Tibet’s New Normal

March 21, 2015 By Tenzin Tseten*

China has entered a new economic phase called “new normal” amid its economic slowdown. For that particular reason, Beijing is injecting a state-sponsored stimulus to overcome the 7.5 percent GDP target set last year. Unfortunately, the figure has dropped below the set target. Analysts forecast the current economic contraction would be seen as the weakest since 1990. On the other hand, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has maintained an economic growth rate of 12 percent.  It’s indeed a big achievement and commendable as far as growth figure is concerned. Nevertheless, this eye-popping 12 percent growth, which is a state-sponsored development in TAR, has resulted in greater dependency on state subsidies and surge in inequalities in society. On this issue, Andrew Fischer said, “to a large extent much of economic growth in the TAR has been an accounting illusion.” [1]

In this article, this writer will touch on some pressing Tibetan issues. These are the ongoing self-immolations, economic marginalization, force relocation of Tibetan nomads, urbanization and reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama.

From 2008 onwards, policy makers in Beijing are viewing the situation in Tibet from very rigid angle despite political instability reflected by series of self-immolations throughout ethnic Tibetan areas.  The toll has reached 137 since 2009. Norchuk, a 47 year old Tibetan nomad from Trotsuk village in Ngaba in north-eastern Tibet, became the latest self-immolator to protest Chinese rule.  The latest report of the International Campaign for Tibet, a Tibet advocacy group based in Washington DC, on self-immolation reveals that the survivors of the self-immolation are facing inhuman treatment and cases of disappearance of some survivors have been exposed.[2]

The Tibetan movement has unprecedentedly changed its face by the participation of younger generations who have no experience of free Tibet.  Out of 137 self-immolations, 24 are below the age of 18.[3] The youngest one was notably a 15 year old monk.  From the slogans raised and will left behind by the self-immolators, one could categorically say that the younger generation has firmly strengthened the Tibetan movement and adopted non-violent principles laid by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, Chinese government run by an atheist Communist Party, wasted no time in making flimsy remarks such as the act is against Tibetan Buddhism. Though setting one-self on fire is certainly viewed as violent and drastic by rest of the world, one must have deeper look into the causes behind the self-immolations.  Why are Tibetans choosing this most painful form of protest?

Having said that, this writer thinks it is paramount to look from the context of Tibetan Buddhism in which motivation plays a key role in determining the nature of such acts. One thing clear about the self-immolation is that those who have resorted to self-immolation has not hurt anyone else or intended to damage others property, especially Chinese.[4]

Secondly, with its economic modernization, China sees Tibet as a treasure house. Previously, China considered Tibet as of enormous strategic value.[5]  Now, China’s view of Tibet has changed. Besides its immense strategic value Tibet is now seen by China as a source of minerals and waters. China has been exploiting the Tibetan plateau through large scale mining without the consent of local Tibetans. The Gyama mining disaster in 2013 that reportedly killed 83 workers, including two Tibetans, was a clear example of racial discrimination and economic marginalization. The building of mega dams and water diversion projects on major Tibetan rivers is not only of concern to Tibetans but also to the downstream countries, including India, which are facing a direct threat from these activities.[6]

Thirdly, under the current resettlement project, Tibetan nomad’s traditional way of life is in danger of extinction.[7] The force relocation of Tibetan nomads from their traditional nomadic lands to specially designed concrete housing is a political strategy to restrain the movement of Tibetan nomads, which Beijing sees as a potential threat to its legitimacy.[8] This is clearly revealed in a yet to be published research article by my colleague, Tenzin Dhetan, on the upgradation of Shigatse and Chamdo into cities.  In his article he writes on mass migration of Chinese into these cities, China’s increasing exploitation of Tibetan natural resources and assimilation of Tibetans into the larger Chinese mainstream. I reckon it’s untimely to make a final judgment on this issue but Gabriel Lafitte, the author of Spoiling Tibet, also has a similar observation.[9] He said, “It remains to be seen whether they will remain subordinate to the TAR or will ultimately come directly under Beijing, to expedite their growth, especially the intensified extraction of water, power and mineral resources.”

Finally, Xi Jinping has cemented his grip from soccer to reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  This time during the recently concluded China’s 12th National People’s Congress (NPC), Pema Thinley, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress and the only Tibetan member in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party,  has accused His Holiness the Dalai Lama that he has no authority over his own reincarnation. He said that Beijing has the ultimate authority in choosing the 15th Dalai Lama.[10]

In conclusion, it seems to me that political role of Tibetan rinpoches has intensified through their spiritual visits. For instance, Beijing’s selected Pachen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu’s 2012 visit to Hong Kong during the third world Buddhist forum was attended by more than 4000 Buddhist monks, nuns and scholars from 50 different countries. This was seen as part of a bid for his broader acceptance. [11] In a similar manner, Dupkhang Thupten Khedup rinpoche, visited Kalmykia Republic in 2013 and his recent visit to Bangladesh in February 2015 at the invitation of the Buddhist Association of Bangladesh,[12] is Beijing’s larger effort to undermine and contain His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s spiritual influence in these two Buddhist nations.

This writer thinks that Beijing will continue this spiritual investment at least for 10 more years until His Holiness the Dalai Lama reaches the age of 90.


* Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, which functions as a research center for the Central Tibetan Administration. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.






[1] https://tibetgovernanceproject.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/andrew-fischer-brief1.pdf

[2] http://www.savetibet.org/newsroom/tibetan-survivors-of-self-immolation-repression-and-disappearance/

[3]  http://www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/

[4] http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/ML02Ad01.html

[5] D. Norbu, China’s Tibet policy, p. 230

[6]  B. Chellaney, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, p. 175

[7] Michael Buckley, a Canadian journalist, filmmaker and author of several books most notably

The Meltdown in Tibet has made a short documentary on Tibetan nomads From Nomad to Nobody. Some testimonies of Tibetan nomads on the impacts of resettlement project are discernible in this documentary.

[8] http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/06/27/they-say-we-should-be-grateful-0

[9] http://tibetpolicy.net/comments-briefs/making-mountains-muncipal/

[10] http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/03/10/uk-china-tibet-india-idUKKBN0M61BC20150310

[11] http://ctablog.tibet.net/2012/05/02/beijing%E2%80%99s-intention-gyaltsen-norbus-political-staging-in-hong-kong-forum/

[12] http://claudearpi.blogspot.in/2015/03/the-ethnic-religious-faces-of-china.html




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