Throughout China's long and turbulent history, no people along its imperial fringes have been such a nuisance to the Middle Kingdom as the Tibetans are today. However, unlike neighboring Xinjiang or Eastern Turkestan which is wracked by sporadic violence, Tibet poses no military threat to the People's Republic of China. Neither the Dalai Lama nor the Central Tibetan Administration question China's sovereignty over Tibet in any future settlement of the issue.
Regardless of this, Tibet is a challenge for China. The challenge comes from not what the Tibetans are doing to China but from what they are doing to themselves.
Witness the 127 young Tibetans from across Tibet who since 2009 set themselves on fire, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland and freedom for Tibet. Regardless of the merits and de-merits of such acts, and there are plenty of arguments on both sides, these unnerve the Chinese authorities. Such acts recall China's own revolutionary past when Chinese individually and collectively sacrificed their all for the ideal of unified, just and egalitarian China. These acts also point in a fiery blaze of Tibetan determination to the fact that China physically controls Tibet but not Tibetan hearts and minds.
In any other society, such unprecedented protests would lead to anguished soul-searching and genuine attempts made to redress the stated grievances. In Tibet, the response is the thud of the iron-fist coming down on the fiery protestors, or what's left of them, their family members or their villages, imposition of tighter control of news flow and total lockdown.
The other Tibetan challenge constitutes a set of principles that the refugees have incorporated into their exile administration: non-violence, democracy, cultural renewal, and the growth of civil society. The challenge consists in the speed with which the Tibetan exiles have re-constituted their culture in exile and successfully re-interpreted the universalism of its values to the international community.
China has no earthly reason to fear this challenge. No matter how many Tibetans set themselves on fire or whatever uplifting principles the Tibetan refugees might have incorporated into the exile body politics, these pose no danger to China. In fact, Chinese leaders liken these efforts to "a fly flapping its wings against the king of mountains."
And they are right, to an extent. Tibet is firmly under Chinese control. It is now a part of the People's Republic of China since 1951 when the 17-Point Agreement was signed between Lhasa and Beijing, which is the legal instrument used by the Chinese authorities to justify the incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China. Despite Tibetan protests about the legality of the 17-Point Agreement, all governments, including that of India, do not question China's sovereignty over Tibet.
Another crucial point in China's favor is that the position of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Tibet is unassailable, reinforced and serviced by a network of all-weather roads, airports and an expanding web of railway lines that make troop deployment and transport of supplies rapid. China's strong and assertive military presence in Tibet is cemented by the state-subsidized economic boom Beijing has sparked off on the plateau that continues to attract China's real "foot soldiers," the migrant workers who demographically and culturally overwhelm the Tibetans in cities, towns, and in the job market. Chinese companies exploit at will the vast, diverse and untapped natural resources of Tibet. In its more than sixty years of occupation of the plateau, China's position has never been better or stronger.
However, all this is accomplished in an ideological and spiritual vacuum. The country's earlier revolutionary zeal has been replaced by a frontier town attitude. There is no guiding light, no moral compass. This moral vacuum has spawned all the major domestic problems that plague China today: entrenched, almost institutionalized, corruption, rising inequality, vicious land grabs and poisoned rivers. Only now President Xi Jinping and his team are addressing these issues in a serious and effective manner.
On this side of the Himalayas, the Tibetan exiles have been undergoing a quiet revolution of their own. It is nothing as dramatic as China's recent revolutionary past or its dazzling ongoing economic transformation. What the Tibetan exiles have managed to accomplish outside of their country, however, will have an impact deep into Tibet's and China's own future. The accomplishment is nothing less than the renewal and rejuvenation of Tibetan culture and its spread to the world. This renewal process has been strengthened by the re-establishment in exile of the key monastic institutions and the thick and growing network of cultural and spiritual resources that underpin the community and Tibetan Buddhism. The cultural renewal is accomplished within a democratic political environment that has triggered the talent and creativity of a new generation of Tibetan political leaders.
This has produced a vibrant, cohesive and productive community, constantly renewed and stimulated in the exhilarating freedom of India. In short, by his tireless efforts, the Dalai Lama has transformed one's people's political struggle into a whole civilization's right to exist and flourish. In the process, the Dalai Lama has created a strong, worldwide cultural and spiritual constituency for Tibet. By spurning the Dalai Lama, China is not just spurning the Tibetan people alone. China is spurning a composite, rejuvenated civilization and all the goodwill that goes with it.