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  • Contemporary Tibet: Politics,Development, and Society in a Disputed Region
  • Ronald Schwartz (bio)
Barry SautmanJune Teufel Dreyer, editors. Contemporary Tibet: Politics, Development, and Society in a Disputed Region. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006. vii, 360 pp. Hardcover $89.95, ISBN 0–7656–1354–9. Paperback $30.95, ISBN 0–7656–1357–3.

This volume edited by Barry Sautman and June Teufel Dreyer, consisting of fifteen contributions from scholars located both in the PRC and outside, contains a number of interesting and important articles that help to conceptualize the social, political, and economic dimensions of contemporary Tibet. But the collection suffers from its insistence that the papers address in one way or another the overarching theme of the “Tibet Question”—the contest over the political status of Tibet between the exile government of the Dalai Lama and the government of the PRC. Much of the effort of the contributors goes toward demonstrating that arguments between the principal actors over autonomy and self-determination, sovereignty, and ethnic identity are couched in terms that reproduce diametrically opposed representations of Tibetan history and society. Thus, the Tibetan sense of nationhood is shown to be a modern invention rather than a historical reality, used by Tibetan exiles and their supporters to garner international support. The discourse about democratic governance and respect for human rights is also seen to derive from Western liberal ideals, and thus is perceived by the leaders of the PRC to reflect imperialist designs aimed at undermining China’s unity and independence. Western representations of Tibet and Tibetans as uniquely peaceful and spiritual have in turn figured in a politics of identity, particularly in the diaspora and on the international political stage. In the same way, important substantive questions, such as the benefits of economic development and the scale and consequences of Han migration into Tibetan areas, and demographic questions, including the extent of Tibetan losses from famine, conflict, and incarceration during the 1960s, are aligned with opposing stands on the Tibet Question. It certainly sounds reasonable to suggest, as the editors do in their introduction, that “mutual accommodation” will be possible only once all of the involved parties can see past the rigidity of the “binary opposites” that frame the Tibet Question. Unfortunately, the discussion in some of the papers adopts a debunking style, attacking the presuppositions and the evidence supporting mainly exile claims. No doubt there is much in these claims that is false or exaggerated—and many of the exile demands are impractical or impossible given the realities of Chinese and international politics. But focusing the analysis on issues pertinent to the Tibet Question unnecessarily narrows the scope for an investigation into the realities of Chinese-administered Tibet and the changes that have occurred there over the last half century. [End Page 203]

Perhaps the paper that comes closest to realizing this larger aim is Robert Barnett’s study of Tibetan cadres. Barnett is one of the few Tibetan scholars to investigate how the Chinese system as it has been applied in Tibet actually works and how the range of action for Tibetan cadres is affected by shifts in policy over time. He rejects a monolithic view of cadres as simple instruments of the state (or in the case of Tibetans, “collaborators”) and focuses instead on internal divergence and ambiguity—on the practice of “strategic concealment.” Barnett is applying a model that is commonplace throughout the PRC and especially relevant to other nationality areas, such as Inner Mongolia—but surprisingly absent from discussions of Tibet. Within this framework Tibetan cadres have been able to effect local interpretations of official policies and launch “non-oppositional” initiatives that advance Tibetan interests and take advantage of state-mandated “public space.” But Barnett is pessimistic about the future. The range of allowable public discourse has been steadily contracting over at least the last decade, and the ethnic divide between the Chinese leadership and the Tibetan cadre force has grown wider, fueled by mutual distrust and rising Chinese nationalism.

A number of papers question the concepts that frame the debate over Tibet’s status and its future political prospects: national sovereignty, democracy, human rights, autonomy, and independence. These can indeed be...