China’s Lost Opportunity in Tibet: How Not to Make Friends

How One Earthquake Could Have Fixed China’s Relations with Tibet, the Dalai Lama and the World


Published: May 5, 2010

Almost two weeks ago, Tibet, the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, experienced an earthquake in its Qinghai province that killed over 2,000 people. In response, the exiled Tibetan leader said that he was anxious to assist in the relief efforts in any way that he could, and petitioned Beijing for permission to visit the fallen province. Beijing declined to respond, and the Dalai Lama was forced to resort to expressing his condolences for his people on his Facebook page.

In response to the quake, the Chinese government moved quickly to declare the disaster a top priority, and President Hu Jintao dispatched 700 soldiers to work in the rubble to rescue people, and 5000 soldiers and police to begin repair on roads and telephone lines. “Let us rebuild, let us have a harmonious society, let China be strong!” a radio reporter said after the earthquake. According to the Financial Times, the report also quoted a local teacher telling her students that “even if they had lost their families in the quake, the Communist party would be their parents now.” The report did not mention such important details like, while doctors had been dispatched to recover the nearly 10,000 injured victims, they had relied on Tibetan students volunteering from neighboring regions to translate, as patients have been unable to communicate with the Chinese doctors. I somehow doubt that those orphaned schoolchildren were eager to be adopted by a faceless government that they could not understand.

What’s more, China has made a conscious effort to eliminate any images of Tibetan monks, many of who sifted through the rubble with their bare hands to find survivors and handed out food, from appearing in the media. While banners on military relief trucks read “Whether Han or Tibetan, we are all one family,” China’s Communist party has taken care to portray the relief efforts as being strictly Chinese, devoid of the local Tibetan effort, especially that of local monks. Fearful of uncovering long-suppressed Tibetan criticism of the Chinese authorities, the government has tried to substitute overt patriotism for transparency about pressing issues regarding Tibet’s sovereignty. Since 1950, Tibet has been under the control of the People’s Republic of China, and the Tibetan Government in Exile has since campaigned to be recognized as an independent country, which has yet to be done.

China has been particularly wary of Tibetan political activity since the Tibetan riots of 2008, during which, in response to the detaining of a group of monks who had been peacefully protesting for religious freedom, riots broke out all over Tibet and Tibetans attacked non-Tibetans. According the New York Times, an investigative journalist said that although reporters in the area had been given few restrictions, “We really had no way to touch on the ethnic and religious issues.” As if Tibet were anything to China but a mess of ethnic and religious issues.

“We want to save lives,” said Ga Tsai, one of 200 Tibetan monks who departed from their lamasery in Sichuan to pick through the wreckage of concrete slabs with shovels and bare hands. “They see this as an opportunity for propaganda,” he said of a group of Chinese soldiers who, upon noticing the monks, shooed them away and replaced them with a camera crew. The soldiers then resumed rescuing a young girl from the rubble. Another group of monks worked on rescuing a group of 50 schoolchildren from a fallen classroom, but were then superseded by police, who officially reported half that number. Later on, as every television channel in the country showed a broadcast of mourning, absent were any images of monks, who reportedly prayed over bodies and sifted through the wreckage long after the rescue teams had quit. “They are everything to us,” said a man who opened the trunk of his car so that a group of monks could pray over his wife’s body.

The most disappointing part, though, is not simply that China’s Communist party has decided to erase the efforts of Tibet’s religious majority to rebuild their home, but that China refuses to see the disaster as an opportunity to improve its contentious relationship with Tibet, which has long been denied its sovereignty. Instead, the state-controlled media has seized the earthquake as a platform to promote a different kind of unity, an assimilation of Tibet which once again denies its freedom, stifles criticisms of the native Tibetans and dismisses the legitimacy of Tibet’s religious authorities.

While this is hardly a surprise on China’s part, it seems to me that they might actually benefit from acknowledging the combined efforts of the Chinese government and Tibet’s most important public figures, its spiritual leaders. I wish they would consider it. China would simply have to widen the visibility of the relief efforts to include those of Tibetans.

The very fact that China has been so insistent on using the earthquake to promote patriotism means that the government is acutely aware of the underlying dissent of the Tibetan people. “I think the government sees them as competitors for the hearts of the people,” said an influential Tibetan blogger, referring to the monks. Well, it’s true. Tibetans regard its spiritual leaders as far more significant than the Communist party, and ignoring them makes it much worse.

What’s more, if only China would take this chance to mend some ties with the Dalai Lama, who has personally expressed that he only seeks greater autonomy for Tibet in lieu of absolute sovereignty, it might improve its own international reputation. This would be particularly important in order to strengthen its alliance with the United States. Although China is a crucial business partner, the relationship between the two nations has been especially strained in the last year, not least because of Chinese hackers’ attacks on Google, and its reluctance to impose sanctions on Iran to halt Iran’s nuclear agenda. Lastly, in light of the disaster, extending even a small olive branch to the Dalai Lama would even open the door for a meeting between His Holiness and President Obama while China still manages to save face.

It’s sad that China doesn’t see that this quake is the perfect opportunity to repair so much damage, all at once. Including Tibetans in the resurrection of Qinghai would not only reveal a more compassionate side of the Chinese government; it gives China the chance to show how their continued control over the region is beneficial. For now, China is taking a huge misstep by ignoring the efforts of Tibet. “I am sad because our voice cannot be heard,” said a Tibetan migrant in Beijing.