Regional Excellence - Regional Governance: Tibet Style

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Regional Governance:  Tibet Style

 by Bill Dodge
December 23, 2011

“There is a big competition between world peace and world war, between the force of mind and the force of materialism, between democracy and totalitarianism. And now within this century, the force of peace is gaining the upper hand.”  XIV Dalai Lama

Tibet has a population less that many urban regions in the states, but covers a land mass larger than any rural region, much of it above tree line in snow-capped mountains.  So why have I chosen to give Tibet consideration in a column on regional governance?  In part, because it was the highlight of my recent travels.  More importantly, because it illustrates the power that can be abused by a national government to shape the future of even an “autonomous region”.

The facts:  Tibet, or the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as the People’s Republic of China calls it, has a population of 2.7 million spread over an area larger than Alaska and Texas combined.  Its capital, Lhasa, has a population of approximately 500,000. 

More Tibetans live outside the TAR.  Another 3.3 million in other Chinese provinces.  And approximately 120,000 in exile, many in the Dharamsala region of India, where the XIV Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile are based.

Tibet strives to be independent and is, at best, a reluctant Chinese province.  Protests, and regrettably self-immolations, occur on a monthly basis.  Larger outbursts occur periodically and often spread quickly across Tibet. On March 10, 2008, for example, the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile, monks in various monasteries triggered protests across Tibet resulting in 19 deaths.

To prevent demonstrations, China posts military police throughout the country, including at each key intersection, temple, and monastery in Lhasa.  It limits the number of monks and reduces the size of monasteries, taking away the agricultural lands that once helped finance them.  Now, China is building cinderblock checkpoints for the military police. 

I personally encountered the intensity of these efforts to suppress opposition.  As a mountain climber, I innocently asked whether there were trails up the small hills in downtown Lhasa.  The response:  there are, but foreigners are not allowed to hike them.  Why?  Because they might try to wave a Tibetan flag at the summit.

While suppressing any opposition, China is investing heavily in making Tibet Chinese.  It offers Chinese soldiers, families, and businesses substantial financial incentives to relocate in Tibet.  It builds manufacturing plants and housing to entice relocatees.  Given the congestion and pollution in most of mainland China, it might not take too many incentives to relocate to blue skies and breathable air.  And now, the newly-completed 1215-mile Qinghai-Tibet railway enables relocatees to connect by train to any destination in mainland China. Not surprisingly, half of the Tibetan population is now relocatees and the percentage keeps growing.

Tibet increasingly resembles mainland China.  Whereas the temples and monasteries still stand, they are now surrounded by new housing and shops.  Grand plazas are built adjacent to temples and monasteries, and prominently used to showcase Chinese history and holidays.  Schools mimic their Chinese counterparts, still teaching the Tibetan language, but primarily preparing students to be good Mandarin-speaking Chinese citizens.

Tibet illustrates the downside of an all-powerful national government.  China can undermine and destroy people and cultures as easily as undergird and support them.  It is difficult to envision a future where Tibetan culture is much more than a tourist attraction, a high altitude Disneyland.  The current Dalai Lama has instituted democratic governance, delegating his political powers to representatives elected by Tibetans in exile.  The Chinese show little interest in following his lead and have already selected their candidate for the XV Dalai Lama.

Needless to say, I found the visit to Tibet a bittersweet experience.  I was glad to be there enjoying the interactions with the Tibetan people, culture, and geography.  The matriarch in a nomadic family asked if I was interested in becoming her fourth husband, after the translator indicated that I also lived in the mountains.  Polyandry is alive and well in rural Tibet, along with a diet of yak meat, mostly raw, yak butter tea, and barley.  I declined the offer but hope I can return to a Tibet that respects her culture in the future.

What can we learn about regional governance from Tibet?    That higher levels of government need to exercise great care in governing, including fostering regional cooperation. 

China is swiftly realizing the consequences of top-down authoritarian rule.  Protests are mushrooming as rapidly as economic growth.  And protests are not limited to Tibet.  In 2010, an estimated 180,000 “mass incidents”  --  strikes, sit-ins, rallies and some violent clashes  --   occurred in mainland China;  ten to twenty times the number in the mid-1990s. 

A recent example:  This year, protests in Wukan, a village of 20,000, resulted in driving out corrupt local officials.  After four months, and foreign reporters taking up Wukan’s cause, the provincial government is offering concessions to villagers over illegally-seized farmland and the death of a village leader.

 In the states, we need the top down involvement of national and state governments, but in the form of carrots, such as creative financial aid, and even some sticks, such as holding regions accountable, to encourage pursuing bold regional actions.  However, the actions themselves need to be the product of bottom-up regional planning processes that engage and enable citizens to tap their “better natures” and do the “right things”.   Moreover, the top-down involvement needs to assure that regions build the capacity to successfully implement agreed-upon actions and empower citizens to monitor and participate in their implementation. 

Governance Boldness with Public Accountability.  Such is probably the only hope for charting a competitive future in a messy democracy and I would never suggest proceeding otherwise.  May the XIV Dalai Lama be right about which forces prevail in the 21st century!

Again, only impressions of short-term traveler overseas, and a battered regionalist at home, but food for thought for future columns.


Bill Dodge is looking for a few good regions that are interested in designing regional charters to strengthen their capacity to take bold actions to address tough common challenges.  He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters.