Security or Nationalism? Making Sense of Tibetan Resistance against China

Tibetans protest Chinese rule in 2009.

Memo #247

By Tsering Topgyal – t.topgyal [at]

Scholarship on the Sino-Tibetan conflict maintains a primarily binary representation of the Chinese as security-driven and the Tibetans as ethno-nationalistic. In reality, for Tibetans it is the sense of identity security or insecurity (that is, the relative prospects for the survival and reproduction of their identity) that informs and explains the vigorously contested positions of autonomy versus independence that exist among the Tibetan resistance movement both within and outside Tibet.

Historically, the relative conditions and prospects for identity security as guaranteed through local autonomy appear to determine whether Tibetans tolerate or resist foreign domination. This is as true for Tibetans’ contemporary response to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule as it was for Tibetans’ historical response to Mongol, Manchu and Nationalist Chinese domination, whether in Eastern Tibet or in Lhasa. In the present context of CCP misrule, Tibetans’ choice to struggle for autonomy rather than independence has overwhelmingly to do with the Dalai Lama’s decision to compromise (formally since 1988, but in actuality since the late 1970s) and his leadership of the autonomy movement, otherwise known as the Middle Way Approach, which has been shaped by his perception of Beijing’s openness to negotiations for greater autonomy for a unified Tibet. A principle of historical and legal entitlement drives the advocates of full independence to some extent, but like their autonomy-seeking brethren, what is fundamentally at stake for them too is identity security. As Jamyang Norbu wrote, “Rimpoche [Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother] was convinced that Tibet needed independence not for some exalted ideological reason but as a fundamental condition, an essential requisite for the survival of the people, their language, their culture and even their religion” (italics added).

The policy lesson is clear: in the future, if they are granted concrete powers of self-direction in the areas of culture and identity, most Tibetans would not be opposed to Chinese rule. If Tibetans agitate for independence, it is because they lack control and ownership over their future and have concluded that full independence is the best guarantor of identity security.

Tsering Topgyal is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. Tsering’s book The Insecurity Dilemma and the Sino-Tibetan Conflict will be published by Hurst/Oxford University Press in 2014. His paper, “Identity Insecurity and the Tibetan Resistance Against China,” appeared in the September 2013 issue of Pacific Affairs.

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Tibetans of Amdo Bora (Sangchu County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China) protest Chinese rule in March 2008 (photo courtesy of CTV).

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