Asia: China's Tibet Problem


Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is perched on a plateau 12,000 feet above and some 1,300 miles southwest of Beijing. But the gulf between these two cities is more than geographic.

The split between Lhasa and Beijing made headlines last fall, when thousands of Tibetans demonstrated for independence. China now has banned independent travelers to Tibet and may take further, more-restrictive action.

Tibet became independent following the creation of the Chinese republic in 1911 but was forcibly annexed to China by the Communist regime in 1950. After reunification, Beijing and the infamous Red Guards combined to reduce the number of Tibetan monasteries from over 1,600 down to 10 and wreaked havoc with the already-poor region's economy. Today, Tibet operates as an "autonomous region" under Chinese political control.

Over the last three years, Tibetans have been given a diet of laissez-faire capitalism that includes exemption from Chinese taxation. Soon after the reforms were enacted, Tibet's Chinese Communist Party—in a rather bizarre admission—predicted that the free-market reforms would boost incomes of herdsmen and peasants by 100 percent in a mere three to five years. And hordes of tourists have helped to fuel the booming free market that surrounds the Jokhang Temple in the old part of Lhasa.

But Tibetans are not content with economic opportunity. What's also important to them is individual freedom and, most importantly, the freedom of religion. The conflict in Tibet is in reality a religious dispute that has spilled over into politics, combining two of what economist Ludwig von Mises called the "great irrationalisms" of life—nationalism and religion. As such, it poses an intractable problem for the Chinese, one that they cannot overcome with economic liberalization alone.

Despite decades of Chinese rule, Lhasa itself remains foremost a religious city. The Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lama, sits majestically upon a hilltop overlooking the city. Pilgrims climb the sacred path that encircles the palace. The truly devoted travel the route through supplication, repeatedly throwing their bodies out prone, then standing up where their heads had rested. Some have wooden paddles fitted to their hands to reduce the punishment. Throughout the city, Tibetans walk the streets carrying spinning prayer wheels.

For Tibetans, the Dalai Lama—in exile in India since 1959—is a revered and beloved god-king. Savvy foreign travelers to Tibet bring pictures of him, which open many closed doors and bring smiles of delight to the recipients.

A recent newspaper article reveals the continuing Tibetan obsession with the Dalai Lama. A British woman was walking in Lhasa, wearing a T-shirt that sported a picture of the late actor Phil Silvers. Some Tibetans mistook the image for the Dalai Lama and a spontaneous demonstration erupted. Chinese soldiers responded by attempting to rip the T-shirt off the woman.

The Tibetan devotion to the Dalai Lama is at the core of the conflict between Beijing and Lhasa, because the Dalai Lama refuses to acknowledge the Chinese government's political authority in Tibet. This, of course, violates the First Commandment of governments.

Beijing has sought a reconciliation and has even invited the Dalai Lama back, if only he would be content to be a spiritual leader and leave the business of government to Beijing. (The official U.S. position is also that the Dalai Lama is a religious leader only, not an exiled head-of-state.)

It has been conjectured that the economic reforms were instituted, at least in part, to lure the Dalai Lama back to Tibet and to show the Taiwanese that isolated pockets of capitalism and freedom could be tolerated and even encouraged by the Chinese government. If so, the reforms have failed.

So far, the Dalai Lama shows no sign of trusting or giving in to Beijing. In fact, he recommended nonviolent demonstrations by Buddhist monks to protest Chinese political rule—demonstrations that turned violent last fall. Nor are the Taiwanese likely to be swayed, especially in light of the recent crackdown. And the upheaval in Tibet certainly provokes anxiety among the citizens of Hong Kong, who will find themselves in a similar situation when political control over Hong Kong shifts to Beijing in 1997.

Tibet's border with India makes it extremely valuable militarily today, and its potential for mineral production suggests economic importance in the future. With so much at stake, it is unreasonable to presume that China would surrender its control or that Tibetans could seize it.

But it is equally unreasonable to presume that China will be able to maintain economic reforms, reassure Taiwan and Hong Kong, and continue to rely on force to repress Tibetan religious aspirations.

Burton Abrams is a professor of economics at the University of Delaware who spent a year teaching economics at Nankai University in the People's Republic of China.