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The violently peaceful struggle for Tibet

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Prayers in front of the Jokhang temple

Many years later, as he faced how the Dalai Lama became a political inconvenience for an increasing number of world leaders, the former emissary of the Dalai Lama, Gelek Rinpoche was to remember those distant afternoons when the poet Allen Ginsberg, the composer Philip Glass, the author Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere jointly planned fully-booked glamorous events for his Buddhist Jewel Heart organizations based in Ann Arbor, Chicago, and New York. At that time, the end of the Cold War was so recent that many notions lacked names, and in order to describe them, it was necessary to invent.

The belief of the Dalai Lama as a “man of peace” was pragmatically shared by all Western politicians, media and left-thinking intellectuals who depicted the people of Tibet as by nature honest, gentle and kind. This belief helped spread the perception of Tibetan culture as a compassionate and non-violent one, and of Tibet as a civilization where, under the Lamas, peace and happiness prevailed and that this condition of happiness could be taken up worldwide.

Just a few years before the end of the Cold War, the film Seven Years in Tibet featuring Brad Pitt posited that Tibetans revere life so much that they refuse to kill even worms and that the “Chinese are brutal; the Tibetans are gentle.” The Tibet activist and actor Richard Gere spoke of “Beijing’s savage oppression of the gentle Tibetan people.” Western media referred to the Dalai Lama as an apostle of world peace and happiness, and the idea that the Tibetan people are naturally peaceful became an obvious truth for all.

The rhetoric of the (cultural) genocide

In 2001, a few days before the International Olympic Committee met in Moscow to award the 2008 Games to Beijing, Gelek Rinpoche, acting as the Dalai Lama’s envoy for the occasion, approached the General Director of the International Olympic Committee and confident in the Tibetan struggle narrative that had gained good traction by then, demanded that the Games should be denied because “China has been executing a policy in Tibet of ethnic and cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, and intended to erase the Tibetan people from the face of the Earth.”

In 1959 after Gelek Rinpoche accompanied the Dalai Lama in his flight to India, both thought that in the near future China would totally exterminate the Tibetan race. In reports from 1959 and 1960, the CIA-funded International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) claimed that China was committing genocide in Tibet by eradicating the Tibetans through restrictions on religion that were destroying their way of life. A few years later the Dalai Lama mitigated his certitudes and admitted that China’s aim was not physical annihilation, but assimilation and subordination, stating that China “seems to attempt the extermination of religion and culture and even the absorption of the Tibetan race.”

Today it is historically irrefutable that there were substantial causalities in Tibet due to the vicious actions of Mao-era China, as there were throughout the country. However, there has never been credible evidence showing that physical genocide has been perpetrated in Tibet aiming at the extermination of Tibetans. Claims that a fifth of the Tibetan population was annihilated from 1959 to 1979 through executions, famines, imprisonment, and other means are without any evidentiary roots. Mao was at war with an ideology, not the nation of Tibetan people alone. Absent the nexus to physical genocide, a claim of cultural genocide becomes no more than a rhetorical construct, a conjecture in need of a name that would become the foundation justification for the Tibetan struggle.

The notion of cultural genocide in Tibet resonated in the West because it is a largely unexamined concept. Even where the phrase itself is not used, Western media reflexively alluded to the idea. For example, in late 2017, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, headed by Senator Marco Rubio, invited the actor Richard Gere as “someone who is knowledgeable about the political situation in Tibet” to testify before the committee. In his testimony, the actor stated that “under Chinese rule, the Tibetan language and culture have been suppressed”. In reality, the education system in Tibet has been tailored to the cultural specificities of Tibetans by developing primary level schooling in the Tibetan language and secondary level schooling on a bilingual basis, adding Chinese languages and supplementary English lessons to the curriculum. Gere’s assumed expertise in Tibetan matters has never been called in question because it fitted a definite agenda.

Others have posited that cultural genocide does not only mean killing, it also means limiting births among Tibetans. A lawyer who headed the US-based Tibet Justice Centre advanced such allegations, and the Dalai Lama stated that China is “forcing strict family planning rules on my people” in order “to make us a minority in our own land.” The fact is, family planning and the “one child” policy, however, even where coercive, were part of China’s policy over the entire Chinese territory for decades, and not just imposed on Tibet.

Some Tibetan leaders in exile and Western NGOs claimed that “Tibetans are not even permitted to undertake routine religious activities”. They asserted that 6,000 monasteries were destroyed before or during the Mao’s Cultural Revolution and that “the handful of surviving monasteries are being used as public toilets and barracks while monks and nuns in Tibet have been forced by the Chinese to defecate on religious objects”. Such claims are anachronisms designed to imply that a second Maoist Cultural Revolution is ongoing in Tibet. Yet mass participation in routine religious activities is evident to even sceptical observers and the occasional tourist.

Western journalists reported that in Tibet many hundreds of Tibetans prostrate themselves at temples daily, while US human rights officials visiting Lhasa saw pilgrims crowded in front of the Jokhang, one of Tibet’s most important temples, to perform ritual worship. They do not challenge China’s claims that every year more than one million people visit the Jokhang. As for the major monasteries on the Tibetan plateau, Western reporters have noted that the there are now 300 more lamaseries and temples in the Tibet than existed in the region before 1951. Again, such figures are not disputed.

Chinese state efforts to preserve Tibetan cultural accomplishments and popularize Tibetan culture by creating venues for its development are ignored in Western discourse because such efforts conflict with the idea of cultural genocide in Tibet. Rather, exile Tibet leaders and Western NGOs reject performing arts in Tibet as inauthentic and have stated that “in this calculated cultural genocide the Chinese make every effort to remove any vestige of Tibetan character in the performing arts.”

Even artists educated in contemporary Tibet who emigrate to India, such as Gongkar Gyatso, are spurned as polluted. Exiled Tibetan authorities are unhappy that the main trend in Tibetan art, in or out of Tibet, has been modernistic. They consider religious scroll painting to be the only authentic Tibetan style, and disapprove all other painting styles produced by ethnic Tibetans as being corrupted by Chinese influences. The reference to the arts and cultural genocide is a classic nationalist juxtaposition of the inauthentic in “occupied Tibet” to the “pure” preserved culture of the exiles and allied Western-based NGOs. One exponent of those NGOs is the New York-based Tibet House, founded in 1987 by Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman), actor Richard Gere and composer Philip Glass (among others). Ironically, in the fields of literature, architecture, art, film, and music alike, Chinese intellectuals and artists have been turning more and more frequently to Tibet as a source of inspiration.

Lhasa, like many large cities around the world, has abundant outlets for prostitution, gambling, and drugs. Exiled Tibet leaders and Western NGOs try to attribute such “vices” found in Tibet’s cities to cultural corrosion due to the Chinese presence. The Washington based International Campaign for Tibet, represented by its main public exponent, the actor Richard Gere, has stated: “We are concerned that more and more young Tibetans are being tempted by the very worst aspects of Chinese culture.” However, none of the “vices” complained of are specifically Chinese, and might equally be attributed to the influence of “the West”. While exiled Tibetan leaders and Western NGOs object to the cultural impact of the Han-Chinese in Tibet, they are usually much less concerned about the Western influence on traditional Tibetan culture.

Even the late Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet and passionate supporter of the exiled Tibetan cause, observed that “within certain limits China does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression” and “the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored.” Other supporters of the exiled Tibetan cause, including Tibet scholar Professor Robert Barnett and German Green Party leader Antje Vollmer, also recognized the inaccuracy of the cultural genocide claim.

It has been said that the notion of genocide is marked by conceptual confusion, often compounded by its rhetorical and populist use on the part of those seeking to inflame and stigmatise social and political discourse. It is equally common for nationalists to deploy a charge of cultural genocide against changes they oppose in traditional lifestyles. The Dalai Lama often states that he is concerned most of all about the preservation of culture. His main international alliance, however, is with politicians in the US, a country whose hegemony plays a major strategic role in eroding traditional cultures, including in Europe, China and Tibet.

The unanimity on pacifism

But let’s go back to the few crucial days before the International Olympic Committee met in Moscow in 2001 to award the 2008 Games to Beijing. Gelek Rinpoche approached the General Director of the International Olympic Committee as envoy of the Dalai Lama, and claimed that there “has not been one single terrorist incident in all the 50 years of the Tibetan struggle for independence”. The dogmatic stance on non-violence was always effective in obfuscating memories and attracting consent. Yet Gelek Rinpoche must have remembered the bombings in Lhasa, the large-scale armed revolts, the guerrilla warfare, the large quantity of weaponry airdropped by the CIA, the gangs of rioters that burned dozens of policemen and killed hundred of civilians, the hate campaigns demonizing opponents of the Tibetan government in exile, seen as antagonistic to the authority of the Dalai Lama, the oppressive measures against the Dorje Shugden religious practice banned and considered heretic by the Dalai Lama, the related series of dynamite blasts in the Tibetan Dartsedo and Lithang counties driven by hatred of Dorje Shugden practitioners, the endorsements of terrorism by the largest Tibetan exile organization, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and its extreme nationalist slogans, like “no Chinese in Tibet is innocent”… while the Dalai Lama encouraged others to use such expressions to make himself look more conciliatory in comparison.

In fact, exile leaders have only in the last few decades claimed that nonviolence is essential to Tibetan culture and underlies Tibetan strategy. While the Dalai Lama gives a speech every March 10 to mark the 1959 Lhasa uprising, his first mention of nonviolence in that speech only came in 1988. And it was only in 1996 that the Tibet Parliament in Exile adopted nonviolence as a fundamental principle of the Tibetan Government in Exile.

The Dalai Lama at a public event in Europe

Over the years, the Dalai Lama propagated its “middle way” approach of Tibet as an autonomous region inside China, with the use of such terms as “peace” and “non-violence”, affecting compassion and benevolence in order to gain international empathy and support. Looking beyond the conciliatory words and charismatic smile, however, it is not difficult to find evidence that the exiled Tibetan leadership has been willing to both threaten and resort to violence, and to carry out violence under the guise of non-violence. In truth they have never abandoned their ultimate goal of “Tibetan independence”. This undisclosed intent is explicitly reflected in all known Western-based NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet which openly proclaim “Tibet Independence” (or “Free Tibet” or in the Tibetan language “Rangzen”) as their ultimate objective.

The image of a pacifist Dalai Lama facing a belligerent China has obstructed any settlement of the Tibet question. It has reinforced the idea that a “Free Tibet” can only be possible if China disintegrates. It has allowed Western elites to demand that because the Dalai Lama is perceived as a “man of peace” China has to negotiate with him unconditionally, which it would not do unless he first accepted Tibet as an inalienable and legitimate part of China. Because he refused to do so, the Chinese government linked him to hostile Western forces who seek China’s dismantling.

However, in recent years, the massive economic power China has become has made the Dalai Lama a political danger for an increasing number of world leaders and nations, who now shy away from him for fear of inciting China’s ire or endangering economic relations with China. Even Pope Francis, considered an audacious religious leader, reportedly declined a meeting in Rome with the Dalai Lama. And President Donald Trump, who might be expected to endorse the decades-long US efforts to destabilize China and to back US-based NGOs active in propaganda campaigns for human rights in Tibet, suggested that financially supporting the “Free Tibet” cause is a “waste of money”. Of late, even the Indian authorities hosting the Tibetan leadership and the Dalai Lama have cancelled important commemoratory events with him.

In reality, the Dalai Lama’s persona impedes a compromise for as long as the discourse prevents differentiation between his religious and political roles and the narrative remains a binary one which idolises him as peaceful and demonizes China as the brutal perpetrator of a cultural genocide in Tibet. China has over the last three decades relaxed draconian and cruel Mao-era rules, by opening the door to private sector capitalism. With its adoption of capitalistic mechanisms, China has accumulated immense financial assets which are today vital to the nourishment of the worldwide economy, particularly in Western countries that have accumulated huge debts.

Also over the last three decades, China has relaxed the draconian Mao-era rules on religion by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice. There are now significantly more adherents of Buddhism than members of the Communist Party – there are 90 million members of Communist Party of China, compared to some 250 million Buddhists and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks. Additionally, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is constantly moderating his attitude to Tibet and Buddhism, among other reasons because his wife is profoundly Buddhist.

The reverence for (non)-violence

When in 2001, Gelek Rinpoche approached the International Olympic Committee to protest against the 2008 Olympic Games being awarded to Beijing, he must have remembered the distant years before the Chinese invasion in 1951, when the Tibet was ruled by aristocrats, clerics, and manor owners and had a brutal social hierarchy and a system of serfdom similar to pre-feudal times; he must have remembered the distant year of 1959 when the Dalai Lama and two of his brothers enrolled by the CIA, along with other clerics and aristocrats, launched a large-scale armed revolt against officials stationed in Tibet and massacred local Tibetans who supported Chinese communism. The Dalai Lama was not only well-informed of the action but gave it his active blessing. Years later he wrote in his book My Spiritual Autobiography: “Every one of them is armed to the teeth, and even my personal cook is carrying a bazooka, with his waist belt full of ammunition. He has been well trained by the CIA…”

After the Dalai Lama fled to India, escorted by his entourage of clerics and aristocrats, he reorganized an army and waited to fight his way back to Tibet. In 1960 in Mustang, a county in northern Nepal, he rebuilt an anti-Chinese guerrilla force. In 1962, with support from external powers, he built a Special Frontier Force composed of mainly Tibetan exiles, most of them from aristocrat families. From 1961 to 1965, these forces sneaked across the border 204 times to harass Chinese border troops and Tibetan civilians. According to disclosed US archives, the Dalai Lama first established contact with the US government in 1951. During the armed rebellion in Tibet, the CIA not only sent agents to help the Dalai Lama and his entourage of clerics and aristocrats to flee but also purposefully trained militants to support his forces and airdropped a large quantity of weaponry.

On September 21, 1987, the Dalai Lama made a speech to the US Congress, calling for Tibetan independence. On September 27, in the square of the Jokhang Temple, a group of lamas shouted separatist slogans, attacked police, and injured many civilians. On October 1, a small gang of rioters raided the police station on Barkhor Street in Lhasa and burned seven cars, leaving dozens of policemen injured. The rioters proclaimed that the Dalai Lama was fighting for Tibetan independence. They demanded the support of spectators and the general public and threatened personal retaliation against those who failed to join them. On March 5, 1988, during the Monlam Prayer Festival, a gang of rioters stormed into local Party and government offices and police stations around Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street, smashing and burning cars and shops, leading to 299 police and civilian casualties. From March 5 to 7, 1989, Lhasa witnessed another riot in which one policeman was shot dead, 40 others were injured, and 107 shops, 24 government offices, primary schools and neighbourhood committees were destroyed. On March 11, 1992, nine Tibetan separatists attacked the Chinese embassy in India with firebombs.

The (non)-violence around the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing

“The Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing will be a symbol of peace, friendship, and progress, which is welcomed and cherished by all peoples” commented the International Olympic Committee in 2001, during the ceremony awarding the 2008 Games to Beijing.

In May 2007, the Tibetan independence movement, including exiled Tibetan leaders and Western NGOs supporting them, held a meeting in Brussels and agreed on a strategic plan to launch a campaign to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Later, two NGOs in the US (International Campaign for Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet) and two in India (the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association) advocating for human rights in Tibet put forward a proposal for an uprising in Tibet, believing the 2008 Olympic Games was the last chance to achieve Tibetan independence. They decided to take advantage of this occasion while China was the spotlight of international attention before the start of the Olympic Games.

On January 4 and January 25, 2008, Tibetan independence activists held press conferences in New Delhi, releasing proposals for this uprising, spreading the news on more than 100 websites, and encouraging the instigation of constant large-scale uprisings for March 10, 2008, the date corresponding to the anniversary of the uprising in 1959. On March 10, the Dalai Lama made a speech, urging his followers within Chinese territory to engage in violence. On the same day, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) made a statement, claiming that it would “now seize a most important opportunity never before seen in our struggle for independence – the upcoming Olympic Games,” and that it would “spare neither blood nor life for Tibetan independence.”

Uprisings took place in Tibet four days later than planned, on March 14, 2008. That day, a mob converged in the downtown area of Lhasa, assaulting innocent bystanders with weapons including rocks, daggers, and clubs, smashing and looting vehicles, shops, banks, the Telecom business offices, and government properties, severely disrupting social order, and causing heavy losses of life and property. During the violent incidents, there were over 300 cases of arson, while 908 shops, seven schools, 120 houses, and five hospitals were severely damaged. Ten bank branches were looted, at least 20 buildings were burnt to the ground, and 84 vehicles were torched. Most seriously, a total of 18 people were burned or hacked to death, and 382 people were injured – 58 of them seriously.

After these incidents, the Dalai Lama himself released a declaration through his personal secretariat, describing the riots as “peaceful protests.” On March 16, he said in an interview with BBC that he would not ask the rioters to stop because their demands came from the Tibetan people, and he had to respect their will. In the meantime, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), passed a resolution to “immediately organize guerrillas to infiltrate China for armed struggle.” The head of the TYC claimed that they were ready to sacrifice another 100 Tibetans to reach complete victory.

Western NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet, and in particular activists from “Students for a Free Tibet” engaged in a series of sabotage activities directed at the Beijing Olympic Games. They interfered with important ceremonies, including disrupting the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, and attempting to grab the Olympic torch during the torch relay in various countries, provoking a strong reaction from the international community and a pandemonium at the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, as its General Director, Urs Lacotte, revealed during a lunch at the edge of Lake Geneva, explaining how the Committee did not foresee such an organized outbreak.

The main claims of the activists were: China continues its crackdowns on freedom of religion in Tibet; China is using the Olympics to misrepresent the unique culture of Tibet as Chinese, as it has chosen an endangered Tibetan animal, the Tibetan antelope, as one of its Olympic mascots; China has failed to follow the call of the International Campaign for Tibet to end human rights abuses in Tibet and negotiate a peace agreement with Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama…

The self-immolation marathon after the Olympic Games 2008

After the Western media coverage of riots in Tibet in 2008, in which the Dalai Lama was identified as a peacemaker to whom China refused to talk, the proportion of journalists who saw China as the world’s biggest threat doubled. Time magazine named the Dalai Lama the most influential person in the world and the Western general public saw the Dalai Lama as the most respected world leader. The notion he is a pacifist was so pervasive that it circulated from the West to China for some months.

Following some success in drawing media attention during the Beijing Olympic Games incidents, the exiled Tibetan leadership began to encourage Tibetan lamas and lay followers inside China and India to engage in acts of self-immolation, leading to a series of such incidents in a number of regions. This ongoing campaign started in 2009 but had its roots in a few isolated cases that began around 1998 outside Tibet.

The US-based NGOs stated that self-immolation acts by Tibetans were an assertion of the Tibetan identity in the face of “cultural genocide”. This proclamation, however, disregarded the fact that suicide is forbidden in Buddhism. The campaign was heavily exploited around the world and praised by NGOs advocating for human rights in Tibet, but also by NATO-backed think tanks. These included Freedom House, whose specific role is to monitor freedom of the press around the world and which ranked Tibet as the worst possible place, saying self-immolations were the result of a lack of freedom. However, the most extreme illustration of the alliance of the US government in the self-immolation campaign can be seen in the documents of The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (www.cecc.gov). This body promotes the self-immolation strategy aimed at achieving “Tibetan freedom” and the Dalai Lama’s return in Tibet, and sees the collapse of China as an implicit goal.

In some cases acts of self-immolation were exploited to support fundraising activities, particularly in the US, and to obtain governmental subsidies for NGOs or the exiled Tibetan leadership, with wide support from cultural exponents like Hollywood actors and famous musicians, whose numbers had boomed since those distant afternoons when the poet Allen Ginsberg, the composer Philip Glass, the author Robert Thurman and the actor Richard Gere first laid their plans to drum up support for US-based Buddhist organizations.

US-based NGO banner praising self-immolation in Tibet

On May 29, 2012, at a TYC candlelight rally to glorify Tibetans who had set themselves alight, the leader of the rally claimed, “Tibetan independence will neither fall from the sky nor grow from the earth; rather it relies on our efforts and action and needs sacrifice.” From September 25 to 28, 2012, the exiled Tibetan leadership convened the Second Special Meeting of Tibetans in Exile, proclaiming self-immolation as the highest form of non-violence, hailing its victims as “national heroes,” building memorials and raising special funds for them. They still vigorously preach that “self-immolation does not go against Buddhist doctrine” and that “self-immolation is martyrdom and a Bodhisattva deed,” duping Buddhist believers in Tibet, and particularly innocent young people, and setting them on an incendiary path to ruin. The unavoidable consequence was a rapid increase in self-immolations. In addition, the TYC issued the Martyr Award in 2013 to Monks of the Kirti Monastery who self-immolated and in 2016 to self-immolators in Tibet and in exile who sacrificed their lives.

Investigations by China’s public security organs into incidents of self-immolation clearly revealed that these protesters were being manipulated and instigated by the highest levels of the exiled Tibetan leadership. Kirti Monastery in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture is where the greatest number of self-immolation incidents took place; it has been proved that those promoting these incidents have close links with the Tibetan exile leadership.

The investigation of the security organs revealed that the Tibetan exile leadership has four ways of instigating self-immolation: first, planning incidents from abroad through a so-called “press liaison group” based in the Kirti Monastery in Sichuan and the Kirti Monastery in India; second, sending TYC members into Tibet to incite self-immolation; third, mobilizing activists returning from overseas to assist in self-immolation; and fourth, using the Internet and NGOs’ social media reach to hype up self-immolation.

The exiled Tibetan leadership has allegedly released a Self-immolation Guide on the Internet – an instruction manual to incite and instruct Tibetans residing within China to burn themselves. The author of this manual is Chabdak Lhamo Kyab, who served for two terms as a member of the Tibetan government in exile, known now as the Central Tibetan Government (CTA) and was the head of a clandestine resistance movement and also a public relations counsellor of the Dalai Lama. He now resides in France.

The Self-immolation Guide is a book consisting of four parts: the first part advocates the idea that self-immolators are great, honourable and intrepid heroes and that both these male and female heroes should always be prepared to sacrifice themselves for a just cause. The second part gives detailed instructions on preparations for self-immolation, including picking important days and places, leaving written or recorded last words, and asking trustworthy friends to help record videos or take photos. The third part introduces self-immolation slogans, instructing victims to always shout the same slogans. And the fourth part illustrates other activities that might accompany self-immolation. The book also contains the timeline of protests since 2009; the life stories of the protesters; the international community’s support for the movement; and the exiled Tibetan leadership’s efforts to gain global support. “The book”, said one source of the leadership “has nothing to do with encouraging self-immolation”. At present, the existence of the book has been officially denied by the exiled Tibetan leadership.

Performing self-immolation in public is itself an act of violence, intended to create an atmosphere of terror and of horror. On this issue of principle, the Dalai Lama played an important role. For example, on November 8, 2011, when a new series of self-immolations had just begun, he said in an interview that the point was that self-immolation demanded courage and that “cultural genocide” was the reason behind these “courageous acts”. He thereby both showed his appreciation for and approval of self-immolators and promoted his rhetoric of cultural genocide.

On January 3, 2012, he defended self-immolation on the basis that it was superficially an act of violence, but what differentiated violence and non-violence was the motives and aims behind each act, and only an act driven by hatred and anger could be defined as violence. It was clear that he regarded self-immolation as non-violent protest. On October 8, 2012, he said in an interview that he was sure that self-immolators were sacrificing themselves with a sincere motivation and for the benefit of Buddhism and the well-being of Tibetans, and that, from the Buddhist point of view, it was a positive act. Through these words, he has repeatedly and explicitly offered his approval of and praise for self-immolation. He has also hosted a dharma assembly, in his capacity as a religious leader, to expiate the sins of the dead, chant scriptures and pray for them, a promise which turns out to be very persuasive to believers in Tibetan Buddhism. Only recently has the Dalai Lama revised his views on the effectiveness of self-immolation.

Since the Olympic Games of 2008, over 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest, including 41 monks and eight nuns. Only very few of Tibet’s Buddhist clerics or exponents of the human rights community have dared to speak out in Western countries against glorifying, praising or promoting acts of self-immolation for political gain. Also among exile Tibetans, any advocacy against self-immolation is considered incompatible with the agenda of the Tibetan government in exile, and very few would dare provoke the rage of the Dalai Lama for fear of reprisal. Recently, personalities that dared to speak out against the campaign of self-immolation were systematically attacked on social media in what appeared to be a coordinated slander campaign, organized through anonymous accounts. One luminary who did speak out was Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of the Malaysian based Buddhist organisation Kechara, who publicly and forcefully opposed the campaign of self-immolation, particularly after a succession of incidents prior the vote of the US budget bill 2018, which included grants to the exiled Tibetan leaders that were in danger of being rejected by Congress. He was severely punished on the social media for his call for non-violence and was tagged a ‘Chinese spy’ because he upheld a core Buddhist teaching of non-violence.

The fading unity for the Tibetan cause on the path to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

These violent initiatives succeeded in gaining world media focus on the Tibetan issue but ultimately failed to change the equation with China and tilt the balance in favour of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. As questions of the Tibetan leadership’s adequacy became louder over the years, the Dalai Lama and exile leaders have constantly stoked the flames of division between Tibetans, sowing discord and inciting  inter-religious animosity and divisions. Part of the motivation it was to distract Tibetan refugees from the reality that their exiled Tibetan leaders were unable, after 60 years, to offer a realistic prospective for their return to Tibet, or at least formulate a plan for their integration into Indian society.

Since the failure of the attempted rebellions in 1959 and 2008, a series of particularly divisive issues for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and abroad have been introduced by the Tibetan leadership. The Karmapa controversy was one where the Dalai Lama created conditions for rivalry to beset the Karma Kagyu sect, the second largest school of Buddhism which prevails until this day. As for the largest Tibetan Buddhism school, the Gelug, enmity was introduced by outlawing the worship of one of the sect’s most popular deity, Dorje Shugden, a nearly 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major practice in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dorje Shugden de facto ban has already existed for two decades since it was initiated by the Dalai Lama and has slowly stirred disunity in Tibet and among the exiled Tibetan communities, leading the Chinese government to consider the Dorje Shugden conflict an important front for undermining what it says are efforts promoted by the Dalai Lama aimed at destabilizing China.

This religious hostility has been fed by considerable propaganda and counterpropaganda efforts during the last two decades and it is still an ongoing battle. It has been continuously observed that Dorje Shugden followers, monks, and monasteries in Tibet and abroad are used as scapegoat and portrayed as heretic, demonic and sectarian, and are branded as Chinese Communist Party supporters or Chinese spies by most NGOs advocating in western countries for the exiled Tibetan leadership’s goals. In historical terms, the situation and implications may call to mind Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity centuries ago.

Most nations acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, while none formally recognizes the exiled Tibetan leadership, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – yet a number of them sustain the cause of the exiles in other ways. Because of the need for Western support of the exiled government and the significant role played by externally-based NGOs supporting Tibetan independence, democratizing elements have been added to self-governance in exile, and the vocabulary of human rights, development, environmental protection, and so forth has been deployed by the CTA and supported by Western NGOs. In reality, spirituality and aristocracy are linked through Tibet’s traditional system of theocratic government, in which politics and religion were tightly knit. Many exiled government officials continue to promote this system as ideal for Tibet, including the present prime minister of the CTA, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who recently reaffirmed the urgency of strengthening efforts to facilitate the return of the Dalai Lama to his native land and his former residence in Lhasa, the Potala palace.

However, the repeated requests of many exile leaders to pass orders banning critical voices from any Tibet-related events, accusing such voices to be Chinese spies and/or Dorje Shugden heretics, stand in stark contradiction to democratic principles. Critical voices expose, for example, claims of corruption inside the CTA; some complain that instead of focusing on practical efforts to improve the everyday lives of Tibetan refugees in India, the CTA has often preferred political point-scoring against China; others still have expressed criticism of the Dalai Lama or of the CTA’s theocratic orientation.

The US President’s attitude reflects the waning support for the Tibetan cause and a change in perception of the Dalai Lama’s role as peacemaker. The cause has suffered a gradual dissipation of international goodwill, particularly among the CTA’s immediate neighbours and Indian hosts. Countries such as India, Mongolia, and Nepal have traditionally tolerated the activities of the exile leaders and the Dalai Lama, and by doing so risked annoying China, the region’s most powerful nation.

“The Winter Olympic Games in 2022 in Beijing will be a symbol of peace, friendship and prosperity, which is welcomed and cherished by all peoples” comments the International Olympic Committee, recognizing its world-class venue legacy from the 2008 Olympic Summer Games. In the last years, the Dalai Lama has embodied an intensified sentiment of political embarrassment among world leaders who seek stable political and profitable economic alliances with China. Beijing 2022 will form part of the future narrative of Tibet and it will be interesting to see if the support for the Dalai Lama will completely evaporate into the clouds of nostalgia for the poems of Allen Ginsberg, the music of Philip Glass, the books of Robert Thurman or the movies of Richard Gere.

Political leaders often conquer international stature by conducting war, but the personas of only a few men of peace – such as Gandhi, King, and Mandela – are prominent. The Dalai Lama’s “apostle of nonviolence” persona was built at the end of the Cold War, alongside a campaign to internationalize the Tibet struggle by fostering protests in Tibet, mobilizing Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism, and exploiting the Dalai Lama’s capacity to engage Western political and media elites. Boosted by his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, US excoriations of China and the expectation of its collapse after the Cold War, the Dalai Lama became an international symbol of peace. He successfully combined his divine significance with his political struggle in exile under a veil of non-violence, compassion and selflessness. After decades of internationalization as he reaches the last lines of the book of his life, synonyms of the Dalai Lama as peacemaker are still discursive givens. Only time will tell whether he will be immortalized on the celestial Olympus with Gandhi, King, and Mandela or exiled from the collective memory of mankind.

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The main hallmark of China’s chairmanship in the BRICS grouping in 2022 has been the unveiling of plans to institutionalize the BRICS+ format and to explore the possibilities of expanding the core of the BRICS bloc. The current debate regarding the future trajectories of the BRICS+ format centers on whether the expansion of the bloc is to proceed one by one by adding new countries to the BRICS core, or via the format of “integration of integrations”, namely the creation of a platform for the cooperation of regional arrangements in which BRICS countries are members. At this stage, it appears that both tracks are possible and have their pros and cons. But there is one factor in the regional “integration of integrations” model that has particular merit – it is the “BRICS+” multiplier that allows for a significant extension in the outreach undertaken by core BRICS economies with respect to the rest of the Global South.

In terms of scale, the effects of the two formats of BRICS expansion may be mathematically illustrated by the difference between the arithmetic and geometric progression. If the one-by-one expansion in the core of the BRICS grouping represents the minimalism of the arithmetic progression, the BRICS+ format of integration of integrations can be seen as a far more extensive and ambitious undertaking characterized by a geometric progression. With respect to the arithmetic progression, the waves of the expansion in the BRICS core may involve a sequential addition of one or several countries representing the most significant heavyweights (possibly members of G20 from the Global South). The alternative is the aggregation of the regional integration blocs of all of the five BRICS members – represented by the BEAMS platforms consisting of BIMSTEC, Eurasian Economic Union, the ASEAN-China FTA, Mercosur and the South African Customs Union – leading to the addition of up to 25 members (the 5 times 5 geometric progression – or the 5 BRICS taken to the power of 2) of the BRICS+ circle that are the regional neighbors/partners of BRICS economies.

This BRICS+ geometric progression can be taken further to the next level whereby a wider circle of countries is included into the enlarged platform that comprises the African Union in Africa, CELAC in Latin America and the Eurasian economies from the Global South. The Eurasian constellation of developing economies can be formed on the basis of the aggregation of the main regional integration blocs such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), ASEAN, SAARC, EAEU. Such an extended platform across all three continents of the Global South may be termed as TRIA (Trilateral Intercontinental Alliance) and it comprises nearly 125-130 developing economies (depending on the exact methodological approach of including the Eurasian economies). This second sequence of extending the BRICS+ platform results in a “5 times 5 times 5” geometric progression – or the 5 BRICS economies taken to the power of 3.

These stages of progression in the extension of the BRICS+ circle can be taken to an even higher level if one is to account for all of the bilateral/plurilateral trade deals, digital alliances and other accords that may be multilateralized on the basis of the BRICS+ platform. For example, the Israel-Mercosur FTA or the SACU-EFTA FTA could be extended to include more developing countries from the BRICS+ circle. At this stage the combinatorics of matching and aggregating the multitudes of alliances along the BRICS+ platform kicks in – each of the main regions and regional integration grouping from the Global South has its own cob-web of alliances that can be shared throughout this extended network of Global South.

Such additional multiplier effects will be all the more powerful, the greater the openness and inclusiveness of the aggregated BRICS+ platform and the more connectivity there is across the alliances concluded by developing economies with their partners from across the globe. In other words, in order for the multiplier effects to be increased the BRICS+ platform of integration of integrations needs to be predicated on alliances that are scalable and capable of connecting with other regional blocs (regional alliances that can be “globalized”). This in turn may be facilitated by particular emphasis placed on building platforms for regional development institutions (with standardized protocols for investment projects, including with respect to PPPs); greater scope for digital economic alliances that may be particularly amenable to scale and replication.

Potentially this sequential approach to building alliances across the Global South on the basis of the BRICS+ “integration of integrations” could become a basis for re-starting the globalization process in the world economy bottom-up (from the level of countries and regional blocs) rather than top-down (solely from the level of global organizations). In fact, this “integration of integrations” sequence may prove superior to the previous attempts at top-down wholesale liberalization via “Washington consensus” for the following reasons:

  • Greater gradualism and connectivity of country and regional integration roadmaps with the resulting global pattern of liberalization
  • Greater flexibility: there may be room for revision and corrections to the resulting global pattern at the local level
  • Greater accordance of the global pattern of alliances and integration with local/country-level and regional peculiarities and exigencies
  • Greater political sustainability and feasibility of the resulting global pattern of alliances that is predicated on the cooperative network of regional alliances

This greater sustainability and flexibility of the bottom-up globalization process as a network of alliances rather than a rigid framework that is to be implemented across the globe without due account of the regional and country-level peculiarities argues in favor of looking for ways to render such a model of globalization more feasible and effective.

Under this scenario of a network-type globalization what would be the role of global institutions such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank? In many ways it would remain crucial for the sustainability of the construct of the reshaped global economic architecture. The global institutions would receive the additional mandate of coordinating the regional networks and development institutions:

  • IMF: coordination of regional financing arrangements (RFAs)
  • World Bank: coordination of regional development banks
  • WTO: coordination of regional integration arrangements

There will also be a need for global institutions to focus more on resolving global issues, including global imbalances. This in turn would allow the global economic system to overcome the current problem of regional and global institutions/organizations operating frequently as substitutes rather than mutually reinforcing complements.

In sum, the BRICS+ track of country-by-country additions to the BRICS core if pursued solely on its own without building a broader network of alliances may result in minor alterations to the status-quo and a missed opportunity for the Global South and the broader global economy. At the same time, the possibilities offered by the “integration of integrations” track for BRICS+ are substantial, provided that such a platform is open, inclusive and ensures connectivity across regional integration arrangements – this will deliver the much needed “multiplier effect” in the process of economic cooperation and can set off a new process of globalization that connects regional arrangements in the developed and the developing world. Such a paradigm may be the real mission of BRICS after all – the value of BRICS is not in each of them taken separately, but rather in them being connected together to form a construct that supports the edifice of the global economic architecture.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Ukraine’s losses are China’s gains

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A woman walks past sandbags piled for defensive protection, in Odessa, Ukraine. © UNICEF/Siegfried Modola

The conflict in Ukraine will have major strategic consequences for Chinese foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. It will promote the deepening of Russian–Chinese economic cooperation that will make both countries more resilient to Western economic pressure. Long-term instability in Europe will make it more difficult for the United States to boost its Pacific presence for years to come with significant US financial and military resources being drawn toward supporting Ukraine.

The conflict has demonstrated that the West is not able to impose sanctions on a major economy without damaging its own stability. The war has also shown the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear deterrent, making even a limited Western intervention unthinkable.

China will be the main beneficiary of the Ukraine crisis. But this is not reflected in China’s political rhetoric which has been carefully calculated to avoid any major fallout with the European Union and other developed countries, while also maintaining close cooperation with Russia.

The official Chinese position has remained consistent with the statement made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in February 2022 at the outbreak of the war: China is concerned with the violence and wants it to stop. It maintains that the territorial integrity and security interests of all parties need to be respected. China also maintains that NATO enlargement is partially responsible for the crisis.

On the economic front, China has seized the major strategic opportunities provided by the war. During the first four months of 2022, trade between Russia and China increased by 25.9 per cent. Russian exports to China grew by 37.8 per cent, to US$30.85 billion. The physical volume of natural gas exports also jumped 15 per cent.

China is in line to supplant the European Union as Russia’s main economic partner. The Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui has called upon Chinese businesspeople to ‘fill the void’ left in the Russian market by outgoing Western businesses. Cooperation with China has contributed to Russia’s federal budget surplus between January–April 2022 despite the war. Maintaining this financial and economic stability appears to be Russia’s strategy as it continues to press in Ukraine.

By 2023, most or all bilateral trade is expected to be conducted in renminbi. Chinese companies and brands will likely dominate large segments of the Russian consumer market and will become Russia’s key industrial and technological partners. There is also a growing trend towards a large part of Russian trade being conducted with third countries in renminbi.

With the expected expansion of the logistical infrastructure, China will obtain a major source of strategic commodities. China will be able to procure these commodities at significant discounts because Russia will be isolated from many other markets and China will be using its own currency. This will significantly reduce the West’s ability to leverage economic pressure points against China.

Some of China’s top-tier global companies are visibly reducing their presence in Russia because secondary sanctions could affect their operations in international markets. But cooperation in many areas will be overtaken by second-tier corporations with limited or no global exposure. Such companies will still be powerful enough to operate in the Russian market. Their operations will be serviced by specialised banks with no exposure in the West, like in Iran.

Strategically, this transition — coupled with deep internal changes in the Russian political economy — will make Russia largely immune to economic warfare. For the foreseeable future, the West will have no other means to deter Russia in Europe except for costly military options. In turn, this will provide major strategic opportunities for China in the Pacific.

The military lessons of the war for China are too early and too difficult to assess based on available data. One characteristic of the Ukrainian conflict is an unprecedented scale of propaganda and misinformation from all sides.

But two clear lessons have emerged from the war so far. First, US and NATO allies will always try to avoid a direct military confrontation with a major nuclear power. Even if a power is fighting a full-scale war at their doorstep. Second, economic war on Russia has caused significant problems for Western economies, including rising inflationary pressures and falling growth rates. Any comparable actions against China, an economy ten times bigger, will devastate much of the world economy. This makes any such action extremely unlikely.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Taiwan dispute, regional stability in East Asia and US policy towards it

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In the 1950s, armed confrontation erupted between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) over vital islands in the Taiwan Strait. ROC-controlled islands were bombarded by the PRC on two distinct occasions in the 1950s. The US retaliated by acting actively on favor of the ROC. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait were exacerbated by US policy toward East Asia during the early Cold War. In late 1949 and early 1950, American authorities were prepared to allow PRC forces to cross the Taiwan Strait and defeat Chiang, but when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the US moved its Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to keep the conflict from expanding south. The advent of the Seventh Fleet enraged the Chinese Communists, who moved soldiers from Taiwan to the Korean front in preparation for an attack. This served to postpone military conflict in the Strait until after the Korean War, when the US withdrew its fleet.

Beijing claims there is only “One China,” of which Taiwan is a part. It considers the People’s Republic of China to be China’s only legitimate government, a position it refers to as the “One-China concept,” and desires Taiwan’s eventual “unification” with the mainland.

China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea remain part of the ROC, according to Taiwan’s KMT-drafted constitution. The KMT opposes Taiwan’s independence and has repeatedly advocated for tighter ties with China. However, in light of recent election setbacks, KMT leaders have pondered whether the party’s position on the 1992 Consensus should be changed. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT’s main adversary, has never supported the 1992 Consensus’s understanding. President Tsai, who is also the DPP’s leader, has refused to recognize the consensus in writing. Instead, she has endeavored to find a different formulation that Beijing will accept. Tsai declared she was “Elected President in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of China,” which is a One-China document, and that she would “Safeguard the Sovereignty and Territory of the Republic of China” in her 2016 inaugural address. Tsai also promised to “Handle Cross-Strait Affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between People of Taiwan Area and the People of the Mainland Area, and other applicable legislation.” Beijing, on the other hand, rejected this statement and severed ties with Taiwan.

UN Membership Status for Taiwan

China directly rejects the participation of Taiwan in other international organizations that only allow governments to join. Taiwan complains its absence on a regular basis, while the US advocates for Taiwan’s meaningful involvement in such groups. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a member of over forty organizations, the most of which are regional in nature, such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, as well as the World Trade Organization. On several additional bodies, it has observer or other status. Only fourteen countries have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. No government has ever maintained formal diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan at the same time.

Economic Situation of Taiwan

Taiwan’s economy is still based on trade with China, the island’s most important commercial partner. However, their economic relationship has been strained in recent years, partially as a result of Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan and Taiwanese leaders’ rising concerns about the island’s overdependence on Chinese trade. President Ma, who served from 2008 to 2016, signed over twenty agreements with the PRC, notably the 2010 Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, in which the two countries agreed to remove trade barriers. Direct sea, air, and mail ties between China and Taiwan were reestablished after decades of prohibition. They also agreed that banks, insurers, and other financial service providers would be permitted to operate in both markets. Tsai’s main program, the New Southbound Policy, has had some success in increasing trade and investment with Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific countries. Between 2016, when the project was announced, and 2021, trade between Taiwan and the eighteen nations increased by more than $50 billion. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s exports to China reached an all-time high in 2021. Beijing has exerted pressure on other countries to refrain from signing free trade deals with Taiwan. Only a few nations have signed free trade agreements with the island, with New Zealand and Singapore being the only industrialized economies to do so.

US-Taiwan Relations

The United States and the People’s Republic of China established formal diplomatic ties in 1979. At the same time, it cut diplomatic ties with the ROC and terminated their mutual defense treaty. However, the US maintains a strong unofficial relationship with the island, selling defense weapons to its military. Beijing has frequently pushed the US to stop sending weapons to Taiwan and to cut ties with the country. The United States’ strategy is guided by its One-China policy. It is based on a number of documents, including three US-China communiqués issued in 1972, 1978, and 1982; the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the US Congress in 1979; and President Ronald Reagan’s recently disclosed “Six Assurances”, which he delivered to Taiwan in 1982. According to these documents, the United States:

“Acknowledges the Chinese stance that there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of China” and that the PRC is the “only lawful government of China”

Disposes the use of force to resolve the conflict; maintains cultural, commercial, and other ties with Taiwan through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), commits to selling arms to Taiwan for self-defense and maintains the ability to come to Taiwan’s defense while not committing to do so, a policy known as Strategic Ambiguity was created.

The major purpose of the United States is to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and it has urged both Beijing and Taipei to do so. It declares that it opposes Taiwanese independence. For decades, the US has tried to strike a careful balance between backing Taiwan and avoiding a confrontation with China through its policy of strategic ambiguity.

Over Chinese protests, the US strengthened ties with Taiwan under President Donald Trump, selling over $18 billion in armaments to the military and erecting a $250 million facility for its de facto embassy in Taipei. Tsai and Trump spoke by phone before Trump’s inauguration, the greatest degree of engagement between the two since 1979. He also dispatched several top administration officials to Taipei, including a cabinet member, and the State Department lifted long-standing limitations on where and how US officials can meet with their Taiwanese counterparts during his final days in office.

Biden’s Administrative and Military Relations with Taiwan

The Biden administration has taken a similar approach, maintained arms shipments and endorsed Trump’s decision to allow US officials to meet with Taiwanese officials more freely. Biden was the first president of the United States to invite Taiwanese officials to the inauguration. The US regularly sails ships across the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate its military presence in the region, and it has encouraged Taiwan to raise its defense budget. The United States has been more supportive of Taiwan in recent years than it had been before China adopted a rejectionist stance toward the current Taiwanese government. On cross-strait problems, Tsai has been noticeably and consistently moderate. The fact that she would push the limit by declaring full formal independence is not a risk Beijing has to be concerned about. During Tsai’s presidency, Washington has increased its support for Taiwan, primarily in response to Beijing’s increasing pressure on the island. The Biden administration has a variety of grievances about Chinese behavior and its coercion of Taiwan has been towards the top of that list, as seen by congressional legislation and presidential and administration policy comments.

U-S Implications for Strategic Stability over Taiwan Issues

Strategic stability refers to a condition in which both the United States and China can pursue their key national interests without jeopardizing, if not increasing, regional and global stability. Such strategic stability may also help to establish a pattern of bilateral relations that decreases the likelihood of accidental conflict particularly military conflict while simultaneously enhancing the possibilities for future collaboration. However, the reality on all three sides make stability appear like a far-off dream. Beijing has made it obvious that it feels its national might is quickly expanding and that it will soon be enough to exercise diplomatic, economic, and military supremacy, at least in the western Pacific. Furthermore, the realities of Beijing’s expanding power have allowed it to engage in resentment diplomacy, accusing the US and other foreign powers of being responsible for China’s “Century of Humiliation” and demanding retribution. If strategic stability is to be achieved, it must begin here for the US to change its policies toward Taiwan and China, they must opt.

Conclusion

Both militaries have increased their capabilities in order to dissuade and defeat the other. The two countries have moved from rivalry to conflict, and both have made establishing Taiwan’s future the focal point of that clash on numerous occasions. Taiwan, whether you call it a pawn or not, is caught in the crossfire. As a result, lowering tensions over Taiwan might be the first step toward avoiding potentially devastating instability and, possibly, developing a cautious trust on both sides that other lingering problems can be resolved successfully. A reinforced US policy of dual deterrence, coupled with authoritative assurance, can be a first step toward restoring trust in enormous strategic stability between these two superpowers.

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