Last week, while attending a democracy conference in Peru, I met dozens of activists, journalists, parliamentarians, and political prisoners from various corners of the world. Almost everyone I spoke with wanted to know one thing about Tibet. Will the upcoming Chinese leadership transition bring change to Tibet? Will Xi Jinping change Tibet in a way Hu Jintao didn't?
"Dictators don't bring change," I reminded them. "It's the people who make change by forcing the hands of the dictators."
In this sense, Tibet has already changed. At the moment, this change may be hard to notice, as Tibet reels under a wave of self-immolations exacerbated by China's escalating repression. Just this past week seven Tibetans set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. In the last 12 months, roughly 60 Tibetans have burned themselves for freedom - this means every six days, a Tibetan goes up in flames.
Tragic as this wave of self-immolations is, one must look beyond the headlines to hear the incredibly uplifting stories of noncooperation, cultural renaissance, and creative resistance that have transformed Tibetan activism - and changed Tibet irreversibly. In the bigger arc of Tibetan resistance, China has already lost Tibet; its control over Tibet remains purely military in nature, which has become vastly overextended.
Amid this difficult chapter in Tibetan history, it is important to remember that there are many reasons to be hopeful about Tibet's future. Below are just five of them.
REASON 1: Freedom is contagious. From Burma to Tunisia to Yemen to Egypt, democratic forces are winning. Of course the transition from dictatorship to democracy - and from occupation to freedom - has its challenges, but these are challenges Tibetans are eager to embrace. As freedom around the world expands, the brotherhood of dictatorships is increasingly isolated. This net growth in freedom and democracy worldwide will impact Tibet, China, and other leftover police states at every level - psychological, social, cultural and political. China leads the unfree world but this world is shrinking, leading to an erosion of the Chinese Communist Party's domestic control and global legitimacy.
REASON 2: Noncooperation in Tibet. Tibetan activists, who have traditionally relied on high-risk protest tactics, are now adding to their arsenal the more low-key but potent tools of noncooperation and direct intervention: they're boycotting Chinese businesses and institutions. In Kardze and Ngaba, Tibetans avoid Chinese restaurants, choosing to support to Tibetan restaurants - a Gandhian example of economic noncooperation. In Khawa Karpo eastern Tibet, tired of protesting Chinese mining companies, Tibetan villagers pushed $300,000 worth of mining equipment into the river - a model of direct intervention. Among all the nonviolent tactics, noncooperation and direct intervention have the best track record of dismantling the pillars of oppression.
REASON 3: Lhakar weaponizes culture. Lhakar, a homegrown grassroots movement using culture to advance freedom, is shifting power away from the Chinese occupiers and into the hands of every Tibetan. Lhakar has reversed five decades of China's campaign to sinicize Tibetan culture. Tibetans are proudly wearing their traditional dress, speaking and texting in Tibetan, and using art, literature, poetry and music to express their desire for freedom and faith in the Dalai Lama. Songs, books and music videos with politically charged lyrics routinely become best-sellers in Tibet, signaling a modern Tibetan renaissance. In many anti-colonial struggles, successful political revolutions were preceded by cultural renaissance, which is now in full swing in Tibet. Lhakar makes it easier - and less costly - for everyone to participate in activism, thus increasing the long-term costs to the Chinese government. China's hold over the unruly Tibetan plateau has never been weaker, and Tibetan resistance has never been stronger.
REASON 4: Internet = information = freedom. The Chinese government's hold on Tibet, as well as China, depends on its totalitarian control over information and ability to keep its masses ignorant. Today this control is fragile, thanks to the Internet. The Chinese government faces a much more formidable foe in its own people than it did a decade ago, because of the speed at which information now travels. Beijing's censorship apparatus is routinely defeated by the ingenuity of Chinese and Tibetan netizens searching for the truth and refusing to be firewalled.
REASON 5: Dictatorships also age and die. Totalitarianism is a dead end. The CCP has been able to survive until now by tweaking its system, but tweaks are no longer enough to save it from growing public unrest, looming environmental devastation, endemic corruption and a slowing economy. According to China scholar Minxin Pei, one-party dictatorships have inherent flaws in their foundation that limit their existence beyond several decades, even in the case of the most enduring regimes. The Soviet Union crumbled in its 74th year, the Mexican regime in its 71st year, the Kuomintang in its 73rd year. The CCP is 63 years old and, Pei argues, has little more than 10 years left on its clock - if it's lucky enough to survive that long.
Now is not the time to despair. It is the time to take action and tip the scales of history toward freedom in Tibet. A free Tibet, aside from protecting Asia's water tower and providing a buffer between the world's two most populous (and nuclear) nations, will enshrine nonviolence as the supreme weapon for resolving conflict and fighting oppression.
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