts of great bravery and sacrifice inside Tibet, demonstrating that the Tibetan spirit is strong after a half-century of occupation.  2014 has seen China resort to draconian crack-downs, basically giving up on any possibility of ever winning Tibetan “hearts and minds”, at the cost of psychological trauma to its own forces.  2014 has seen Tibetan representatives in exile, and especially His Holiness, keep the issue on the world stage, as well as giving China a figurative bloody nose through the Nobel Summit triumph.  And for China, 2014 has seen political flux, major socioeconomic threats, and geopolitical challenges.

As Buddhists, Tibetans believe in impermanence.  Does this extend to the ability of China to sustain its occupation of Tibet?  With so many factors in flux in the world and in China, does a nonviolent application of the guerilla warfare tactic of “winning by not losing” apply to Tibet?  Perhaps developments in 2015 will make an answer more apparent.

We conclude this 2014 review with these words by poet/activist Lhasang Tsering:

You can hold on to your goal and your purpose;
You can hold on to what you believe;
You need to hold on;
Yes; for the sake of Truth and Justice –
You must hold on;
For the sake of the Future –
You must – you must – hold on


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