Potala Palace, Tibet

For those still nursing dreams of a free Tibet ruled by a smiling, benevolent Dalai Lama, Stephen Hartnett has some bad news.

“It’s over, they’re crushed,” said Prof. Hartnett, PhD, chairman of the University of Colorado Denver Department of Communication. “They have been turned into the Palestinians of Asia.”

His conclusions, published in July’s Quarterly Journal of Speech, are based on extensive travels in Tibet and among the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal, India, and Hong Kong.

In Tibet, occupied by China for 63 years, Hartnett finds a people rapidly being colonized and displaced by Chinese newcomers employing repression and modernization to marginalize an ethnically distinct culture.

But in the diaspora, he finds seeds of hope.

“The old, political Tibet is gone but I believe a new Tibet is being planted in places like Dharamsala, India where a sophisticated shadow government is fully operational,” he said. “Unlike the `old’ Tibet, which was a remote, feudal aristocracy, the diaspora is young, savvy and heavily wired into the rest of the world.”

Roaming dogs and `liberation’

Over the past five summers, Hartnett and several colleagues traveled through China, India, Hong Kong and Nepal, analyzing public representations of Tibetans.

Recently, they interviewed Tibetan exiles in India and Nepal about their future aspirations. They were also seeking insight into the rash of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese occupation. These flaming suicides, over 100 last year, have become so common that some Chinese police now carry fire extinguishers.

“Like the Palestinian youth who greet Israeli tanks with rocks, or the peasant Zapatistas who reply to Mexican warplanes with poems or the young Kurds who stand up to Turkish and Iraqi troops with peaceful marches, Tibet’s immolators are committing desperate yet insurgent acts meant to counter both the foreign occupation of their land and the ongoing mismanagement of their hopes by entrenched elites,” Hartnett wrote in his paper entitled, `Tibet is Burning.

Tibetans, he said, are pitted against a massive state apparatus bent on recreating Tibet it its own image.

“In heavily Tibetan areas of China you will find a town with dogs roaming the streets and on the corner there will be this gleaming new museum built to celebrate the `liberation’ of Tibet,” Hartnett said. “In the monasteries, the monks play a game of putting out portraits of the Dalai Lama, which are forbidden, and then hiding them when the police arrive.”

The Dalai Lama is seen by the Chinese in much the same way Osama bin Ladin is viewed by Americans.

“They consider him a terrorist,” Hartnett said. “When I talk to my Chinese students about the occupation of Tibet they ask when the U.S. is going to give the Native Americans back their land or when we will return the Southwest to Mexico. The answer of course is never and that’s how the Chinese see the likelihood of giving up Tibet.”

Part of China’s strategy to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans is to modernize the vast, rugged `roof of the world’ with airports, trains, shopping malls and gigantic building projects, Hartnett said.

From a communications standpoint, they have changed the narrative from one of conquest to one of liberation.

In his study, Harnett describes how the government built an enormous complex across the street from the iconic Potala Palace in Tibet’s capital Lhasa.

“The Potala Palace, the historical center of Tibetan Buddhism and the most important landmark in downtown Lhasa, now sits on the north side of Beijing East Road; just across the street, the Chinese Communist Party has built an immense, Tiananmen-style square that features the Tibet Peaceful Liberation Monument, around which Chinese settlers are encouraged to gather for singing, speeches and flag waving, and other ceremonies marking the `liberation’ of Tibet. From the perspective of Tibetan activists, Chinese settlers are encouraged to gather in the shadow of one of Tibet’s holiest sites to dance on the grave of Tibet’s lost independence.”

Hope among the exiles

Among Tibetans in India and Nepal, Hartnett found an entirely different perspective. Some believed liberation was right around the corner, either peacefully or through violence.

“I met a young Tibetan activist who believed the United Nations was poised to take action on its own,” Hartnett said. “Another activist believed that the U.S. or Europe would be coming to their rescue. It was very exciting yet at the same time, I am afraid, unrealistic.”

Other exiled Tibetans warned that when the politically moderate Dalai Lama dies, Tibet will explode into violence.

In the meantime, Hartnett said, many are taking charge of their futures, building a nation where they are, rather than waiting for a day of return that may never come. He compared them to Kurds and Palestinians, essentially stateless people molding their national identities elsewhere.

Perhaps that’s just as well, because Hartnett believes China’s current plan for Tibet is to `stonewall, defer, deflect and wait for the Dalai Lama to die, end of game.’

And the plan appears to be working.

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