The Himalayas Can Learn from the Alps

Where is Tibet heading? Europe could provide a viable model of pacification.

Tibet's future appears more uncertain than ever. Its importance to China and Asia is beyond doubt, but the debate about potential ways forward there has been overshadowed in recent years by other global events like the global economic crisis, the European debt crisis, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Arab spring. Yet after the Dalai Lama's March 2011 decision to withdraw from political leadership, fifteen self-immolations occurred in protest against China in less than a year. Amid increasing unrest, time is starting to press for a viable solution able to provide at least temporary arrangement. Is there a practical model for how Tibet may arrange its further political and institutional existence? And could it be accepted by China, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government alike?

Such an arrangement must balance political, cultural and ethnic dimensions while taking into account the extraordinary power of contextual political factors—like traditions, habits, religion, historic identity and social psychology—in multiethnic and minority areas. It must consider factors outside politics alone.

A European Model

Perhaps the most viable such interdisciplinary model is one that clings to realpolitik. It could be implemented immediately and would establish regional autonomy for Tibet within the national borders of China. This solution might follow the example of the trilingual Autonomous Province of Bolzano-South Tyrol in Northern Italy, a region that is overseen and protected by the European Union. As early as in the 1990s, the Dalai Lama personally instituted a permanent study group at a university there. It consisted of some of his closest collaborators, who studied this model and searched for ways to apply its compromise between independence and assimilation to Tibet. Efforts to adapt this model to contemporary Tibet led to several proposals; so far all have been rejected by Chinese authorities who (falsely) asserted that the central part of Tibet was already an “autonomous province.”

Following the model of South Tyrol, Tibet would become a real autonomous zone, administered by a government elected by Tibetan residents and equipped with secondary and primary legislative powers. Tibet would be entitled to establish its independent, bilingual schooling system, where Tibetans would have their own self-administered schools using their mother tongue and Chinese as a foreign language. The opposite arrangements would apply to the Chinese population in Tibet.

Both Tibetans and Chinese ethnicities would be represented by law in the government and parliament. Money for cultural and educational issues, including heritage protection, would be distributed among the two ethnicities according to census percentages. The national state of China would keep overall sovereignty, while taxes collected within Tibet would belong exclusively to the autonomous region and be distributed among the ethnic groups, again according to population.

While China would control the military to secure the borders, Tibet would have its own police force responsible for domestic security. Tibet would have primary legislative powers among others in the fields of agricultural development, environment, fishing and hunting, housing (both public and private), industry, transport, demographic development and tourism. Last but not least, the autonomous government of Tibet would be entitled to contain further immigration from China, following the outcome of negotiations between its resident ethnic groups.

A New Pragmatism?

While such a grand solution might not be fully satisfactory for either party involved, and while it could only be conceived as an interim arrangement, it could provide a rational model of renewal and progress and become a win-win arrangement for all sides.

These are concrete, proven models to move the situation in Tibet forward. The new heads of the exile government are not dreamers but are inclined toward realistic models of pacification and cooperation. While both the Chinese and the Tibetan exile government continues to be under strong pressure from their constituencies not to compromise, progress will be made only by negotiating arrangements more likely to foster peace than the existing ones. Given that it is in a position of growing strength and global power, it is now up to China to show its good will and extend its hand. Such an approach is in its own interest, in order to control increasing domestic unrest before it spirals out of control.

Roland Benedikter serves as European Foundation Professor of Multidisciplinary Political Sociology at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara and as a long-term visiting scholar at The Europe Center, Stanford University. Contact: rben@stanford.edu.

Image: BrokenSphere