The Tibetan Struggle: The Balance Between Protest and Compliance?

Within the Tibetan movement for independence or true autonomy there seems to be two popular schools of action in regards to how the Chinese government should be dealt with: protest and compliance.

Within the school of protest we have followers who might engage in direct demonstration and confrontation against the Chinese government through protests, boycotts, education of a Tibetan history that directly conflicts with the Peoples Republic of China’s account, and protest missions within China itself which the PRC works hard to contain and suppress. The complete independence of Tibet and the withdrawal of the PRC would be sought after by followers of this school since anything else would be perceived as a form of concession to the PRC. Examples of organizations inclined towards this school of thought would be Students for a Free Tibet, Free Tibet Campaign, and International Tibet Independence Movement.

Followers within the school of compliance adopt a view which they perceive as more practical and pragmatic in approaching the Chinese. Certain demands from the PRC would be complied with in order to win favour and alleviate any tensions between the two groups so that negotiations can be made. This includes not engaging in direct protest and confrontation with the PRC and omission of past events in order for easier future progression to be made. Therefore past events may be perceived as irrelevant in negotiation. They may have also, under the same pragmatic approach, adopted a “middle path” plan in which they aim for true autonomy within Tibet and not for a full independent Tibet. An example of an organization within this school of thought would be the Tibetan Government in Exile, and its various other branches.

By using the example of these organizations as adherents of these “schools of thought/action” I don’t mean to imply that they are the two extremes of the spectrum or exact opposites. Meaning that although the TGIE engages in more compliance and concession, than the SFT, in order to deal with the PRC but they still engage in forms of protest and in fact the “Middle path” strategy also implies their view of taking a moderate approach.

In my opinion it is a mistake for anyone fighting for the Tibetan cause to completely or solely adopt one of these schools of action and thought as their approach in dealing with the PRC. Within these two schools of action and thought, there are both positive and negative reactions, outcomes, and effects. Thus in order to avoid the possible negative features of either approach, one must adopt both approaches in order to cover the flaws of both:


  • Pros: Warns the PRC that their actions are being monitored by those who protest their occupation of Tibet. Lets the PRC know that the Tibet issue and support is still strong and relevant thus the PRC’s unfair or immoral actions within Tibet can be expected to be met with an international outcry and direct opposition.
    • As a result the PRC might feel more inclined to be cautious of what reactions their actions in Tibet will create.
  • Cons: Further emboldens China‘s resolve to remain stubborn within Tibet. Inclines the PRC to be more suspicious towards those who might possibly be opposed to their occupation, particularly towards Tibetans.
    • Alerts China to remain closely watchful of Tibet related activities. Protests notify the PRC that the Tibet issue is still relevant and that people are still displeased and opposed to the Chinese control of Tibet.


  • Pros: Could do less to arouse the suspicion and anger of the PRC which then could make way for negotiations and talks to take place. Also gives the PRC a more favourable dealing on the Tibet issue instead of a complete and full withdrawal of the PRC from Tibet which followers of the other school wish to accomplish through pressure on the PRC.
    • The followers of this school of thought present themselves as advocates of a solution that is much more favourable for the PRC, thus making themselves more appealing to the PRC.
  • Cons: Possibly lull the PRC into a sense of unconditional authority to act as they wish within Tibet. Also might give the impression that the Tibetan struggle has been severely weakened or died since moderate actions are less likely to draw international coverage and thus resulting in a possible loss of international support for the Tibet struggle.
    • Would also involve the approval of the PRC’s account of Tibet’s history, thus the retraction of our claim as a previously independent nation.

Much of my views on this may be projected through my perception of the nature of the Chinese government, so feel free to disagree.



12 thoughts on “The Tibetan Struggle: The Balance Between Protest and Compliance?

  1. Anonymous

    It is a flaw that we Tibetans have in assuming that a pragmatic approach means giving up or retracting our initial claim as Tibet being independent. Giving the Chinese too much of an undue advantage by making too many concessions on our part can ultimately lead to the voiding or nullification of the aforementioned claim. I cannot be certain what the ideal practical approach would be in our case, but in the case of a deal struck with the application of the “compliance” method, I am thoroughly convinced that the accepting of the Chinese version of the history of Tibet – which would be a sure consequence of the compromises we make – is anything but practical. Such an agreement if made would be reminiscent of the 17 point agreement, which was violated by the Chinese even though everything on the agreement was blatantly stacked to only meet their interests and was signed under duress by the Tibetan delegation. This is my critique of the “compliance” approach.

    From where I stand I can only see more problems, and deeper ones too, if we ever decide to drastically change our stance to meet the demands of the Chinese. I absolutely agree with you when you say that we need to implement both approaches in order to maximize our side of the deal while keeping the red dragon minimally satisfied.

  2. sburris

    While figuring out China’s Gross Domestic Product is difficult, at best, it’s safe to say that the economy represents, with potentially 1.3 billion customers, a market of real interest for the capitalistic countries around the world. Power here is figured in the very real terms of money, and the Chinese know quite well that many humans rights abuses will be overlooked by those who are feathering their nests in China’s markets. Compliance with China is dangerous and resistance is futile, in many cases. The middle path outlined above seems the only path, but that is simply an idea. What are the specifics? One thing, the point made in the comment, is very clear: history cannot be compromised. The facts of the Chinese occupation and oppression of Tibet and Tibetans must be insisted upon and argued for, firmly, quietly, insistently.

    And on the practical side of things, as March 10 approaches, and as the Tibetans begin their march from Dharamsala to Tibet, the eyes of the world must somehow be kept trained on them. World opinion, one person at a time, can have an effect: Gandhi showed this, Martin Luther King Jr., showed.

  3. Jigme32

    Good comments. You both agree that history cannot be compromised. But what if we had to accept the Chinese account of history in order to make progress in our talks and dealings with China, would it be in our best interest to overlook where we truthfully disagree but instead proceed to pragmatically agree, and accept, in order to make productive gains?

    Also does this boil down to pride? I heard Samdup Rinpoche say at the Tibetan North American University Conference that many of those Tibetans who advocate for a Free Tibet do it out of pride which clouds their judgment on what is the best and (in their view) the realistic solution for Tibet. How fair is that assessment?

  4. sburris

    The spiritual dimension–which you bring up with the mention of a lama–interjects another dimension entirely. The Buddhist perspective on political action is still being worked out in the West–Is it feasible, in fact? If so, how so? How tied up are political solutions with various forms of greed and power which Buddhist views of the self and human life reject entirely? And so forth . . .–and in India, at least, Gandhi’s nonviolent perspective is still prominent within the Tibetan community, although there are, of course, other perspectives. But this is a vital topic worthy of another posting entirely. Maybe I’ll try to start something over on TIBETSPACE as well. I mean, what does a Buddhist politics look like?

    I can’t imagine, myself, agreeing to a compromised history. Chinese history books now are “slanted,” to say the least, if not simply fictitious, and a truncated history would be a severe price to pay for any sort of autonomy. In fact, in the face of historical lies–such as Tibet was simply “modernized” by the PRC–I would suggest that any autonomy Tibet might receive would be substantially weakened. How can a country thrive without its contemporary life growing out of an accurate record of its past?

    Or so it seems to me now.

  5. Rich

    China has absolutely no interest in talking, only at laughing at people who bow to them. This applies in everything they do whether it’s politics or business. The only way you will ever get anywhere with them is remaining steadfast and showing that you’re not intimidated by their demands that you bow to them. There’s nothing pragmatic about ignoring this (ugly) aspect of Chinese culture.

  6. Anonymous

    My stance is both.I totally agree with all that you wrote here.

    P:S -I am just not sure if it does justice to the Tibetan government in exile by categorizing it to organization. Perhaps ICT would be a good example. It seemed to me that you were undermining the role of our govt in exile by putting in the examples of organizations in relation to SFT, IIM, etc.

  7. Anonymous

    And also I don’t agree with what Rich wrote. If we read what Jigme wrote in clear terms without any biases and pre-notions, we can carefully rethink about our stances from there on. His analysis surely does justice to the current situation.

  8. Rich

    My “biases and pre-notions” are Chinese history – that is, knowing your enemy. Going to the negotiating table just considering your opponent as a generic human being, or worse yet as a duplicate of yourself with the same kind of values and motivations as yourself, is a big mistake in any endeavor.

    Culturally, Chinese value deceiving others and taking advantage of them. That’s not to say all Chinese people or people of Chinese descent are like that, but it’s a millennia-old value in China, and a very nasty one that they need to throw away. Read Sun Tzu and see what I mean.

    Repeatedly falling for China’s deceit only reinforces their bad behavior. If one’s goal is not only to end China’s domination of Tibet but also to transform China into a respectable part of the world, it’s in everyone’s best interest to show them that bullying and trickery do not work. China in its current form is a threat to the whole world.

  9. Anonymous

    Because the Tibetan culture and identity is at stake here, it is my belief that middle-path has actually started something.

  10. Jigme32

    You bring up some good points Rich, especially about the values of the Chinese people in reference to the deception tactics taught by Sun Tzu.

    However there are also other Chinese teaching thats say “He who cannot agree with his enemies is controlled by them”, so in that sense doesn’t this at least show a Chinese tradition/teaching that allows for the possibility of a chance for the PRC to make some concessions with Tibetans?


    Rich said:
    “The only way you will ever get anywhere with them is remaining steadfast and showing that you’re not intimidated by their demands that you bow to them.”

    What makes you believe this method? Has a similar stance taken by another group against PRC worked?

  11. Rich

    Jigme, I believe the stance I advocated works all the time. It’s the way successful Western businessmen regularly deal with the Chinese. It doesn’t mean they necessarily step all over China (although I’m sure plenty do), but it does mean that they recognize when they’re being treated unfairly and stand up for themselves. The ones who fail to do so just end up getting taken advantage of. I’m not an expert myself on doing business in China, but this is what I hear from people who study the subject, even strongly pro-Chinese ones.

    Beyond business, I think the same is true of governments. China makes a huge fuss when the US, Germany, and Canada stand up to their threatening rhetoric about damaging trade ties, but look who the nations are that have strong working relationships with China without getting pushed around by the Chinese. They even just reiterated their welcome to Merkel despite her steadfast stance on Tibet. On the other hand, all the African and Central and South American nations China has dealings with get forced into submissive roles by bowing down to everything China demands of them.

    I also have some personal experience with this principle in dealing with Chinese university students. Last fall I crashed their Beijing 2008 expo party at UVa, distributing pamphlets with official-looking material on the outside but pro-Tibet literature inside. They tried lots of threats including claiming that my use of the Olympic logos infringed copyright, but the more I asserted my rights and refused to back down and leave, the more they took interest in actually discussing the issues. The guy who was initially the most threatening actually turned out to be the most open-minded. And despite my “crashing their party” to some extent they actually invited me to stay and participate in the games for prizes at the end of the program. I tried to win the Yingsel doll, but sadly didn’t quite make it to the final round.

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