This is the second of a two-part series examining how local Tibetans are responding to the violence between China and Tibet.
A quick Google search for “Free Tibet” generates more than 8 million results. How some Chinese and Tibetans interpret this catchphrase, however, may be fundamentally different as Tibet refers to completely different border outlines for Chinese and Tibetans.
“This is a major confusion,” said Palden Oshoe, president of the Tibetan Association of Ithaca.
Ithaca is home to a small yet active community of about 50 Tibetans, and Cornell hosts more than 700 students and academic staff members from China.
For ethnic Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, Tibet includes the whole of Qinghai province, and parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces — “the most beautiful areas,” according to Oshoe.
These regions are now recognized as part of China. They take up an area with a size similar to the Tibet Autonomous Region, which many Chinese perceive as Tibet.
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“From what I learned when I was in China, the ‘Tibetan region’ refers to the Tibet Autonomous Region,” said Yuyi Pan ’11, who grew up in the Mainland. She believes that a lot of Han Chinese would not be satisfied with Tibetan autonomy outside the TAR, adding that her comment could not represent the views of all Chinese people.
In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, much news is unconfirmed and the death tolls range from 22 to 140, depending on the source. According to Reporters Without Borders, foreign journalists were expelled or refused entry since March 12.
“We’re dealing with incomplete information right now, so it’s premature to come to any definitive conclusion about how the events unfolded,” said Prof. Allen Carlson, government, who teaches GOVT/CAPS 282: China and the World.
“It’s easy to take part of the story and tell it as a whole,” he added.
Some students from Mainland China believed that the Tibetan issue has to be viewed in a wider context. Boyang Zhang ’10 said that Tibet’s “strategic” geographical location between China and India was “crucial” to China. Pan agreed, citing Tibet’s important role in China’s border security with India. She believed that “the Chinese’s strategic interest in Tibet is suppressed in Western media.”
The reception of Dalai Lama’s goal differs, not only between Chinese and Tibetans, but also among Tibetans themselves.
“The Dalai Lama wants meaningful, or genuine autonomy. He has already given up the issue of complete independence,” said Oshoe. “[But] there are many youth who don’t agree with the Dalai Lama. They say giving up independence is like losing everything,” he said.
In the Mainland, Dalai Lama is “not a very positive figure” and “generally viewed as anti-China,” according to Pan. Zhang, who also grew up in the Mainland, believed that “Westerners led him to become a separatist”
“It’s not the Tibetan’s struggle for Tibet’s independence anymore. It’s the Westerner’s struggle for Tibet’s independence,” said Zhang, who believed that the Dalai Lama wanted to model Tibet after “something like the Vatican [City].”
Supporters of the Dalai Lama would strongly disagree.
“I think he’s popular because he genuinely has a very consistent, very realistic and very powerful message about non-violence,” said Prof. Jane Law, Asian studies, who served in Namgyal’s board of directors about six years ago. She added that the Chinese government was “foolish” not to meet with the Dalai Lama.
Many agreed that the timing of the riots, only five months before the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, is significant. Law, herself an equestrian, hoped that the American Equestrian team would boycott the Olympics.
“Don’t talk to me about the spoilers of the Olympics. We’re talking about the spoiling of an entire culture,” said Law, referring to the current lack of religious freedom and destruction of monasteries in the Cultural Revolution.
The Olympic torch was lit in Greece last Monday and will arrive in Lhasa on June 20. While Oshoe was “very happy” that protesters were present in last Monday’s ceremony, he expressed concern with the flame’s scheduled arrival in Lhasa.
“I’m not happy with that because it implies that Tibet is doing okay … which is not true,” said Oshoe.
While acknowledging that “exploiting” the Olympics would add pressure to the Chinese government, Pan believed that “the Chinese government is facing enough domestic problems.” She also acknowledged that the TAR generally enjoyed less freedom than other Chinese provinces.
Carlson warned that pro-Tibetan protests at this crucial time might backfire.
“[The protestors] will succeed in continuing to highlight their differences with Beijing, but they’re not going to succeed in realizing independence. Their actions may be counterproductive. In the past, when Beijing is pushed into a corner, it tends to fight back quite aggressively,” said Carlson.
Some students from Mainland China refused to comment on the issue, saying that they did not have sufficient knowledge to comment. Wei Si ’09, president of Mainland China Student Association, explained that the Chinese do not talk much about politics “by nature.”
“Politics is still a very sensitive topic,” she said, stressing that her views neither represent her association nor other Chinese people.
“The Tibetan issue is not a priority of concern to many Chinese students. Compared to that, Taiwan would definitely bring a more heated up discussion,” said Pan.