The “Dalai-lemma”

Updated: Oct 20

Hailed as the rooftop of the world, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in China offers some of the most stunning sites a person can see. But its political predicament is far grimmer than its heavenly beauty. For decades, the Tibetan people have advocated for their independence against the Chinese government. Violent uprisings, religious persecutions, and international advocates further tear Tibetans away from Beijing. But the question remains on whether a case for a Tibetan country stands, and if the country can actually endure the wear and tear of political turmoil.

Tibet has strong reasons to support its independence. Geographically, the 1500-feet-tall plateau has isolated its people for hundreds of years (Britannica). Because of this natural barrier, Tibet has been left to develop on its own until recent periods. Thus, the people are ethnically different from the Han majority of Eastern China and they practice a unique form of Buddhism. Even in modern times, the most common way to enter the sparsely populated region is through a 2-day long train ride (Ilina). These site factors naturally segregate Tibet, but it is the oppressive government that is driving them to fight for a homeland. Firstly, Tibet is technically an independent state that is occupied by illegal invaders (Pragg and Van). Even though China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, Tibetan sovereignty was never transferred to the former (“Annexation of Tibet”). Secondly, the CCP has further extended its influence into the affairs of the autonomous region. The Tibetans’ social system is based heavily on religion. They revere the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, in that order, as their leaders. Similar to the Pope in Catholicism, the position is passed down to another after death; his spirit is reincarnated into another child. Thus begins a long hunt for the next Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama based on a set of clues provided by the former. The controversy began when the 10th Panchen Lama suddenly died in 1989. With the aid of the Dalai Lama, his followers identified a boy fitting the Panchen Lama’s description. Three days later, the Chinese government abducted the boy and his family and set up their own Panchen Lama, Gyaincuain Norbu. Obviously, the religion believes that Norbu is a fraud and a proxy of the government. The current urgency for an independent Tibet stems from the ailing, 86-year-old Dalai Lama. It is without a doubt that the CCP will meddle with the search for his successor and set up another proxy to solidify its hold over Tibet. To protect the purity of the Buddhist religion and the autonomy of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has declared that his spirit will not reincarnate in a state governed by the CCP (“Why Isn’t” 0:05). This is a huge blow to Tibetan culture, and further fans the flames of separatist sentiments.

Given the dire nature of Tibet and its Buddhist religion, is it possible for the Chinese government to release their iron grip on the plateau? It is almost certain that the answer is no. Tibet’s geological location and natural features make it a strategic asset for China. Although the land is rather infertile and the weather unforgiving, it contains large deposits of precious metals such as gold, silver, lithium, and copper (Wernick). Tibetans refrain from mining the ores as it is religiously frowned upon, but China is more than happy to excavate the riches and fund its lucrative tech industry (Wernick). Furthermore, Tibetan glaciers hold the origin of rivers in Asia, including the Yangtze, Ganges, Indus, and Mekong (“Tibet is China’s” 1:45). Given its 1.4 billion residents, China recognizes the growing need for sustainable energy. In recent years, they’ve constructed multiple dams on national rivers to harness 352 gigawatts of electricity, the largest amount in the world (“Hydropower”). But there’s also a more sinister advantage of owning the birthplace of rivers. China could gain hegemony over their neighbours when they dam integral rivers that are culturally significant and provide water for their population (“Tibet is China’s” 8:04). But even if we disregard all of the practical benefits China gets from the TAR, China would simply never relinquish territory. It refuses to recognize Taiwan as a nation and inflates itself beyond internationally recognized borders, as seen in the South China Sea. The government perceives it as humiliating if the boundaries of its great nation shrink. It also does not want to provide a precedent for other ethnic territories such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Macau to fuel their separatist movements.

So let us hypothesize a world where, somehow, Tibet succeeded in becoming an independent country. Tibetans would fully be in control of their affairs without fear of the Chinese government interfering. They would be free to visit Buddhist temples without police officers stationed at the front, presenting a perpetual threat. The Dalai Lama could return from his exile in India and lead his homeland. They could practice their centuries-old tradition of finding the true reincarnation of the Dalai or Panchen Lama. Tibetans could taste the freedom they have dreamed of ever since their occupation in the 1950s. But in exchange, the people would experience poverty and lose opportunities. Being a rather desolate land that is difficult to cultivate, the newly formed country would have no industry to support its economy. Despite the oppression, the Chinese government subsidizes many services and provides education to the rural region. The standard of living will surely decrease without its support. As an independent nation, Tibet would also have to breach the frontier of international relations. Having just partitioned out of China, it is unlikely that Tibet will establish friendly relations with its superpower neighbour. The US does not recognize Tibet, and it is unclear how much support they are willing to offer the nascent country (“Tibetan Sovereignty”).

Whether independence is worth it or not comes down to the weighing of freedom versus standard of living. Is religious and cultural freedom more important than Tibetans living better lives, escaping poverty and integrating into modern society? There truly is no correct answer to this dilemma but I would vote for the latter. To me, being able to participate in rich cultural traditions will always come second to my wellbeing. It is only when you are alive and well can you truly celebrate your individuality. Given the high possibility of the loss of life through a violent war, as well as famine and disease, I believe that human suffering outweighs freedom. However, I realize I am coming from an ethnocentric perspective, being privileged enough to have both my freedom and my quality of life. I do not understand what it is like to be so devoted to a culture that it fully encompasses my identity. It is the Tibetans’ right to make the decision regarding their sovereignty regardless of the consequences because they fundamentally should not have to choose between either. Everyone deserves both.

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