The one and the many

What makes a "people"? That's a tricky question to answer...

Blood and ink have been spilled over Tibet and its people. But rarely, if ever, has the question been asked: Who are those people ? The problem may be approached linguistically by considering the two phrases "the Tibetan people" (aka "the Tibetans") and "the people of Tibet". These expressions are more or less synonymous, but each has a different focus. "The Tibetan people" emphasises those who are ethnically or culturally Tibetan. "The people of Tibet" emphasises those who live in the place of that name.

By contrast, "the Tibetan people" may well be taken to include Tibetans living outside Tibet, and their descendants. According to the government of Tibet in exile, this Tibetan diaspora is approximately 111,000 strong.

As for "the people of Tibet", they include Tibetans - and others, most notably Han Chinese. How many? That depends on what we mean by "Tibet". It can mean Greater Tibet, which, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile, comprises "U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo Provin ces" - or the part that the Chinese government calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which, again, according to the government-in-exile, "is less than half the land mass of Tibet with only one-third of the total Tibetan population". When the exiled government says that "today six million Tibetans are outnumbered by 7.5 million Chinese in Tibet", it means in Greater Tibet. For the TAR, however, a Chinese government census of the year 2000 "indicated there were 2.4 million Tibetans . . . and 159,000 Han Chinese who are in [a] majority in Lhasa, the regional capital" (Express India, 24 May 2008). But even here, there is another layer of complexity, because, once more according to the government-in-exile, there are also "an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 [Chinese] troops . . . stationed in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region".

But, whatever your terms of reference, "the people of Tibet" now includes a significant number of non-Tibetans. Tibet has become, like so many other places, a multi-ethnic society. In Tibet's future, what is to be the role of the ethnic Tibetans outside Tibet and of the non-Tibetans inside? According to the Dalai Lama: "As I have often said, Tibet belongs to Tibetans, and especially to those who are in Tibet." That is either not explicit enough - or only too explicit.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, now independent of Russia, may or may not have given full civic equality to the many ethnic Russians still living in them: the facts seem still to be in dispute. On the other hand, when Scotland achieved devolution, every UK citizen living there became entitled automatically to vote for members of the Scottish Parliament and to stand for election to it. My family, which recently moved from London to Edinburgh, may not be part of "the Scottish people" (that is, the Scots) - but it is most certainly part of "the people of Scotland".

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism