Uncertain times on the ‘roof of the world’

A conversation with leading Tibet scholar Tsering Shakya

The Dalai Lama’s short visit to Canada this spring highlighted again the difficult situation he and his Tibetan followers face. Living in exile in India since 1959 and facing persistent condemnation from China, the Dalai Lama must witness his homeland’s troubles from afar.

Tibetan activists say resentment has turned to desperation as Tibetans witness massive changes brought on by China’s economic and political policies in the area.  Adding to the tensions is the fear that Chinese authorities will try to anoint their own successor once the Dalai Lama passes away. UBC’s Tsering Shakya discusses the situation with UBC Reports.

Why are monks and nuns turning to self-immolation?

“In the past year, more than 36 Tibetan monks and nuns have burned themselves to death to protest Chinese rule. Not only is this a more extreme form of protest, it is a major new challenge for China. By its very nature, this kind of act is much harder to control or punish than mass demonstrations. How do you stop someone from lighting themself on fire?

“China will view this as a Tibetan escalation of this situation, supported by the Dalai Lama. But much of this results from the lack of proper channels in China for people to voice their grievances to the authorities, without fearing for their safety. We have recently seen self-immolation elsewhere, in places such as in India, Tunisia and Greece, so this new style of protest is a global trend.”

What is at stake in the Dalai Lama’s succession?

“The succession of the Dalai Lama, who is 76, will be a major issue between China and Tibet. This is a question of power for China. It wishes to demonstrate its authority over Tibet by choosing the next Dalai Lama. However, the Tibetan Buddhists will reject China’s selection as illegitimate. Tibetans will choose their candidate, but this individual will almost certainly live in exile.

“This would not be the first dispute over a high-ranking lama. For example, the Chinese government and Tibetans disagreed over the selection of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the succession process can typically take up to four years as Tibetans seek out their next ‘chosen one.’ However, in the present situation, China will be very reluctant to have the search go on for long. They will likely appoint someone shortly after the death of the Dalai Lama in an attempt to end the issue.”

Will the incoming Chinese leaders change the country’s approach to Tibet?

“In my view, China’s incoming leaders will essentially take the same approach to Tibet. No politician in the Communist Party would risk his political position in the system by taking up the issue of Tibet. In the short term, I see very little chance of Tibet concerns—freedom of religion and culture, the independence movement—being resolved.

“However, the unprecedented economic growth in China has created great inequality and increasing levels of social unrest, and China’s leaders are aware they must address these issues. If they take a more liberal approach to the relationship between citizen and state, where there is the rule of law and people can legitimately raise their grievances, I think the situation will definitely improve.”

Where can different voices be heard on the Tibet debate?

“The internet and social media are playing an important role to aggregate and translate news, blogs, twitter feeds and political cartoons about Tibet and China. In the past, Tibetan bloggers would post about arrests, but very few people outside Tibet understood that language. New media give journalists, activists and the public access to much more information. Good examples include the China Digital Times, which is maintained by the University of California Berkeley’s School of Journalism, and High Peaks Pure Earth, a blog that I co-edit.”

Ongoing issues: Surveillance, culture, and the economy

“China’s other major issue is economic development. The level of state expenditure in Tibet and Western China is enormous: 90 per cent of all expenditures currently come from government sources. So there is huge interest in developing the local indigenous economy to make the region more sustainable in the future.

“Similarly, there remains a strong sentiment for independence in Tibet. There has been economic growth, but to most Tibetans, it comes at the expense of cultural autonomy, freedom of religion and language as Chinese culture assimilates the region. They see their culture and identity as vulnerable, and with little hope for recourse, this is producing an increasing level of more extreme resistance, particular within the Buddhist community.”

Learn more about UBC’s Institute of Asian Research at

Related topics:

a place of mind, The University of British Columbia

UBC Public Affairs
310 - 6251 Cecil Green Park Road
Vancouver, BC
Canada V6T 1Z1
Tel: 604.822.3131
Fax: 604.822.2684
E-mail: public.affairs@ubc.ca

Emergency Procedures | Accessibility | Contact UBC | © Copyright The University of British Columbia