by Diane Wolff
Tibetan independence is likely a lost cause. At least in the near future. We may have said the same thing about some of the Soviet Asian republics that now find themselves independent, but the conditions of Tibetan absorption into China are different. For one thing, China is a global economic powerhouse without the same severe faults of Soviet Russia in the 1980s. But Tibetan independence remains a popular cause amongst many in the West (mostly liberals). The Dalai Lama, who has led his nation from exile for now nearly sixty years, has conducted various negotiations with China over some level of autonomy for Tibet, including some unique proposals for Tibetan status on the world stage. He rarely suggests full independence. Meanwhile, there are those in the exile Tibetan community who very much remain determined to stop at nothing short of full autonomy for that nation.
Tibetan history is tied up in the vast unsettled history of central Asia. This book spends most of its time exploring that history, from the time of Genghis Khan through the twenty-first century. Diane Wolff delves deep into the relationship between Tibetan leaders and those of other strong regions and tribes in Asia, particularly Mongolians and the various Chinese dynasties. Tibet's suspicion of British and Russian aspirations in central Asia left it without any friends in the wider world when it came to defending itself from China, which asserted its own assumptions about Tibetan independence at the barrel of the PLA guns and tanks that roared into the country in 1949 and 1950. While the historical record supports the notion that Tibet had for hundreds of years maintained its own seperate identity, government and autonomy, it failed to make that argument at the time it most needed its support from the outside world. As a result, that outside world allowed Tibet to fall to regional political realities in the Cold War and the time of the British and Russian Great Game in the Himalayas. Tibet lost at its most critical juncture.
But that doesn't mean that Tibet has no claim to its own cultural, historical and tribal identity. Wolff recognizes that in the twenty-first century, full autonomy and freedom for Tibet are unrealistic demands. She leans on the tenuous connections and interactions between nations over centuries to assert Tibetan autonomy within China, a "loose reins" approach similar to Chinese control over Hong Kong while allowing it to express autonomy in business and human rights. Writing in 2010, Wolff looks at what she calls the 4th generation of communist Chinese leadership and hopes that the 5th generation will take a more modern, open and ethnically sensitive approach to Tibetan national identity. The past couple of decades have seen cycles of openness and crackdown in Tibet. It is clear that ethnic identity remains a battleground for Tibet and other minority regions of China. As Xi Jinping was recently declared leader-for-life, and with China doing such things as prosecuting crimes against its national anthem in Hong Kong, it is unlikely we're going to see much of a modern approach to the Tibetan question. China still asserts that bringing modern technology and development to Tibet is sufficient for making Tibetans into happy Chinese. History does not bear out this model. Tibet will remain unsettled as long as its identity remains under the toe of the controlling Chinese central government. But, as of now, China has no incentive to do anything more for the Tibetans and continues to bide its time by awaiting the passing of the current Dalai Lama. Expect significant unrest within and outside of China when that happens.
This book is primarily a sprawling history of Tibetan autonomy within a greater Asian landscape and is unlike other histories that this reader has encountered in its detailed contextual look at Tibetan government and culture with respect to the norms of those times and places. The writing is clipped and the author has a tendency to reassert facts repeatedly throughout the text. There is a journalistic style here that may have benefitted from further editing for clarity and style. But her story is full of satisfying historical and cultural detail. Her arguments are even-handed, exhaustively researched and quietly hopeful, despite the fact that the decade since its first publication has complicated the possibilities she explores.
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