Keynote of ISCI 2015

A. Tom Grunfeld
was our distinguished keynote speaker at ISCI 2015:

The Case of Tibet

All ruling elites aspire to social stability and to have their minority populations (be they ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, etc.) feel they are equal stakeholders in the nation state.
While this is universal in any heterogeneous country it is especially true in China where the ruling elites, thanks largely to history, fear disorder and the breakup of the country to a exceeding degree.

Tibet was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and for the past 65 years the central government has struggled with how to best achieve the goals of stability and inclusion.
Outside of China, Tibetan exiles and their supporters advocate independence for Tibet at best, and “meaningful autonomy” at the least. And, no doubt, if a poll of Tibetans inside China were possible we might find considerable support for either of these options. However, I would argue that while these may be the unattainable goals one can aspire to, Tibetans have more mundane issues of importance pertaining to their daily lives. There are concerns over employment, schooling, medical care, housing, etc; all much more immediate than any lofty aim of independence.

And there is something else, I believe, a more urgent, concrete issue; the decline and fear of total loss of their cultural norms – language, religion, customs.

In the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party under Hu Yaobang and the central government under Premier Zhao Ziyang understood that to make Tibetans (and all ethnic minorities for that matter) feel as though they are stakeholders in the PRC, they would have to be assured that their cultures will remain intact. This policy was ended by the late 1980s.

Since the early 1990s the central government’s policy has been to win the loyalty of Tibetans by substantially improving their living standards. To that end tens of billions of yuan have been poured into the region which has been physically transformed. Yet, the loyalty of the Tibetans, and stability, is still in doubt. Indeed, tension between Tibetans and ethnic Chinese (Han), if anything, is increasing.

This policy of trying to win the loyalty of the Tibetans through material means has clearly failed resulting in an increase of discrimination and repression, particularly since 2008.

I propose to look at the importance of cultural security to any minority and how reassurances on this front can lead to stability and loyalty to the state. The focus will be China and the Tibetans with some additional examples from around the world.


A. Tom Grunfeld
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor
New York City, NY

  – Modern East Asian History (China, Vietnam, Japan)
– U.S. History
– Foreign Relations of the United States
– Media


A. Tomasz Grunfeld, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, specializes in Central and East Asian studies, at Empire State College’s Metropolitan Center in Manhattan.

He is widely sought as a speaker and commentator on the issues concerning the relationship between China, Tibet and the U.S. as well as U.S. policy regarding the movement for Tibet’s independence.

Grunfeld earned his B.A. at SUNY Old Westbury, his M.A. in Far Eastern studies (Chinese history) from the University of London/School of Oriental and African Studies; and his Ph.D. in modern Chinese history from New York University.

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