Kristof, Tibet, Trouble

I can’t believe I missed this, but ten days ago my favorite punching bag Nick Kristof wrote about Tibet and China. It’s the usual mixed bag, where you can see Kristof struggling with some principles of peace, social justice and democracy while maintaining his usually strong pro-Beijing compass. The central discussion of the article is whether or not the Chinese government should avoid negotiations with the Tibetan Government in Exile until the 14th Dalai Lama passes away and, the presumption is, the Tibetan movement will fracture and become less relevant. While agreeing with Lodi Gyari that the Chinese government should not play this game, Kristof quickly runs into a problem with facts:

China is waiting for the Dalai Lama to die, so that Tibetans will lose their leader and cohesion. But the result is not that Tibet will be easier to dominate; rather, it is likely to become more violent. There already are many, many young Tibetans who think the Dalai Lama has been too patient, too conciliatory, too pacifist. This is particularly true of the exiles; Tibetans actually in China tend to be more pragmatic and willing to work things out. But overall, my hunch is that we’ll see more violent resistance after the Dalai Lama goes.

First, it’s true that there are “many young Tibetans who think the Dalai Lama has been too patient,” but I don’t think any Tibetan either inside or outside of Tibet thinks His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been “too pacifist.” We’re talking about a monk who is a living god – pacifism is pretty much a given expectation here, especially within the Tibetan community.

Second, while it is true that there are many and growing voices in exile for the Dalai Lama and the TGIE to be less conciliatory, I do not know of a single Tibet Support Group that advocates anything other than non-violence. Protests for Tibet outside of Tibet and China are exclusively non-violent. Any suggestion that the exile community is advocating or supportive of violence as a means to achieve Tibetan independence is a repetition of Chinese government propaganda. In contrast, Tibetans inside of Tibet who live under the oppressive rule of the Chinese military occupation have at times in recent years responded to violent crackdowns against their peaceful protest with violence. This is to be expected and is not a reflection on anything other than when you rule by the gun (as opposed to democratic self-determination), you make it more likely that violence is seen as a remedy to political, social and economic injustice.

So my hunch is that after the Dalai Lama dies, Tibet will come to look more like Xinjiang. Human rights abuses will get less attention, because the Dalai Lama isn’t there to call attention to them. But protests will be more violent and more common, and there’ll be some genuine terrorists bringing in weapons from abroad.

I think it is irresponsible of Kristof to speculate how Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet respond to the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, whenever that happens, especially given that there is currently no documented cases of Tibetan “terrorists bringing in weapons from abroad.” Presuming that the Chinese government has continued their decades-long efforts to stall any meaningful dialogue with the TGIE, it would not be surprising if there is anger in Tibet after the Dalai Lama passes away. But what has become clear over the last number of years is that both inside and outside of Tibet there is a growing recognition of Tibetan self-identity and undying desire for independence. These will be the determining factors for the response of Tibetans to China’s military occupation and they exist now as the 14th Dalai Lama lives and will continue whenever His Holiness passes. Obviously Tibetan self-identification and a desire for self-determination do not presume violence as an outcome to the Dalai Lama’s death.

Of course, Kristof doesn’t slow his roll after making dangerous statements about Tibetans’ magically unrealized propensity for violence. He goes on:

The other problem with the Dalai Lama dying is that any kind of a solution to the Tibetan issue is going to require painful concessions on both sides. It’s not clear that the Dalai Lama is willing to make the kind of concessions necessary, but if he is he could probably carry the Tibetan people behind him. In contrast, after he is gone, there is simply no one who could unite Tibetans and persuade them to accept the necessary concessions. The chance of a peaceful political solution will die with the Dalai Lama.

Note how it is up to the occupied people, who have spent more than a half a century under military occupation, who must be reasonable and make concessions to the Chinese Communist Party. You see, Tibetans have not been sufficiently deferential to the Chinese government, so it’s up to them to get the recipe of self-humiliation right and adequately circumscribe their human rights to please the PRC.

Things really go off the rails when Kristof starts blaming the Dalai Lama for not sufficiently seizing the opportunity in the 1980s to negotiate with the government that invaded his country:

After the Cultural Revolution, the Tibetans just didn’t trust Beijing and thought time was on their side. They made a historic miscalculation in the 1980’s, and then the window for negotiation closed with the departure of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.

Unmentioned: why Tibetans might have not trusted Beijing after the Cultural Revolution. For those that don’t know – presumably this includes Nick Kristof – China’s invasion and military occupation of Tibet, which began in 1949, has cost 1.2 million Tibetan lives. The bulk of these came in the initial invasion, in the outright resistance that occurred in 1959, and…wait for it…the Cultural Revolution. According to the Tibetan Government in Exile, the Cultural Revolution lead to “a further wave of death and destruction in Tibet. Han Chauvinism that manifested itself throughout China was particularly brutal in Tibet. Beyond the murder and cultural devastation, Cultural Revolution policies lead to mass starvation, as well as onslaughts of Han Chinese settlers arriving into Tibet. So no, maybe it isn’t that surprising that the Tibetan Government wasn’t trusting the Beijing government following the Cultural Revolution. Keep in mind that the TGIE adopted the Middle Path of autonomy and forswore independence in 1973. There have been ample opportunities for the Chinese government to negotiate in good faith, before, after and during the 1980s.

Kristof’s closing is an unparalleled disaster, a confluence of Western privilege, pro-Beijing arrogance, and straight-up hypocrisy that is impressive even for someone with as long and ignominious a history of writing about Tibet as Kristof.  First, he suggests the Dalai Lama should “devote himself to improving his Mandarin skills.” Because after all, it’s hard for him to be sufficiently obsequious to the Chinese Communist Party and Nick Kristof if he isn’t begging for the rights and survival of his people in the language of his oppressors. Then Kristof moves on to a more traditional plea of saving Tibet, for culture’s sake:

More Han Chinese are moving to Tibet, destroying its traditional character so that it will be gone forever. A political deal is the only way to forestall that and avoid violence, but it’s hard to see such a deal coming.

I am as strong an advocate for preserving “traditional character” in Tibet as any, though I hope it doesn’t sound so positively arrogant when I note that the best way for people like Kristof to “save” Tibet is by Tibetans having independence. Frankly, it’s not about traditional character. No one laments the loss of New England’s colonial farming lifestyle through modernization and development, as it was undertaken by a free people making conscious choice. Tibetans have a right to choose how they preserve or evolve their “traditional character.” It’s not up to people like Kristof. The problem is that now and for the last half century, the Chinese government has been deliberately destroying Tibet’s “traditional character.” Kristof does not mention this.

Kristof doesn’t do a fraction of the leg work to recognize that over the last decade, the TGIE has been ready and willing to make political deals. TGIE delegations have repeatedly gone to China to have dialogues (but not negotiations, because the Chinese government doesn’t want to negotiate). And as the Chinese government stalls negotiations towards a political solution, they use their military and paramilitary to forces inside Tibet to perpetrate violence against Tibetans, to steal Tibet’s natural resources, and destroy Tibetans’ land. This violence is going on on a daily basis and blame for it is entirely one-sided.

I do think Nick Kristof genuinely wants there to be a political solution to the Tibet question and he probably even wants one that happens in the Dalai Lama’s lifetime to forestall even the possibility of violence. But his recipe for achieving these goals is bizarrely one-sided. Demanding the victims of 60 years of occupation and brutality bend over even more to appease their occupiers into a political solution which would almost certainly not result in Tibet being a free country is not only unreasonable, it is cruel. To put expectations on Tibetans that he has never, ever attempted to put on the Chinese government is absurd. It’s not that Kristof is making a false equivalence between the two sides’ culpability for not reaching a political solution by now – it’s that he clearly seems to think the onus is on the Tibetan Government in Exile to make something happen now.

The reality is that the TGIE could do every single thing Kristof ever suggested they do to appease the Chinese Communist Party, but it would never be enough. The Chinese government policy is clear and it does not involve things like the 14th Dalai Lama returning to Tibet while he is alive nor does it involve genuine autonomy. As is always the case when Kristof writes about Tibet, it is transparently clear that he should not have done it, at least not until he finds a way to leave his pro-Beijing leanings at the door and is able to apply a reasonable lens of justice and fairness to a horrible situation that is only perpetuated by the Chinese government’s military occupation of Tibet.


Students for a Free Tibet Executive Director Tendor has a great response in the comments of Kristof’s post that is definitely worth reading.

One thought on “Kristof, Tibet, Trouble

  1. Dont give Kristof attention. He purposefully writes weak and provocative essays, so that he can tell NYT how many hits and how much discussion was generated by this essays.

    Kristof’s trademark travelling correspondent journalism is about to die, and he is desparate in trying to get online debates going on his blog.

    Let him die in peace.


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