Tibet: What can other countries do?

A lone protester is dragged away by Indian police moments after he tried to set himself on fire in front of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on Nov. 4, 2011.
Credit: Roberto Schmidt

At least 11 monks and nuns have set themselves on fire this year in condemnation of China's repressive policies in their homeland.

Is it an effective form of protest? Will China change its policies?

Not likely, without clear and consistent pressure on the international stage, argues Professor Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.

"We are not seeing strong signals coming from the major Western powers. We need to find a way to articulate these issues without seeming to impose on China," Barnett said.

GlobalPost talked with Barnett about which countries are better at dealing with China, why changes China does make don't necessarily get noticed, and whether focusing on what's going on inside Tibet could actually be doing some harm.

Read Part One of this Q & A, which focused on the Dalai Lama's response to self-immolations.

What can, or should, other countries do about Tibet?

Basically, China assumes that it should push its objectives until it meets resistance. Because it sees itself as growing and recovering a lost historic role in a hostile environment, its underlying strategy is to pursue its strategic objectives up to the point where its competitors prevent it from going further — a mode that is typical of a nation at this point in its arc of growth.

This means that other countries need to maintain exceptionally clear definitions of what they will accommodate in terms of their interests, and that includes issues of rights and responsibilities. That's easy when it comes to external affairs, where the Chinese recognize that we all have a role and interest, but we all have to find skillful and effective ways to explain why there should be limitations to Chinese action too, when it comes to affairs that they are convinced are internal, like Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, even sometimes the South China Seas. But it's difficult, because these issues are very sensitive and complex when international players are involved.

Q & A Part 1 with Prof. Barnett: What should the Dalai Lama do?

We also have to think how diplomatic language is understood by China. For example, symbolic and ceremonial aspects of diplomacy are seen in Beijing as much more important than they are in the West. China knows that whether a US president meets the Dalai Lama, and whether he does so in a public or a private room, could conceal a larger strategic shift.

More importantly, Chinese diplomats carefully read the signs of diplomatic attention. Silence is very vocal — if you raise an issue and then don't mention it again, it is taken as a concession. If you even slightly moderate the language you use to refer to it, it’s seen as a major concession. Backing off is a major signal, so Westerners have to learn that on some issues they have to learn to maintain a practice of repeated, consistent restatements of a principled position. Dull but important.

China is a major world power, but it still seems very sensitive to world perceptions of its policies. This doesn't mean that other countries should be insulting or aggressive toward China. It does mean that Western governments need to be much clearer and more consistent in stating what their concerns are, and explaining why they have any right or interests to speak on internal issues.

Are you seeing Western governments that are doing this?

There has been more or less a complete collapse on policy consistency across the Western block in terms of knowing how to respond to assertive modern Chinese diplomatic skill. In western Europe, it's a total write-off. They are easily divided, since they are numerous, and so are terrified of upsetting China. They've had years of China saying "If you criticize me, I won't buy your next Airbus" and have failed to work out a way to deal with that strategy. It's like watching someone throw dollar bills — or, rather, euro notes — into a crowd.

More from GlobalPost: Chinese man self-immolates in Tiananmen Square

America has been more consistent, actually. They do try to maintain a clearer line and a more skillful sense of how to respond to various maneuvers. And America has said consistently on Tibet that China should change its policies there because they're counterproductive, which is useful language since it appeals to their interests, not just ours.

But the most interesting gestures have come from countries in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, the latter presumably because they understand Leninist traditions of diplomacy.

We are not seeing strong signals coming from the major Western powers. We need to find a way to articulate these issues without seeming to impose on China.

Can you see anything shifting in the near future?

Actually the Chinese have made some micro-changes to their policies in Tibet as a result of pressure from both outside and inside, but they are so small that most specialists don't even mention them.

More from GlobalPost: Tibet is burning

For example, the new party secretary in Lhasa arranged last month for almost all Tibetan university graduates to have jobs. This week he said that all monks — of course he only means the few recognized officially — will have pensions and minimum allowances. They are certainly pouring more money into the area now, especially the villages, and though the effects of this are very much disputed, it shows a certain urgency of response.

We can be skeptical, and we should be to some extent — the methods of Chinese modernization in Tibet and elsewhere are rushed, manipulative, top-down and so on. That's our responsibility in a situation where a people is not allowed to speak out.

But these moves are proofs of principle: they indicate that pressure works. That does not mean that all kinds of pressure work of course, and inside pressure is much more important than outside pressure. But it suggests that a skillful balance of the two does sometimes get noticed.

Could there be significant changes?

Perhaps the way Tibet is run by the Chinese could be changed, at least to some extent. The question is whether the changes that will come will be enough. It's very doubtful, given the extreme conservatism of the current leadership. Still, when you live under an autocracy, sometimes small changes can make a much bigger difference than expected to the people living there. And you never know what they might lead to — which is also why the Chinese are so scared of making them. I don't mean independence, but a broader civil society.

But there are shifts taking place of a more troubling variety. While people are focused on terrible tragedies in Tibet, a lot is being done in Nepal to the exiled Tibetan community there. It is now apparently illegal for them even to have certain private prayer ceremonies. Police raided a Tibetan cultural show in Kathmandu, a classical opera performance, recently. Thousands of Tibetans have been refused exit permits to come to the US, even though the US has prepared to issue visas. It's incredible, inconceivable within what is supposedly a democratic society.

There's no real dispute that this is all done directly at the demand of China. So Nepal, on this issue, is being run internally by its neighbor. I experienced this when I was last there a few years ago. I was surrounded and escorted at one point for a few hours by un-uniformed Chinese police when I was in a border area. They didn't realize I could understand what they were saying.

And last week, there were news reports from India of a major Bollywood film being ordered by a government agency there to cut a scene that featured a "Free Tibet" flag. These are clearly challenges to democractic principles in those countries. They are fundamental shifts, but they are not discussed — and they are always done without public debate. In those neighboring areas, Chinese policy is happening all around us.

So, the focus inside Tibet is a distraction?

It is making us look in one direction while a lot is going on in other directions. Things are changing, just not in the direction we might like to see. We shouldn't be alarmist about it, it's all part of the normal chess game that the big political players are involved in, adjustments to regional balance and spheres of influence, but it requires attention and alertness.

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