Tibetan studies in Australia: politics

Researchers in Australia have long made an important contribution to our understanding of the politics of contemporary Tibet. This contribution continues today, with a new generation of scholars shining light on Tibetan society and its complicated relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Writing over five years ago, Colin Mackerras noted Australia’s surprising strength when it comes to the study of Tibet, highlighting the diverse work of a range of Australia-based scholars. 1Mackerras, C. 2011. ‘Tibet studies in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore’, Asian Ethnicity 12(3):265-83. In this brief review, I focus on new research related to the politics of Tibet since the publication of Mackerras’ 2011 report.

He Baogang, Alfred Deakin Professor and Personal Chair in International Relations at Deakin University, has a longstanding interest in the ‘Tibet problem’ in both Chinese politics and international relations. His new book draws together a number of previously published articles and new material to explore how democratic governance can offer a viable solution to the place and status of Tibet within China. 2He Baogang. 2015. Governing Taiwan and Tibet: Democratic Approaches. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. He argues that new forms of democratic governance, chiefly a deliberative referendum, could help solve contentious national issues, such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan.

Ben Hillman at the Australian National University has spent nearly two decades studying the Tibetan communities of Southwest China, exploring ethnic policy and governance issues, as well as the important role that patronage and power plays in sustaining CCP rule in rural frontier areas. 3Hillman, B. 2014. Patronage and power: Local state networks and party-state resilience in rural China. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press; Hillman, B. & G. Tuttle. 2016. Ethnic Conflict & Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang. New York: Columbia University Press. He is currently working on a new project that seeks to document the agency and diversity of Tibetan lives in a rapidly changing China. Using a series of life stories, the project seeks to move beyond stereotypes to reveal the complex ways Tibetans pursue their life chances and the implications for Tibetan identity and culture. Hillman is one of Australia’s leading experts on the politics of ethnicity in China, and has recently teamed up with Gerald Roche and myself to explore how urbanization functions not only as a tool of ethnic governance for the Party-state but also as dynamic sites for Tibetan counter-mobilization across the Tibetan plateau. 4https://tinyurl.com/tibetcit

In my own work on ethnic policy in China, I’ve sought to highlight the unique challenges Tibet and Xinjiang present for Party leaders in Beijing. 5Leibold, J. 2013. Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable? Honolulu: East-West Center; Leibold, J. 2016. ‘Interethnic Conflict in the PRC: Xinjiang and Tibet as Exceptions?’, in Hillman, B. & G. Tuttle (eds.) 2016. Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang. New York: Columbia University Press. These two remote yet highly strategic territories possess demographic majorities that share neither the same culture nor belief system as the one billion strong Han ethnic community. While the Party-state claims ‘Chinese’ links with these regions going back centuries, there is a strong memory of recent colonialism that is exasperated by a heavy-handed, top-down security strategy. While some advocate a second generation of ethnic policies, aimed at weakening minority rights and identities, stability maintenance (weiwen) remains the abiding priority, meaning the current approach of more intrusive governance and state-led developmentalism continues to drive Beijing’s approach to the two regions.

The Melbourne-based independent scholar Gabriel Lafitte has spent most of his life documenting the colonial nature of Chinese rule over Tibet. His 2013 book, Spoiling Tibet, highlights the resource nationalism behind the extraction of mineral resources (copper, gold, silver, uranium, etc.) from the Tibetan plateau, 6Lafitte, G. 2013. Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World. London: Zed Books. and more recently, he has been exploring the appropriation of the plateau’s water resources for bottled water, hydro-electric power and now its diversion to other parts of China as a part of the South-North Water Transfer Project. Much of Lafitte’s research can be found through his blog, Rukor. 7http://rukor.org

In his new book The Buddha Party, Professor John Powers analyses how the Chinese Communist Party is co-opting and re-defining Tibetan religious practices, arguing religion has emerged as a new tool of control in the Party-state’s ongoing colonial mission on the Plateau. 8Powers, J. 2016. The Buddha Party: How the People's Republic of China Works to Define and Control Tibetan Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Now at Deakin University, Powers is one of Australia’s leading experts on the history of Tibetan Buddhism, but in recent years he has turned his attention to the contemporary politics of Tibet and how the Party-state uses history and now religion to reshape the public narrative on Tibet both domestically and overseas.

There is also renewed scholarly interest in the Tibetan community in Australia. Around one hundred Tibetans arrive in Australia each year under the government’s Special Humanitarian Programme. Julie Blythe, a PhD student at La Trobe University, is exploring the community’s views on conflict and conflict transformation, asking how the Tibetan community in Australia negotiates conflict in their daily lives. While Ms Blythe’s focus is on the Tibetan community in Sydney and Melbourne, Jennifer Rowe, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, is studying the Tibetan community in Brisbane and how they negotiate their identity and culture in exile.

In his 2011 article, Colin Mackerras noted that “public opinion in Australia tends strongly to side with the Dalai Lama against the Chinese over the Tibet issue.” 9Mackerras, op. cit., p.267 Yet the tide might be turning due to concerted efforts by Chinese officials and their allies in Australia to reshape public opinion on the Tibet issue. John Howard was the last Australian prime minister to meet with the Dalai Lama, in 2007, with the Nobel laureate being snubbed by top politicians during five subsequent visits to Australia. Pro-Tibet community groups, like the Australia-Tibet Council and Students for a Free Tibet, now struggle for new members and must compete with a range of pro-CCP delegations and united front organs like the Australia-Tibet Compatriots Friendship Association and the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. It is hoped, however, that Australian scholars will continue to probe the political sensitivities associated with Tibet’s status and the lives and life chances of Tibetan people both inside China and in exile.

James Leibold, Associate Professor in Chinese Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne (j.leibold@latrobe.edu.au)


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