Does the west care about what real Tibetans think?
It seems not. Rarely does their opinions (or the opinions of Chinese citizens for that matter) come into the equation when speaking about Sino-Tibetan issues. It’s taken as a given that they all want independence. That all of their lives are far worse under Chinese “occupation” than it was under the Dalai Lama’s Shangrila Kingdom. Westerners likely take the viewpoints of Tibetan emigres as a representative sample of 5.8 million Tibetans inside Tibet.
Granted, other than the anecdotal evidence from travelers, there are few objective evidence from surveys are rarely conducted inside Tibet. But I know of two that polls ethnic Tibetans inside Tibet for their views. But what are their views?
In this survey conducted in 2000 by the renowned Tibetologists Melvyn Goldstein, Cynthia Beall, Ben Jiao and Phuntsog Tsering, they asked a sample of Tibetans from across the TAR whether their lives are better than that of their parents (“Do You Have a Better Life Now Than Your Parents Did?”). One of the cohorts of that sample (N=150) is the age group between 60-79. In 2000, that means that they were born roughly between 1920-1940. That means that almost all of their parents lived entirely before Chinese policies were instituted after 1959.
An astounding ~90% answered “Yes,” that is, their lives are indeed better than that of their parents.
So it would appear that the Dalai Lama’s claim (which the west no doubt accepts unquestioningly) that China had turned Tibetan “heaven on earth” to a “hell on earth” is, like many other claims about China and Tibet in the west, absolute bullshit.
But what about the question of independence? Well, that study did not directly question Tibetans on that thorny issue but one study conducted secretly by the Tibetan Government in Exile did shortly after the 08 March riots. Here, it looks that Tibetans inside Tibet who want independence (renzig) are in the minority (29% or about 5,000 out of a total sample of about 17,000). This survey was likely crucial in getting the TGIE to stick with the so-called “middle way approach” after the riots when they actively questioned that approach and contemplated seeking independence. Keep in mind that this study was conducted by the TGIE and so questions of pro-China bias is out the window. Also, more importantly, keep in mind that this study was done soon after the 08 riots when tempers were flaring and the desire for independence was likely at its zenith inside Tibet. So if only 29% of Tibetans want independence, at most shortly after the Tibetan riots, that figure could be much lower today.
Here as elsewhere, the opinions of people actually part of the issue is dropped from the discussion in the west’s narrative. It is only their (white folks’) opinions that count speaking on behalf of everyone else. Sure the evidence is sparse from only two studies but studies like this are still better than conjecture, anecdote and mere bullshitting. I wonder what you’d find if you polled Native Hawaiians or the Lakota Indians for their views on whether they want their territories to be an independent state from the US?
[NOTE: Now the TGIE study did find that a plural majority (about 47% or 8,000) of respondents wanted to the Middle Way approach of Tibet remaining as part of China but with limited "true autonomy" (the 4,000 or so rest of the sample either wanted the status quo to remain or did not have an opinion). But also keep in mind that the Chinese government offered the Dalai Lama a middle way approach for the autonomy for the TAR in the early 80s but due to his intractable and unreasonable demands that even parts of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and other historically multi-ethnic provinces be included as "Tibet," the deal fell through.]