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March 31, 2008

Columbia Professor Shares Insights on Troubled Tibet
Special from The Record

Professor Robert Barnett
Director of Modern Tibet Studies Robert Barnett, in front of his map marking Tibet-related unrest.
Photo by Eileen Barroso

Everybody, it seems, wants to interview Robert Barnett.

In recent weeks, as deadly protests broke out in Tibet against the Chinese government, Barnett, an expert on contemporary Tibetan politics, has been on CNN, National Public Radio and Bloomberg Television. He has been quoted in TIME, blogged in The New York Times online edition and written an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal. And oh yes, he recently briefed actor Richard Gere, a close friend of the Dalai Lama. During an interview with The Record, his cell phone rings: An International Herald Tribune reporter in Paris is seeking an interview.

Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, is in the midst of a media storm. With Tibet closed off to journalists and few resources available for analysis and information since the protests spread to some 40 Tibetan towns, Barnett has become the go-to academic on Tibet. As an expert in the tiny field of Tibetan politics and the author or editor of nine books on modern-day Tibet, he has extensive sources within the region, the result of 20 years of research as a journalist and academic.

Related Links

Barnett's Map of Sites of Tibetan Demonstration and Protests

Lhasa Riots Expose Tibet's Split Society, Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2008

Map of Tibet Unrest, Washington Post, March 27, 2008

Seven Questions: What Tibetans Want, Foreign Policy, March 2008 issue

Monk Protests in Tibet Draw Chinese Security, New York Times, March 14, 2008

A Tibetan Intifadeh Against China, TIME, March 14, 2008

“I’m the obvious man in a field of about one and a half people; it’s not that hard to work out,” Barnett jokes. He’s quick to acknowledge his fellow scholars. Columbia has many of them, such as Gray Tuttle, the Leila Hadley Luce Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, and Lauran Hartley, an expert on modern Tibetan literature. Most scholars on the region focus on religion, anthropology, art or history. Robert A. Thurman, a professor of religion at Columbia, has also received a lot of media attention for his expertise on Tibet and decades of study with the Dalai Lama.

A journalist before becoming an academic, Barnett has a meticulously detailed map of recent Tibet-related protests throughout China. Started by a colleague who wants to remain anonymous, Barnett and other North American scholars update it constantly through a network of Tibetan and Chinese sources, Chinese newspapers, on-the-ground reports from tourists and other information, and disseminate it to news outlets.

Barnett’s interest in Tibetan politics was sparked 20 years ago when he witnessed a rare demonstration while on a visit there. “We suddenly became eyewitnesses to an important event, a number of people were shot dead and the Chinese were very keen to hide this information,” he recalled. Tibetans approached members of his group, begging them to get the information to the outside world. “We became important by chance, in that strange way that sometimes happens.”

Barnett and his fellow tourists saw to it that meticulously detailed accounts of events were sent abroad. In 1988, he set up a news and research project in London that collected information from inside Tibet on the political and social conditions, and he worked as a journalist for such outlets as the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and the BBC. He joined Columbia in 1998 and set up, with Chinese Studies Professor Madeleine Zelin, the first teaching program in any western university dedicated to modern Tibetan studies.

Will the media scrutiny on Tibet affect how the Chinese handle the crisis? Such a question, Barnett said, “underestimates China and overestimates journalists.” Journalists, and likely the world’s attention, will move on, he said. Chinese authorities, however, will likely clamp down on protesters, as they almost always do.

“Closing places off is not difficult, and China can do that if it chooses to,” he said, “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be serious reconsideration of China’s policies behind closed doors.”

And academics like Barnett will try to make sense of it all, as they strive to assist Tibetans themselves. “It’s not in our job descriptions, but there will be lots of human rights work to be done,” he said, “to find people who were arrested and do the back-channel work to help policy people work towards solutions.”

 – Story by Bridget O'Brian