Optimism Outweighs Tension at Discussion of Current Conflict in Tibet

April 21, 2008 — Most Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, are willing to accept being a part of China if Tibetan culture can survive and thrive under Chinese rule, and Chinese leaders also support such a "middle way" solution. These big-picture parameters were explained with optimism by Tashi Rabgey, director of the University of Virginia's Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative, and other Tibetan and Chinese scholars and students gathered at a Tibet event on Thursday evening.

One of the biggest impediments to reaching a solution, multiple speakers suggested, has been China's longstanding policy of refusing to recognize or engage the Dalai Lama as a leader of Tibetans. However, widespread protests across Tibetan regions beginning in mid-March have opened a new era of possibility for a Tibetan solution, as the Chinese government may begin to engage diplomatically with the Dalai Lama, said Rabgey. "I want to emphasize how this is not history repeating itself. This is something entirely different — a lot of uncertainty, a dangerous time for Tibetans, but it's also a time of possibility."

Involving the Dalai Lama may well be the key to reaching a middle-way solution, but several issues create obstacles for both sides, as several participants explained at the event, "Understanding the Current Conflict in Tibet: A Student Conference at U.Va."

The event drew about 100 students, faculty and staff — many originally from China or Tibet — to Newcomb Hall. The four faculty presentations that opened the event were followed by small-group discussions led by six students — two Tibetan graduate students, Rabten Khekho and Tenzin Thosam; two students from Beijing, Xiang Gao and Haiming Yan; and two students who have studied and traveled to Tibet, William McGrath and Sarah Zauner. The event was sponsored by U.Va.'s East Asia Center, the Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative and the International Studies Office. Brenton Sullivan, one of the 28 students who organized the conference, moderated the discussion.

The breadth of event participants reflected how U.Va. has the strongest Tibetan community and scholarship of any U.S. university, said Rabgey, the director of a new Contemporary Tibetan Studies Initiative that will work to better unify and increase the visibility of the many Tibet-related resources at U.Va.

The stakes are high for both the Chinese and Tibetans, and there were moments of palpable tension during the presentations. Tibetans fear the gradual death of their culture, explained David Germano, an associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies and founding director of the Tibetan & Himalayan Digital Library. Tibetans are a people who have existed for at least 14 centuries as a distinct culture in a distinct area, he noted. During the cumulative seven years he lived in Tibet since 1986 and over his 20 years of friendships with Tibetans, Germano said he witnessed much suffering. He did not elaborate, focusing his talk instead on how best to help alleviate that suffering.

During the small-group discussion at the end of the event, Tibetan native Tenzin Thosam struggled to hold back tears as he described how he felt. China was like a fear-inspiring "giant" that affected him "like a pressure on my chest constraining how much I can be a Tibetan," he said. "In my home country I don't feel that I am a citizen."

Today, Tibet is in need of a metaphorical "life-saving surgery," rather than the luxury of independence, he said, noting his anguish at a Chinese official response that characterized  the recent protests as "a life-and-death struggle between us and the enemy."

On the other side of the issue, China fears more than the loss of over a quarter of its territory, explained Ran Zhao, a lecturer who teaches Chinese language. China also fears that a revolt in Tibet could set off similar unrest or revolt among the dozens of other minority ethnic groups that live across much of the north and west of China.

To the Chinese, the nation is identified with a family unit, (the Chinese character for country literally means "country + family") and China's Confucian value system places a high priority on protecting and preserving the family of Chinese peoples, which includes Tibetans, Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups, explained Zhao. The Chinese also think of Tibet like a family inheritance, and it would be shameful, even a crime, to throw away or lose that inheritance, said Zhao.

China's "century of humiliation" from the British Opium Wars in the 1840s to the Japanese invasions of the 1930s and 1940s left China with the lesson of "be strong or be hit," said Zhao, and has made China especially sensitive to perceived foreign influence or meddling, a threat it perceives in foreign expressions of support for Tibet and in foreign media coverage that portrays Tibetans as victims of Chinese oppression.

In a later question-and-answer session, Brantly Womack, a professor of politics who has written or edited several books on Chinese politics, noted that the concept of nationalism is always complicated. Following up on that idea, Rabgey noted that the Chinese conception of the different groups that make up the Chinese national "family" has changed over the past century. Before the fall of China's final dynasty in 1911, the prevailing view among the Chinese was that the "Chinese" people included all the Sinitic peoples — the Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese — but not Tibetans, Mongols and other minority groups.

Only later, Rabgey said, did the Chinese come up with a new idea of a greater China that would include Tibetans, an idea promoted by Mao as he founded the People's Republic of China in the 1950s.

While the passionate discussion and occasional moments of tension illustrated how much is at stake for both sides, optimism about the feasibility of a solution and a willingness to engage the other side predominated at the event. Germano drew on Buddhist teachings to exhort the audience to act on the urge to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans, rather than letting that urge fade away or mutate into moral indignation and righteousness, which won't help bring about pragmatic progress.

Tibetans, like virtually all communities across the world, he said, aspire to have health, jobs, security, legal protection, a degree of local governance and environmental protection, but want to thrive in those areas in a uniquely Tibetan way, without losing their distinctive cultural traditions and identities.

Germano worked toward those goals for 20 years, but always did so within the Chinese system and within Chinese constraints. Over those years he encountered some Chinese who did harm to Tibetans, but also worked with some Chinese who did great things for Tibetans, he said.

His most recent effort, starting this week, he said later, involves bringing 11 Tibetan community leaders to the U.S. for two weeks of training in how to be better cultural and environmental stewards and community leaders.

During wrap-up comments, Rabgey suggested that participants create a list-serve or discussion group to continue the event's engaging, constructive dialogue between members of the U.Va. community on both sides of the issue, a conversation that will be necessary to get to the bottom of the big issues at stake and find a "middle way" solution.

— By Brevy Cannon