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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Tibetan Struggle: At a Tipping Point

Noting that the ever worsening trends of developments concerning China, both nationally and internationally, keep auguring well for those seeking the resolution of the Tibet issue, Nawang Phuntsog*, Professor Emeritus, calls on the Tibetan people to unite to take advantage of the resulting conducive conditions rather than being bogged down in the current self-defeating scenario of regionalism, sectarianism, and petty politics.

(TibetanReview.net, Jul30’22)

I feel it is crucial to begin this write-up with a disclaimer. I am neither a politician nor a political scientist equipped with the skills and knowledge to generalize and make bold predictions. As a Tibetan living in exile, I have an insatiable urge to pay close attention to emerging news regarding Tibet and the steadily deteriorating perception of the Chinese Communist Party’s standing worldwide. How did I arrive to describe that the Tibetan struggle has reached a tipping point at this juncture?

First, let us take a quick look at the Tibetan diaspora situation in its current context. To know where we are today, we must not forget the starting point of the 1950s when thousands of Tibetans, young and old, monks and laypeople fled to India following China’s illegal invasion of Tibet. Although His Holiness was about 23 years of age when he sought asylum in India, he lost no time building a vibrant diaspora community. Undaunted by the magnitude of the task, he established different administrative branches to oversee the massive infrastructure development of schools, monasteries, settlements, and handicrafts. Never had any world leader braced with such staggering challenges as His Holiness who had lost his country and had to set up government-in-exile machinery on an alien land at this young age. What the older generation, under the judicious guidance of His Holiness, achieved in exile through the most challenging and unpredictable period is a success story that ought to be studied and glorified in academic fields such as political science, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. It was nothing short of a miracle!

His Holiness had not yet visited the West in the early 1960s. However, when he decided to send batches of Tibetan children to the West, he made sure that Tibetan foster parents and religious teachers would accompany them so that Tibetan children would have the continuity of their cultural heritage in the new environment. Above all, His Holiness’s decision to establish separate Tibetan schools for the newly arrived children was astute farsightedness of immense value. Children at that young and tender age, separated from their families in a new country, needed a nurturing environment provided by caretakers from the same cultural and linguistic background. Firmly rooted in one’s culture while acquiring modern education, children received a holistic education that prepared them to assume vital roles in the exile, meeting the dire needs of the Diaspora community effectively. In short, the solid educational, cultural, spiritual, and political foundation the older generation laid down has much to do with what and where we are today. 

The gift of democracy to the Tibetan community is a mastery of political adroitness worthy of international accolades. In recent years it has come under growing pains inflicted primarily by certain parliamentarians representing different religious sects. The time has come to examine the pitfalls of sectarian representation in the parliament. In his book, Tibet: The Road Ahead, the late Professor Dawa Norbu (1997) was prophetic when he stated, “in most traditional societies, modern democratic concepts like election, self-determination or even referendum tend to run along cultural and ethnic lines, and are not based on ideology (p. 343).” The 2021 Sikyong election sadly reflected the ugly role of the intersection of regionalism and sectarianism during and after the election, as can be discerned in the ongoing exile parliament’s inaction to appoint three Kalons. Sectarianism and regionalism tend to promote narrowness and dogmatism. Suppose the prolonged absence of Kalons in the Kashag is a disturbing sign of things to come in the future. In that case, it is an urgent call for us all to set aside petty regionalism politics so that the exile community is an example of what could be a well-functioning democracy in free Tibet.

Most of the older generation who lived through the most challenging early phase of the Diaspora and labored hard to establish a solid foundation is no longer with us. His Holiness, who just recently celebrated his 87th birthday, is the most iconic representation of this generation. While we are still lucky to have a few older generation luminaries with us, it is imperative to seek guidance and support from them to strengthen the tenuous link to achieve our shared aspirations. The younger generation is beneficiary of outstanding modern education in highly developed countries, but they lack the lived experiences of the previous era. However, an exciting opportunity exists to unite in a way that reinforces the strength of each other to achieve the shared aspirations with greater force and unity.

Second, to say it bluntly, China – specifically the CCP- is a ticking time bomb as economic, population, and world health experts have repeatedly made this prediction. For example, Steven Mosher (2021), the President of the Population Research Institute, noted that “China’s demographic time bomb is ticking” due to decreasing population problems caused by 40 years of stringent population control. He further made this dire observation that “China today is not just aging, it is literally dying, filling more coffins than cradles each year. Chinese Communist leaders are increasingly worried about having enough workers and soldiers for the factories and armies of the future”.  

Then others believe that the “Chinese economy is sitting on a ticking debt bomb.” Not only is the debt-ridden China’s banking system on the verge of collapse, but the real estate developers failed to pay off their bonds, and homebuyers refused to pay for their mortgages. Homebuyers’ boycott of mortgage payments will rise even more with CCP’s hardline COVID-19 lockdown policy depriving citizens of further economic livelihood activities. In short, the financial woes experienced by the Chinese citizens will gather momentum with a ferocity that knows no political or ideological affiliations. The spirit of nationalism is dampened and stultified when livelihood suffering is overwhelming. So, the mass dissatisfaction and despondency with the spiraling economic downturn will expedite the tipping point to move closer.

Third, the daily barrage of Russia’s bombing and destruction of Ukraine and its aftermath of human suffering along with the wanton destruction of towns, cities, and institutions is like the worst nightmare for Tibetans, reliving their past painful experiences of forced occupation, oppression, and torture by the CCP in the early 1950s. Ukraine of today is what Tibet was in the 1950s. Writing for Financial Review concerning the war in Ukraine, Martin Wolf (2022) states, “The new conflict is not one between communists and capitalists, but one between irredentist tyranny and liberal democracy” and asserts that Putin’s actions have united the West against him. The Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Ma Zhaoxia, was reported to have assured the Russian Ambassador to China, Andrey Denisov, that China was willing to strengthen its relationship with Russia through multilateral frameworks but did not refer to the Ukraine crisis. This meeting took place two days before the states met at the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bali, Indonesia. In this new geopolitical context, China’s role in the Russian/Ukraine war will come under microscopic examination and will impact the West’s perception of CCP. Furthermore, media speculations are rampant that CCP may attack Taiwan sooner than later, thereby escalating the ideological differences with the West. 

The CCP has always unfailingly, without any supporting evidence, blamed “terrorists or separatists” for being responsible for the eruptions of interethnic violence such as Lhasa (2008), Urumqi (2009), and Kunming Train Station (2014). Some China watchers believe such recurring events may sooner or later drive China down the same disintegrative path as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. CCP’s draconian re-education campaign, pervasive Orwellian surveillance, and harsh restrictions on religious practice may pose greater social instability. One fact remains clear: no majority group has ever won the head, hearts, and hands of minorities through coercion and mistrust. 

Finally, in recent years, the media has reported the growing threat of CCP’s espionage activities in the USA, including its infiltration into the Federal and State Law Enforcement agencies. The distrust of CCP, on the one hand, and the growing support for the Tibetan cause in the U.S. indicates that truth, democracy, and inalienability of human rights prevail in the end. For example, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mr. Antony J. Blinken, and the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Ms. Uzra Zeya, publicly greeted Tibetans on this year’s Lunar New Year eve. A historic event took place in the U.S. Congress on July 13, 2022, when U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Michael McCaul (R-TX) introduced the “Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act” in the Chamber. In India, the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, wished His Holiness on his 87th birthday. Similarly, other countries are openly challenging the CCP’s atrocious human rights record and unlawful imprisonment of political dissidents.

This narrative has attempted to highlight certain developments that are likely to shape the future course of events for Tibet in a positive direction. But are we ready to seize the opportunity when the synergy of these events creates a conducive condition? The exile community is fortunate to have Sikyong Penpa Tsering at the helm of CTA at this critical time. He is articulate, knowledgeable, fearless, sincere, and exceptionally respectful of His Holiness and the older generation. He has the integrity and political acumen to keep Tibetans, seniors, young monks, and laypeople united and mobilized to move forward to achieve our shared aspirations. So, let us all support our leadership and join in transcending regionalism, sectarianism, and petty politics for the greater good of the Tibet nation. We must reclaim Tibet’s past glory as we are the lawful and legitimate keepers of Tibet’s rich cultural, spiritual, historical, and linguistic heritage. 


Mosher, S. (2021). https://www.pop.org/chinas-demographic-time-bomb-is-ticking/

Norbu, D. (1997) Tibet: The Road Ahead. New Delhi, India: HarperCollins.

*  Dr. Nawang Phuntsog is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Elementary & Bilingual Education, California State University, Fullerton, USA, and a founding member of www.TibetanEducationAdvancement.org



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