After lunch one afternoon in December of last year, Tsulrim Gyatso repaired to his room at the Amchok Buddhist monastery in Tibet to write a letter. Gyatso, a highly respected monk in the province of Gansu, had been thinking, in the Buddhist way, about the condition of his people. “Tears drop from my eyes when I dwell on this state of sufferings,” he wrote. Later that day, Gyatso walked to a busy cross street, doused himself with gasoline, and lit fire to his body. As the flames consumed his flesh, he folded his palms in a gesture of respect: the tender last act of a Tibetan Buddhist who sought, like 124 monks before him, to draw attention to the suffering of his people by immolating his own body.
The only loss that any colonial authority truly recognises is its own. China claims Tibet as its own; but it cannot be moved by the deaths of Tibetans because it knows they are foreign. China in Tibet has always been, like Britain in India and Spain in the Americas, an alien overlord. As a colossal colonial power, absolute tenure of the Tibetan territory and the mineral wealth buried under it matter more to modern China than the lives of Tibet’s inhabitants. As Gyatso wrote in his letter, “Tibetan treasures of gold and silver have been looted under suppressive Chinese law.” Like all colonial powers, China has laboured hard to reengineer the minds of its subjects—to expunge from Tibetans’ mental makeup their sense of who they are. A captive Tibet is proclaimed as being free, the suppression of its language is justified as a necessary condition of its integration, and the annihilation of its culture is trumpeted as evidence of its progress.
Beijing has suffocated Tibet for over half a century. Yet in the lands where freedom is abundant, China, rather than earning well-deserved rebukes, is championed as the ineluctable future. This disgraceful surrender began with President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Eager to gratify Mao, Nixon abruptly terminated the CIA’s covert assistance to the Tibetan resistance movement. In any case, the purpose of the program had been to use Tibetans to gather intelligence about China, not to help them regain their homeland, which had been lost, piecemeal, in the 1950s. The subsequent liberal rationalization for closer relations with China went like this: the West, it was claimed, was more likely to influence China by partnering with it, and by giving it a prominent position inside, rather than pushing it outside, global institutions. But in the decades since, far from moulding the Chinese state’s behaviour, it is the West that has incrementally abandoned its own values in order to appease Beijing. It has been customary since the early 1990s for American presidents to host the Dalai Lama in Washington. In 2009 Barack Obama did away even with this minor gesture of solidarity with Tibetans for fear of offending the Chinese. The brief private audience that Obama eventually granted the beleaguered Tibetan leader was accompanied by humiliation: the Dalai Lama was made to exit through a back door, surrounded by piles of White House trash.
Perhaps encouraged by such accommodative silence, China has tightened its grip over Tibet. An exhaustive report by Human Rights Watch published last year shows that, over the last seven years, more than two million Tibetans have been huddled into what Beijing calls “New Socialist Villages.” Satellite imagery collected by HRW reveals rows of identical-looking houses and apartment blocks. To some, this will look like progress, a move away from the backwardness of rural life. But to Tibetans who have been subjected to what many scholars now agree is a cultural genocide, it’s only the newest phase in a process that began with China’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in 1951. In Tibet, Mao’s revolution is still unfolding, still claiming its victims. This is why Beijing did not stop at resettling the Tibetans. According to HRW, it dispatched 20,000 officials to monitor them under the slogan “Solidify the Foundations, Benefit the Masses.”
To many Tibetans, China’s unyielding push to erase their identity has only confirmed the futility of nonviolent protest. They have downgraded their demand for independence from China to autonomy within its boundaries, but Tibet remains the most intensely policed region under Chinese administration. Each year, an estimated 3,000 Tibetans reject the prosperity of China for life as refugees in remote places. Yet wherever they go, they find themselves marginalized by leaders anxious not to offend China. In a desperate attempt to move the world, monks like Gyatso have set fire to their own bodies. Even these sacrifices, in violation of Buddhist precepts, have failed to provoke any meaningful outrage in places that matter.
The Dalai Lama—condemned by Beijing as a terrorist—has so far prevented his people from adopting violent methods of resistance. But Beijing’s refusal to deal with him has substantially eroded his authority within the Tibetan community in exile. Certainly, the Dalai Lama continues to be revered as a spiritual leader by almost all Tibetans. But a young, restless generation of Tibetans is beginning to question the utility of nonviolent protest. It is not easy to fault them. Over the years, the Dalai Lama has travelled from capital to capital, picking up impressive-sounding prizes and interacting with well-meaning celebrities and politicians. But what does he have to show for it? He admires Lincoln—while neglecting that Lincoln’s words were consequential only because they were, as Julia Ward Howe once put it, “writ in burnished rows of steel.” What possible punishment can the Dalai Lama, in this lifetime, inflict on the Chinese as they hasten the extinction of his people? To say that His Holiness has kept the cause of Tibet alive while not being able to stop the demise of Tibet itself is not to diminish him: it is a measure of our world, which bows before violent Islamists and oppressive regimes but refuses to reward nonviolent protesters with support.
Some officials in China do recognize that Tibet is a time bomb waiting to explode. In an interview to a Hong Kong-based magazine last year, Jin Wei, an establishment figure and a director at the influential Central Party School, called for a settlement that involves the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Her remarks generated some glib hope in the West. But there was no movement. Hu Jintao, the man heralded as “different” by many of the same voices that rationalized the West’s embrace of China, has shown himself to be as inflexible as his predecessors. Today, North Korea is believed by some experts to be more accessible to journalists than Tibet. (The Associated Press has a bureau in Pyongyang. Journalists are barred from entering Tibet.)
Conscious of the discontent flourishing within the exiled community, the Dalai Lama spent the last decade modernizing the Tibetan resistance movement. He has weakened his own office, created political institutions distinct from the spiritual branch he oversees, and exhorted the young to participate in them. Tibet now has a democratically elected government in exile. But it’s not clear how effective it can be. When Lobsang Sangay, a charismatic Harvard-trained lawyer, was elected prime minister in 2011, India, which hosts the government in exile, was not represented at his swearing-in ceremony. No minister in the Indian government will be seen in public with Sangay. And whenever a senior Chinese official visits India, New Delhi is quick to enforce racist penal codes dating back to the British Raj to lock up anyone of Tibetan appearance.
Young Tibetans in exile have absorbed more than their share of degradations. As Tenzin Tsundue, the Tibetan activist and writer living in India, puts it in his poem My Tibetanness: “Thirty-nine years in exile/ Yet no nation supports us… We are refugees here/ People of a lost country/ Citizen to no nation.” Tsundue is the creation of exile, of repression, of a hopelessness that no foreign power any longer has the courage to recognise. There are hundreds of thousands like Tsundue, and he’s giving voice to their deepest aspirations when he writes: “I am a Tibetan/ But I am not from Tibet/ Never been there/ Yet I dream/ of dying there.” If the molestation of Tibet continues, and if the world persists with its indifference to the plight of Tibtans, the full implications of Tsundue’s words will become apparent in the not too distant future.