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Prior to 2008, China seemed to have two Tibet policies: one severely hard-line for central Tibet (the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR), and another, slightly less repressive policy in Tibetan areas outside the TAR. After widespread protests swept across Tibet in 2008, however, Chinese authorities began expanding their hard-line policies from central Tibet into other areas of the Tibetan plateau. Over the past five years, nearly all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have been subjected to intense monitoring—including the stationing of police inside the monasteries—and the widely reviled ‘political education’ of monks and nuns has been stepped up. Tibetans have been subjected to tighter travel restrictions, increased militarization of their homeland, and an escalation of discrimination. Moreover, the Chinese state has intensified efforts to ‘modernize’ Tibetan areas through investment-driven growth that has primarily benefitted non-Tibetan migrants and marginalized the local population.


This increased pressure on Tibetan communities has fed a sense of despair and frustration that has seemingly found a tragic outlet in more than 120 self-immolations since 2009, most of which have been by monks and nearly all of which have taken place outside the TAR. Beijing has responded with further repression. This vicious downward spiral has both deepened Tibetan mistrust of the Chinese state and people, and intensified the Chinese party-state’s drive to crush what it views as nationalist separatism. Yet as the self-immolations have continued, the Dalai Lama has expressed doubts that these extreme acts will prompt improvement in Tibet’s situation.


Against this bleak backdrop, indications that some official Chinese intellectuals and authorities have been rethinking the hard-line approach created a stir last month. In a striking interview with a Hong Kong journal, Professor Jin Wei, an ethnic affairs specialist at the Central Party School, argued that the repressive policies had failed and urged the adoption of a more pragmatic approach including cooperation with the Dalai Lama. There were also reports that officials in the Tsolho area of Qinghai Province were experimenting with a more conciliatory approach to the Tibetan community after several consultations with community leaders, including senior Tibetan lamas.


While most veteran Tibet watchers remained skeptical that this marked a real course correction, others—including the Dalai Lama—expressed hopes that this could signal a departure from the zero-sum policies of the Hu Jintao era and toward a more pragmatic approach under China’s new leader Xi Jinping. This hope appeared rooted in a broader belief that Xi’s more open and pragmatic leadership style can fundamentally alter the party-state’s approach to solving its most vexing problems.


Unfortunately, hopes for a kinder, gentler Tibet policy were quickly crushed. On July 6, Chinese police opened fire on a crowd of Tibetans, mostly monks and nuns, who had gathered on a sacred hillside in eastern Tibet to mark the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Two monks were shot in the head and others were seriously injured. This tragic event was followed by a flurry of reports from Chinese state media refuting any loosening of the hard-line policy and reiterating the need to crack down on ‘splittists’ and strengthen the fight against the ‘Dalai clique.’ The most recent independent reports indicate a retrenchment on restrictions of Tibetan religious expression and use of coercive measures across the plateau.


Sadly, the situation continues to deteriorate, with Tibetans becoming more entrenched in their resistance to Beijing’s increasingly harsh rule. While the underlying goal of Professor Jin Wei’s work is preservation of Chinese rule in Tibet, she is making an argument that this can be achieved through a more humane and respectful policy. In the near term, her suggestions seem unlikely to be embraced, but the mere fact that she is making this argument (and it appears to have some traction within the Chinese system) shows that some realize the current policies have failed—not only for the Tibetans, but for China as well.


Kelley Currie is a special contributor to the Freedom Square blog. Kelley is a Senior Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, Kelley served as an advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs.


 To learn more about the freedom movement in Tibet, go to the Freedom Collection’s interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.