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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Advocacy and Social Movements

Tibetan Strategies and Chinese Counter-Strategies, 1986-2012

This piece was published in the 29th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

For the first time in decades, the movement had dealt a concrete, visible blow to China…The Tibet movement’s grassroots muscle and ability to generate negative publicity for its foes, posed a real threat to these companies’ brand, and influenced their decision-making.

Abstract: This paper traces the evolution of the strategies used by the Tibetan leadership to promote the Tibetan cause and the counter-strategies used by the Chinese government to suppress the Tibet issue. It focuses on the period between 1986 and 2012, during which Dharamsala sought to internationalize the Tibet issue by mobilizing parliaments and the public in the West. An important role was played by the Tibetan-American communities, who joined the Western advocacy groups in building a powerful grassroots movement whose impact reached all the way to Beijing.


Between 1986 and 2008, the Tibetan leadership had remarkable success at driving the Tibet issue to the forefront of global public consciousness. Compared with other groups that are in conflict with Beijing, Tibetans were relatively successful in denying legitimacy to China’s rule over their homeland and presenting the Tibetan plight as a political issue demanding a solution. What strategies did the Tibetan leadership, based in Dharamsala, India, pursue to thwart China’s international reputation and influence? What opportunities did it seize or miss? How did the Tibetan leadership strengthen – and eventually compromise – its leverage over China?

I will examine two key strategies that helped to build Tibetan leverage over China. The first is Dharamsala’s internationalization of the Tibet issue in the 1980s by aligning Tibet with the liberal West, chiefly the United States. This strategy relied on the logic that Western democracies would pressure Beijing to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. Key actors in this strategy were the small but vocal network of Tibet advocacy groups in the West and Tibetan Americans who had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s[1],[2],[3].

The second strategy is the nonviolent grassroots mobilization of the Tibetan people and its contribution to Dharamsala’s leverage over China. I will discuss how nonviolent mobilization in Tibet raised Dharamsala’s bargaining power in negotiating with Beijing, and address potential reasons why the Tibetan leadership has largely abstained from using this method of pressuring China. I will close with suggestions on how the Tibet movement might yet revive its political capital and reclaim a position of power in relation to China’s actions, policies and decisions.

Background: Invasion and Exile

Soon after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, China invaded Tibet. In the years that followed, Tibetans formed a volunteer resistance force known as Chushi Gangdrug. Tens of thousands of lay and monastic Tibetans enlisted in this force and engaged in battles against the Chinese troops[4]. While the Tibetans inflicted some losses on the Chinese, they lost the war, and the remaining Chushi Gangdrug warriors retreated to a guerrilla base first in Lokha, southern Tibet, and then in Mustang, Nepal. By 1959, the tensions between the Tibetans and Chinese peaked, and there were fears that the Chinese might abduct the Dalai Lama. In March of that year, amid the shelling of the Norbulingka summer palace, the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa and the Tibetans of Lhasa rose up against Chinese rule in what became the first Tibetan uprising.

Upon the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, the newly established Tibetan government in exile attempted to raise the Tibet issue in the United Nations and gain support from member countries, but its efforts yielded little success. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of newly independent India, was saw Chinese premier Zhou Enlai as a friend, and the Sino-Indian relationship was in its honeymoon phase. Although generous with humanitarian assistance, Nehru was stingy with political support to the Tibetans. In April 1959, a delegation of Tibetans led by the former Tibetan Prime Minister Lukhangwa presented a memorandum to Nehru requesting India to sponsor the Tibetan case at the United Nations. Nehru replied that India was “not in a position to intervene and in fact would not like to take any steps which might aggravate the situation” [5].  He saw India’s relationship with China as of paramount importance, and did his best to suppress international discussion of Tibet at the United Nations­­[6].

In the secluded hill station of Dharamsala, the 24-year-old Dalai Lama found himself in charge of an impoverished, exiled government, with nearly 80,000 refugees in his care and little support from outside. Given the lack of political opportunity to advance the Tibetan cause globally, he concentrated his efforts on long-term survival of Tibetan identity through the establishment of cultural institutions in India. For the next two decades, the Tibetan government invested in capacity building, investing in its human capital, establishing schools, monasteries, and other institutions to preserve the traditional arts and sciences.

By the late 1970s, the Tibet issue had all but disappeared from the political arena and from global consciousness. China had consolidated its rapprochement with the United States, and not only executed its reentry into the community of nations but also secured a seat in the United Nations Security Council. On the international stage, there was no serious challenge to China’s rule in Tibet[7].

Turning West: From Independence to Human Rights

In 1986 and 1987, Dharamsala held a series of meetings where it strategized a new campaign aimed at internationalizing the Tibet issue2. In the previous two decades, the Tibetan leadership had focused on institution building, cultural preservation and self-strengthening initiatives by consolidating its ancillary institutions, and made its refugee settlements self-sufficient. Now the time was ripe to reenter the global political arena; Dharamsala finally turned its gaze outward.

Instead of pursuing an avenue through the United Nations, Tibetan leaders decided to leverage the citizens and the parliaments of democratic Western countries, particularly the United States to pressure China into negotiations7. “These leaders,” writes Robert Barnett, “having realized in the mid-1980s that foreign governments had no strategic or political interest in raising the Tibet issue, decided instead to pressurize them by mobilizing popular support among their constituents.” Emphasizing the protection of human rights, culture and environment, Dharamsala changed its discourse on the Tibet issue from one that was rooted in its history of independence and the right to self-determination to one that invoked the protection of human rights5.

The Dalai Lama, whose trips outside of India in the previous two decades had been extremely rare, embarked on a series of international trips aimed at building political support for the Tibetan cause. Whereas the Dalai Lama barely traveled outside of India between until 1985, he made over sixty international trips between 1986 and 1999. While he visited barely one country a year on average from 1959 to 1985, he visited an average of ten countries a year between 1986 and 1999.[8] This sharp rise in the number of international trips shows the degree to which the Tibetan leadership’s new strategy was reflected in the Dalai Lama’s activities.

In one of the most significant events during this period, the Dalai Lama gave a speech to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus in September 1987, where he announced a proposal that came to be known as the Five-Point Peace Plan2. In this proposal, the Dalai Lama promulgated his vision of Tibet as a demilitarized “Zone of Peace.” The Chinese immediately rejected the Dalai Lama’s proposal.5

News of the Dalai Lama speaking to American congressmen sparked unprecedented hope in Tibetans inside Tibet. Chinese state television condemned the Dalai Lama’s efforts to ‘split the motherland’, further provoking the Tibetans5. Within days, Tibetans in Lhasa staged, for the first time since 1959, street protests expressing their support for independence and the Dalai Lama.[9] The protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese police, but not before news of China’s crackdown was globally broadcasted. These incidents bolstered the Dalai Lama’s standing as Tibet’s true representative, while leaving Beijing’s image in tatters on the global stage.

The West’s recognition of the Tibet issue, though, did not come without a cost. In 1988, the Dalai Lama made a crucial bargain with China: he conceded Tibet’s independence in favor of “genuine autonomy,” a term referring to a high degree of autonomy where Tibet could control its own internal affairs while foreign relations and military defense would remain in China’s hands. This compromise, first announced in a 1988 address in Strasbourg, along with the Dalai Lama’s longstanding commitment to nonviolence, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The Dalai Lama named his conciliatory approach of seeking autonomy for Tibet ‘the Middle Way,’ as it sought to supposedly avoid the two extremes of seeking full independence for Tibet and accepting complete integration with China.

In the eyes of the activists demanding Tibet’s full independence, Dharamsala had squandered one of their most valuable bargaining chips – the historical claim to sovereignty – by preemptively surrendering independence in favor of autonomy. This unilateral concession did not extract any reciprocal change from China; instead it fractured the unity of purpose that had sustained Tibetan public morale until then. Both camps, the advocates of independence as well as autonomy, were largely in agreement that Dharamsala could not have internationalized the Tibet issue without framing it in the context of safeguarding human rights. However, independence advocates contend that Dharamsala went beyond what was necessary by institutionalizing the Middle Way Approach and by passing it through the Tibetan Parliament before securing a single concession from China. Political analyst Ellen Bork wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “What if Tibet’s claim to independence had been preserved rather than conceded? The U.S. and other countries would be in a much better position today to resist China’s increasingly assertive claims of Tibet as a “core interest” and rebut Beijing’s insistence on sovereignty as a complete bar to pressure on human rights”.[10]

Regardless of what may have occurred, Dharamsala’s new strategy of internationalizing the Tibet issue did produce two distinct results that reshaped the Sino-Tibetan conflict: Support from western parliaments and the rise in international grassroots activism for Tibet.

Mobilizing Congress and Parliaments

This support from the western governments and citizens enabled the Tibetan leadership to make inroads into parliaments around the world, most prominently the U.S. Congress. Powerful senators and congressmen, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tom Lantos, Frank Wolf, Nancy Pelosi, and Jim Sensenbrenner, from different political parties became champions of Tibet, making it a bipartisan cause. Resolutions were passed in the US Congress, as well as other parliaments condemning China’s occupation of Tibet.[11]

The European Parliament passed a resolution on October 14, 1987, “recalling that both during the early days of the Chinese occupation in the 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution the Tibetan religion and culture were brutally repressed.” The US Congress passed a stronger resolution on December 22, 1987 stating that the “Chinese Communist army invaded and occupied Tibet.” It went further to say: “Over 1,000,000 Tibetans perished from 1959 to 1979 as a direct result of the political instability, executions, imprisonment, and wide scale famine engendered by the policies of the People’s Republic of China in Tibet.”[12] In total, from 1987 to 1997, the United States Congress passed 20 resolutions on Tibet, and the European Parliament passed twelve.[13]

These resolutions, symbolic in nature, did not have the coercive power to bring China to the negotiating table, but they did inflict a significant political cost on the Chinese government. For one, they represented a moral verdict in the court of global public opinion with each resolution chipping away at China’s reputation. As a result, even as China consolidated its bureaucratic and military control of Tibet, it was losing its moral and political legitimacy to rule the plateau.

Equally important, these resolutions helped facilitate Dharamsala’s connection with Tibetans in Tibet. In 1991, the US radio station Voice of America created a Tibetan Service under an Act of Congress, launching a daily broadcast program to listeners inside Tibet, giving Tibetans a source of news other than China’s state media.[14] The Chinese government continually expended ever more human and financial resources to counter what it called Western attacks on its rule over Tibet, but failed to halt the steady erosion of its influence and legitimacy.

However, as China’s value as a trading partner grew in the early 1990s, the efficacy of strongly worded resolutions reached their limit. The same governments that were issuing these condemnations were also signing trade deals with China, and Dharamshala began to realize the inadequacy of mobilizing through Western governments.

This schism had in fact already been present in 1987 when the first resolutions were passed. President Reagan had expressed support of China’s crackdown on Tibet, even while Congress had criticized them. The Clinton administration went further by introducing the bilateral framework for negotiations. This separated trade discussions from human rights discussions, which benefitted economic interests in both the U.S. and China. The European governments followed suit, leaving Dharamsala with limited political avenues to pursue under its human rights approach.

Mobilizing the Grassroots Forces

In addition to involving Western governments in the Tibet issue, Dharamsala’s internationalization of the Tibet issue also led to an increase in international grassroots activism for Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s global speaking tours and the Nobel spotlight had triggered an explosion of public awareness about the Tibetan plight. Grassroots organizations such as the International Campaign for Tibet and Students for a Free Tibet started to form and many Western Buddhists, such as the scholar Robert Thurman, the actor Richard Gere, and the musician Adam Yauch, began to mobilize supporters to the cause.

The landmark event that launched a nationwide grassroots force for Tibet in the U.S. was a series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, organized by Adam Yauch of the band, the Beastie Boys.[15] At each of these shows, thousands of concertgoers signed up to join the activist group Students for a Free Tibet. Hundreds of these groups emerged in dozens of countries, mobilizing thousands of volunteers. By the mid-1990s, the international Tibet movement was running at full speed.

The scope and strength of this grassroots movement multiplied when scores of Tibetans immigrated to North America in the 1990s, after the US Congress allowed a thousand exiled Tibetans to resettle in America through the 1990 Immigration Act. The new Tibetan communities in the West, working closely with the advocacy groups, never failed to organize street protests against Chinese leaders visiting Western capitals. It became impossible for any high profile Chinese leader to visit Washington or New York without being hounded by endless street protests.

This global grassroots constituency composed of advocacy groups and newly established Tibetan-American communities accumulated a new type of political capital for Dharamsala, freeing them from the political constraints of relying purely on congressional support. Beginning in the late 1990s, the Tibet movement waged a series of strategic campaigns against multinational institutions seeking to invest in China. The most high profile of these campaigns was launched in 1999, when China was being approved for a World Bank loan of $160 million to resettle 58,000 Chinese farmers to eastern Tibet. Vocal opposition from Tibet advocacy groups prompted the bank to commission an independent review of the project, which found that the bank’s staff had violated seven out of ten operational directives to get the loan approved.[16] Following several months of continuous protest rallies, and a string of media stories that slammed the bank for facilitating China’s oppression in Tibet, the contentious loan was finally canceled, causing China a devastating loss of face.[17]

The Tibet movement was galvanized by this unprecedented victory. For the first time in decades, the movement had dealt a concrete, visible blow to China. Journalist Sebastian Mallaby, who wrote an article in Foreign Policy scorning the Tibet movement and defending the World Bank, remarked with disbelief: “The Lilliputian activists had taken on the bank, and they had won the first round”.[18]

The Tibet movement’s grassroots muscle and ability to generate negative publicity for its foes, posed a real threat to these companies’ brand, and influenced their decision-making[19]. Some believe that the mining giant Rio Tinto’s decision not to dig in Tibet a few years later was motivated by a fear of the political minefield that Tibet had become.

The distress that the pro-Tibet protesters caused Chinese leaders was evidenced in the leaked transcript of a speech delivered by Zhao Qizheng, the Minister of the Information Office of the State Council, at a conference in 2000: “During every foreign visit of our leaders, last year, the Dalai clique, with covert incitement and help from western countries as well as Tibet support groups, interfered and created disruption through protest rallies. In this way, they gained the highest-level international platform and intervention”[20].

Beijing’s Counter-Strategy

In late 2002, Beijing reached out to the Dalai Lama and invited his envoys for talks, creating an atmosphere of optimism in Dharamsala. Outside Dharamsala, some Tibetans suspected that Beijing’s invitation was motivated less by a genuine desire to resolve the conflict than by a strategic intention to mute international criticism of its Tibet policy in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. Their suspicions would later be reinforced when a high-level Chinese diplomat, Chen Yonglin defected from the Chinese embassy in Australia in 2005 and described the outreach as merely a tactic of deception, that there was “no sincerity from the Chinese side”[21].

However, due to a perceived lack of alternatives, Dharamsala agreed to proceed with the dialogue without setting any precondition. For China, simply having the dialogue was victory, as they were able to use the photograph of Chinese and Tibetan delegates sitting together to muzzle international criticism of its treatment of Tibet. Beijing’s subtext to the West was: the Chinese and the Tibetans were talking directly, third parties were no longer needed.

During this period, Dharamsala became preoccupied with a policy of “creating a conducive environment” for the talks to succeed. One of Beijing’s demands during the initial rounds of dialogue was that Dharamsala tone down the international protests21. Dharamsala agreed, even at the risk of alienating its own constituencies.

To reinforce this, in September 2002, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche released this appeal prior to the visit of President Jiang Zemin to the United States and Mexico:

“In the past Tibetans and Tibet supporters throughout the world had used the opportunity of Chinese leaders’ visits to convey their feelings through peaceful rallies and demonstrations. One of the objectives of such actions was to encourage the Chinese leaders to respond to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s initiatives for a negotiated settlement of the Tibetan problem. Now that there is an indication that the Chinese leadership may be willing to start discussing with us, we could use the opportunity of President Jiang’s visit to test China’s response. I want to urge all Tibetans and friends of Tibet to refrain from public actions like rallies and demonstrations during President Jiang’s visit to the United States and Mexico”[22].

The Prime Minister’s words reflected an assumption that dialogue and protests were mutually exclusive. In reality, his appeal represented a forfeiture of the one tactic that had been effective in making China see the value of dialogue in the first place. Between 2002 and 2006, Dharamsala issued a chain of controversial appeals to Tibetan advocacy groups and communities, urging them not to protest Chinese leaders.[23] All but a few heeded the appeals. Using Dharamsala as an unwitting tool, Beijing was able to substantially decrease the volume and frequency of the pro-Tibet protests during these five years.

This period saw a growing disconnect between Dharamsala and the Tibetan grassroots movement, the seed of which had been sown in 1988 when the Dalai Lama conceded Tibetan independence. While the Dalai Lama, and by extension Dharamsala, fully embraced the policy of seeking autonomy for Tibet within China, many disgruntled Tibetans and advocacy groups continued to advocate full independence. They saw Dharamsala’s appeals to suspend protests as an appeasement of China, further exacerbating their disenchantment with Dharamsala. The years leading up to the Beijing Olympics was when Dharamsala held its strongest bargaining position. China’s desire to host a protest-free Olympics meant it would be more willing to make concessions, such as, mass amnesty to political prisoners or reversing the ban on Dalai Lama images, simply to lure the Tibetans into dialogue. Not seeing Beijing’s vulnerability at the time, Tibetans rushed into the dialogue without setting strategic conditions, even though, China’s tactics in the dialogue, writes Warren Smith, “seemed to be to appear conciliatory while making no actual concessions”21. The dialogue stalled in 2008 and eventually collapsed in 2010 after nine rounds of talks. At the end, Dharamsala not only had made no gains, it was left with a diminished international grassroots movement, having lost the mission-oriented clarity of the previous decade.

Seizing (and Missing) the Olympic Opportunity

Tibetans in Tibet did not fail to leverage the Olympics as an opportunity. On March 10, the anniversary of the original Tibetan uprising in 1959, protests broke out in all three provinces of historical Tibet.[24] Monks from Drepung and Sera monasteries in Lhasa took part in protest marches, raising the Tibetan national flag and shouting slogans like “Freedom for Tibet”, “Allow the return of the Dalai Lama”, and “Independence for Tibet.” Chinese authorities arrested the monks and shut down the monasteries. In the following three days, more protests occurred that were met with beatings, tear-gas and arrests.[25]

Riots broke out in Lhasa on March 14. Lay Tibetans, outraged by the sight of Chinese police beating the monks, attacked the security forces with rocks. The emboldened crowd of protesters directed their wrath toward symbols of Chinese rule such as government buildings, banks, police vehicles, and Chinese shops.25 According to the Chinese government, 18 civilians and one policeman died and 382 civilians were injured. According to the Tibetan government in exile and human rights groups, 220 Tibetans were killed, 5,600 arrested or detained, 1,294 injured, 290 sentenced and over 1,000 disappeared in the ensuing crackdown. From the start of the uprising in March until the start of the Olympics in August, 130 instances of protests took place in Tibet.[26]

In a series of China Daily articles and Xinhua commentaries, Beijing claimed it had “plenty of evidence” that the uprising was “organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai Lama clique.”[27] Dharamsala insisted upon its innocence, stating on March 31, “The Central Tibetan Administration strongly refutes the charges… China has since the beginning of the incident in Lhasa on March 10 started to blame it on His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the CTA, without any conclusive proof … Central Tibetan Administration repeats its request for an independent inquiry to ascertain the truth.”[28]

The Tibetan uprising of 2008, notwithstanding China’s accusations, bolstered the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama as the undisputed spokesperson of the Tibetan people. Unlike the protests of the late 1980s that were confined to Lhasa, the 2008 protests spanned all three historical provinces, exposing as farce China’s incorporation of the Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham into the Chinese provinces Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. In fact, the vast majority of the protests occurred in Kham and Amdo. Unlike protests by Tibetan exiles in India or the West, which were much easier for Beijing to dismiss, these protests within Tibet represented a far more serious challenge to China’s rule.

Map of Tibetan protests in 2008
Source: Tibet at a Turning Point, a report by the International Campaign for Tibet

In the aftermath of the uprising, the international community began to speak out against China’s Tibet policy. The US House of Representatives passed a resolution expressing support for Tibetan aspirations and criticizing Chinese policies.[29] The European nations went further this time: Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France said on March 18 that the European Union should consider punishing China for its crackdown in Tibet by boycotting the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.[30] By the end of the month, a number of leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, and European Parliament Speaker Hans-Gert Pottering had decided not to participate in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.[31] The New York Times wrote, “Senior European officials, including Kouchner, have ruled out an outright boycott of the Olympics, arguing that not even the Dalai Lama had demanded one. But in the latest sign that the Games remain the most powerful lever Western powers have, the foreign minister called the idea of a more symbolic partial boycott ‘interesting.’”

The idea of the opening ceremony boycott emerged independently in the European Parliament, without any lobbying from Dharamsala. The fact that even Angela Merkel and Vaclav Klaus decided not to attend the opening ceremony shows Western public sympathies for Tibet in the aftermath of the uprising had generated a political will to take bolder action. Western governments not only recognized the Beijing Olympics as a powerful lever to move China, as the New York Times article states, but some were actually willing to act. With some encouragement from the Dalai Lama, there is a strong possibility they would have gone much further.

However, even at the height of China’s clampdown on Tibetans, the Dalai Lama did not call for a boycott of the opening ceremony or any kind of sanctions against China. On the contrary, he expressed support for the Beijing Olympics. Speaking to reporters in New Delhi on March 23, he said, “I have always supported that the Olympic Games should take place in China.” He added, “They are the hosts. The Olympics should take place in Beijing”.[32],[33] It is uncertain how a Tibetan call for a boycott would have been heeded by the world, but such a strategic offensive would have caused enormous fear and confusion in Beijing and been a strong point of leverage. Instead of going on the offensive at a moment when China was vulnerable, Dharamsala played a purely defensive game, trying to convince the Chinese leaders that it had not instigated the uprising in Tibet.3

Over the years, Dharamsala has not simply passed up numerous opportunities to leverage China’s interests toward its own cause but also made conciliatory gestures toward Beijing. Tragically, none of these conciliatory actions – from the concession of independence to the support of the Olympics – were contingent upon China fulfilling a measurable Tibetan demand. This leads us to examine Dharamsala’s long-standing reluctance to tap into one of its greatest reserves of political influence: grassroots mobilization inside Tibet.

Mobilization Potential Inside Tibet

The history of Tibetan mobilization is inextricably intertwined with the story of the Dalai Lama. This link is strikingly evident in the two phases of highest mobilization in contemporary Tibetan history up until 2008. In 1959, it was the Tibetans’ concern for the Dalai Lama’s safety that triggered the revolt. In 1987-89, it was China’s invective against the Dalai Lama that provoked the Tibetan protests.

It is therefore not surprising that China’s Tibet Forum in 1994 set the goal of eradicating the Dalai Lama’s influence in Tibet. Beijing set out to criminalize anyone who possessed images or audio of the Dalai Lama. In July 1998, a man named Ngawang Tsultrim was arrested and sentenced to three years of imprisonment for screening a Dalai Lama video.[34] In January 2001, a Sera monk named Jampel Gyatso was arrested for listening to recorded teachings of the Dalai Lama.[35]

However, this ban barely made a dent in Tibetan devotion to their leader. In the 2008 uprising, the one slogan that was raised in every single protest incident was the call for the “return of the Dalai Lama.” The Tibetan people’s collective loyalty to their leader is a vast reserve of moral capital held by the Dalai Lama himself, ready to be converted into political currency. The only time that the Dalai Lama used this currency to proactively mobilized the Tibetan grassroots constituency was to advance a nonpolitical cause in 2006.

In January 2006, during the Kalachakra religious teachings in Amravati, India, the Dalai Lama made a speech[i] making a public call for the protection of wildlife and exhorting Tibetans to stop wearing fur-trimmed clothing. He directly addressed pilgrims from Tibet in the gathering: “When you go back to your respective places, remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives”[36].

Within days, Tibetans in Tibet launched a boycott of animal pelts. Hundreds of Tibetans participated in public bonfires where they took off their fur-lined chubas and threw them into the fire. These bonfires were held in Ngaba, Rebkong, Labrang, Golok, Karze and Lhasa. A Khampa trader torched his own pelt store in front of a crowd.[37] According to the Wildlife Trust of India, over 10,000 people burned three truckloads of endangered animal skins in Ngaba Prefecture alone. On February 17, a smuggled video of a fur-burning event in Ngaba was screened for the public and press in Dharamsala. Lobsang Choephel, the monk who smuggled the video out of Tibet, reported upon arriving in Dharamsala that an estimated $75 million worth of animal pelts had already been burnt in eastern Tibet alone.

The speed and fervor with which Tibetans rallied behind the call for wildlife protection speaks volumes about the Dalai Lama’s unparalleled ability to mobilize Tibetans and the potential he has to escalate the political issue of Tibetan independence and make it exponentially harder for Beijing to govern the plateau. This mobilization could be very effective in making China negotiate a settlement. However, the Dalai Lama has never directly called on Tibetans inside Tibet to mobilize against Chinese rule, nor has he promoted any kind of nationwide noncooperation or civil disobedience campaigns aimed at raising China’s cost of occupying Tibet. He has instead chosen the path of diplomatic persuasion with the Chinese leadership.

What could explain why this ardent follower of Gandhi has not attempted to harness the power of nonviolent tactics and grassroots mobilization?

The Dalai Lama is first and foremost a man of religion, whose monastic education began at age six, shaping his identity as a progressive Buddhist monk rather than a Machiavellian political strategist.[38] Naturally, he holds deep moral reservations about the human cost that accompanies mobilizing people against an authoritarian state and in his spiritual value system, minimizing suffering trumps maximizing freedom. Moreover, working in trenches of political organizing and resistance is at odds with his stature and image as an icon of world peace. If his religious training has enabled him to transcend nationalism, his global obligations as a Nobel Laureate have forced him to transcend his nationality.

This is compounded by the fact that the long-serving prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, was also a monk. Known for his puritanical emphasis on discipline and control, he did not disguise his aversion to the chaotic energy and unpredictable change produced by agitative actions such as street protests, hunger strikes and boycott campaigns.[39] Like the Dalai Lama, he preferred tactics of persuasion to those of coercion; he wanted to bring China to the negotiating table through diplomatic appeals and demonstrations of sincerity rather than through the force of social mobilization and political pressure.

The Dalai Lama himself, perhaps more than anyone, was aware of these constraints. On March 14, 2011, he announced his full retirement from politics and devolved his political authority to elected leaders. A few days later, on March 20, the Tibetan diaspora went to the polls and elected the first non-monastic prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-educated legal scholar, who won with 55 percent of the votes.[40]

Hostage of the Middle Way Approach?

In the aftermath of the 2008 uprising, following the failure of the Sino-Tibetan talks and amid the wave of self-immolations that were starting to sweep the plateau, Dharamsala felt growing pressure to devise a new strategy. Between 2008 and 2012, the Tibetan government convened what it called ‘Special Meetings’ to draft a new strategy for the movement.

In November 2008, 581 Tibetan delegates from 19 countries, including key government officials, ministers, Tibetan parliamentarians, NGO leaders, and community representatives, arrived in Dharamsala for the first Special Meeting. The world media had descended on the hill station, heightening the anticipation. Days before the meeting started, the Dalai Lama himself declared that he had “given up” on the Middle Way policy because “there hasn’t been any positive response from the Chinese side.” He also added that it was now up to the Tibetan people to decide the next steps[41],[42] and stated that he would remain neutral in the upcoming discussions and opted not to participate in the meeting.  Hannah Gardner of The National wrote, “Now, the Dalai Lama has opened up every aspect of struggle for debate.”

Once the meeting began on November 17, its tone was far from neutral. In contradiction to what the Dalai Lama had announced in the media, Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche and the Speaker of the Parliament Karma Choephel commenced the meeting by stating that the goal of the gathering was not to imagine a new strategic direction for the Tibetan struggle but to discuss new tactics within the same framework of the Middle Way Approach[43], narrowing the scope of the discussions. The sessions turned into lengthy monologues befitting a town hall function, a far cry from the thoughtful exchange of radical ideas one might expect to see in a strategy room.[44] Any suggestion of reconsidering the Middle Way Approach was interpreted as criticism of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom and shut down.

On November 22, the Special Meeting concluded with a unanimous reaffirmation of the Middle Way Approach. The next day, speaking to the gathering of delegates, the Dalai Lama seemed crestfallen and defeated. Could it be that after two decades of promoting the Middle Way Approach to the Tibetan people, they had finally embraced it to the point where the Dalai Lama was being held hostage to it even when he himself, the architect of the policy, had lost faith in it? Had he become a prisoner of his own success?[ii]


The strategy developed by Dharamsala in 1986-87, for all its shortcomings, must be credited for retrieving the Tibet issue from the dungeons of obscurity and propelling it onto the world stage. Unfortunately, it emphasized diplomacy to point of excluding mobilization and failed to assign a role to the Tibetan people inside Tibet. In addition, with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse, the geopolitical conditions within which the strategy was devised quickly changed once its execution began.

The Tibetan government in exile, now in the hands of an American-educated prime minister, stands at a crossroads. The new administration has the challenge of replacing Dharamsala’s appeasement politics with a more aggressive approach. While the Dalai Lama’s political authority and legitimacy have been successfully transferred to the new administration, his moral standing and global stature will be harder, if at all possible, for anyone to inherit. Without the Dalai Lama’s charisma, the new administration has found its mobilizing ability and sphere of influence circumscribed not only in foreign capitals but also inside Tibet. Still, what Dharamsala has lost in charisma, it can compensate by investing in strategic planning, alliance building, the logistics of organizing, and most importantly, revitalizing the global grassroots movement for Tibet. The digital revolution of recent years has opened up game-changing possibilities in facilitating communication among Tibetans by making what was once impossible, commonplace. Tibetans in Tibet routinely communicate with exiles, breaking through the Great Firewall with circumvention technologies rendering the geographical divide between Dharamsala and its constituency in Tibet irrelevant. The scope of trans-Himalayan mobilization has never been greater.

Furthermore, the new administration in Dharamsala has an opportunity to liberate itself from the religious worldview that shaped the vision and constrained the action of the previous administration, and chart a new path firmly rooted in realpolitik. This would require them to replace their religious conceptualization of nonviolence with a more secular one, to emphasize not the avoidance of violence but the exploration of the full spectrum of strategic nonviolent weapons. To bring Beijing into real negotiations, the leadership will have to escalate the conflict through nonviolent mobilization, and increase the cost to Beijing of delaying a resolution.

A centrally planned grassroots movement could limit the human cost of activism in Tibet that was seen in the 2008 uprisings by encouraging strategic, low risk actions over spontaneous, high-risk ones.[45] By promoting tactics of dispersion (e.g. strikes, boycotts, economic and social noncooperation) over those of concentration (e.g. protest marches, public gatherings), Dharamsala can not only limit human cost but also increase the scope and sustainability of the movement[46] and make Tibet ungovernable for China. Moreover, a grassroots-oriented blueprint for escalation that assigns an important role to the Tibetan people inside Tibet may be the only way to direct them away from acts of desperation, and engage them in more intentional, coordinated, and life-affirming ways of challenging Chinese rule. Only when Tibet makes itself ungovernable will Beijing come to the negotiating table ready to make real concessions.


[i] Kalachakra is an esoteric tantric teaching that the Dalai Lama has been giving every few years. It draws the largest gathering of Buddhists from all over the world including thousands of pilgrims from Tibet.

[ii] It must be mentioned that in the subsequent months, the Dalai Lama went back to being a vocal proponent of the Middle Way Approach. He adapted his message by saying that he had lost faith in the Chinese government but not the Chinese people. With this, the Middle Way Approach was given its second wind.

[1] Barnett, R. Resistance and Reform in Tibet. Indiana University Press. 1994.

[2] Goldstein, M. C. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama. University of California Press. 1997.

[3] Smith, W. The Origins of the Middle Way Policy. In R. Vitali (Ed.), Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling. Amnye Machen Institute. 2015.

[4] McGranahan, C. Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA and Memories of a Forgotten War. Duke University Press. 2010.

[5] Shakya, T. Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Columbia University Press. 1994.

[6] Hutchings, G. Modern China: A Century of Change. Harvard University Press. 2003.

[7] Barnett, R. Violated Specialness in Imagining Tibet. In T. Dodin & H. Rather (Eds.), Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies. Widsom Publications. 1996.

[8] Dalai Lama Official Website.

[9] New York Times. (1987, November 13). 2 American Mountaineers Tell of Witnessing Tibet Protests. New York Times.

[10] Bork, E. (2012, December 18). Rethink the Status of Tibet. The Wall Street Journal.

[11] Grunfeld, T. (1987). The Making of Modern Tibet. Zed Books.

[12]Tibet Justice Center, Legal Materials on Tibet

[13] Department of Information and International Relations, International Resolutions and Recognitions on Tibet: 1959-1997. Tibet Justice Center, Legal Materials on Tibet.

[14] Soon after the establishment of the VOA’s Tibetan service, Radio Free Asia also launched a Tibetan service and started broadcasting daily to listeners in Tibet.

[15] Los Angeles Times Blog, Tibet activist Erin Potts’ pays tribute to Adam Yauch, May 8, 2012. Also see A History of the Milarepa Fund at

[16] Probe International Journal, World Bank cancels China Tibet resettlement scheme, November 1999.

[17] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, World Bank rejects controversial loan to China, July 8, 2000.

[18] Mallaby, S. (2004). NGOs: Fighting Poverty, Hurting the Poor. Foreign Policy.

[19] v international companies, usually those in mining or tourism. Their well-practiced global publicity campaigns have dented the reputations of firms in Tibet and discouraged other companies from making the long railway journey at all.”

[20] See the leaked transcript of a speech delivered in 2000 by Zhao Qizheng, Minister of Information Office of China’s State Council:

[21] Smith, W. (2008). China’s Tibet? Autonomy of Assimilation. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

[22] The Official Website of the Tibetan government in exile, Message from the Kalon Tripa’s desk, September 30, 2002.

[23] Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche issued subsequent appeals to Tibet Support Groups in October 2002, September 2005, and April 2006 urging them to refrain from protests during Chinese leaders’ trips to the West.

[24] Central Tibetan Administration. (2010). 2008 Uprising in Tibet: Chronology and Analysis. Department of Information and International Relations.

[25] Topgyal, T. (2011). Insecurity Dilemma and the Tibetan Uprising in 2008. Journal of Contemporary China, 20(69), 183–203.

[26] International Campaign for Tibet. (2008). Tibet at a Turning Point. International Campaign for Tibet.

[27] China Daily, Dalai-backed violence scars Lhasa, 15 March 15, 2008; China Daily, Riots aimed at derailing games: Wen, 19 March 19, 2008; Xinhua, Wen: “cultural genocide” in Tibet nothing but lie, March 18, 2008.

[28] Department of Information and International Relations, Dharamsala refutes charges of being involved in Lhasa protests: calls for investigation, March 31, 2008.

[29] ICT, US Congress Passes New Tibet Legislation, Condemns China’s Crackdown in Tibet (House Resolution 1077) (Washington, DC: ICT, 9 April 2008)

[30] New York Times. (2008, March 18). France raises idea of boycotting Olympics ceremony over Tibet. New York Times.

[31] Spiegel Online. (2008, March 28). Avoiding the Olympics: who’s going to the games? Spiegel Online.

[32] Seattle Times. (2008, April 10). Dalai Lama arrives in Seattle, supports Beijing Olympics.

[33] Times of India. (2008, March 23). I support Beijing Olympics: Dalai Lama. Times of India.

[34] List of Known Arrests in Previous Years, Annual Report 2001: Human Rights Situation in Tibet.

[35] List of Known Arrests in 2001, Annual Report 2001: Human Rights Situation in Tibet.

[36] Phayul News. (2006). Tibetans burn wild animal skins in Tibet to encourage wildlife preservation.

[37] ENS. (2006, February 24). Tibetans set endangered animal pelts ablaze, rousing Chinese ire. Environment News Service.

[38] See the two autobiographies of the Dalai Lama, My Land and My People and Freedom in Exile.

[39] Norbu, J. (2009, September 9). Waiting for Mangtso. Jamyang Norbu’s Blog. Retrieved from

[40] McConnell, F. (2011). Tibet’s new prime minister faces challenges ahead. East Asia Forum.

[41] The Australian. (2008, November 3). Dalai Lama’s “middle way” leading nowhere.

[42] The National. (2008, November 16). Dalai Lama’s “middle way” at stake.

[43] Phayul News Online, A Not So Special Meeting, by Jamyang Norbu, February 6, 2009.

[44] These observations are based on my own firsthand experience as a participant at the 1st Special Meeting held in Dharamsala on November 17-22, 2008.

[45] Dorjee, T. (2013, January 10). Why Lhakar Matters: The Elements of Tibetan Freedom. Tibetan Political Review.

[46] Sharp, G. (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Extending Horizon Books.