Tibet at a Crossroads

The recent Chinese attacks on the Dalai Lama have been of an intensity and viciousness not seen for many years. Among a host of accusations, he has been called a “false religious leader” and a “double dealer”, and his Middle Way Approach to finding a solution to the Tibetan situation has been roundly rejected and described as nothing more than a “swindle”. The new Communist Party secretary of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, who has been at the forefront of the new hardline approach, has described the battle against the Dalai Lama as a “fight to the death”.

This latest round of vituperation from China is all the more surprising as it comes at a time when contact between the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Government-in-exile and Beijing is theoretically better than it has been for some time; although the Chinese have never officially acknowledged their existence, five rounds of talks have been undertaken between the two sides since 2002. Moreover, in an effort to create the best possible atmosphere for these discussions, the Tibetan side has been at its most conciliatory. For the first time, the Kashag — the executive body of the Tibetan Government-in-exile — has officially issued appeals to Tibetan exiles and their supporters to refrain from public demonstrations to highlight the cause of Tibet.

Why then, when the Tibetans are officially doing everything possible to create what the exile Prime Minister, Samdhong Rinpoche, calls a “conducive atmosphere”, are the Chinese stepping up their campaign to vilify the Dalai Lama and denouncing his overtures to find accommodation? More importantly, what does this imply for the future of a negotiated settlement on Tibet based on the Middle Way Approach?

Let us go back to a year ago, soon after the fourth round of talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and senior Chinese officials had been concluded in June 2005. Reporting on the status of these discussions to the Fourth World Parliamentarians’ Convention on Tibet in Edinburgh, the Dalai Lama’s envoy, Kelsang Gyaltsen, stated: “What is presently most disturbing and of great concern to us is that there have been no positive changes inside Tibet since the opening of direct contact with the Chinese leadership. On the contrary, repression inside Tibet has increased recently. Nor has Beijing reciprocated the confidence building measures undertaken by the Tibetan leadership in exile after our first visit. We must face the fact that so far there has been no indication of any change in China’s harsh policies in Tibet nor have there been any clear signs that the Chinese leadership is genuinely interested in beginning an honest dialogue.”

Despite this pessimistic overview, the exile government continued its “confidence building measures”. In the lead-up to the fifth round of talks, the Kashag made its strongest appeal yet to US-based Tibetans and Tibet support groups not to disrupt President Hu Jintao’s visit to America by staging demonstrations. The fifth round of talks took place in February this year. In keeping with the previous meetings, the substance of these talks was not revealed by either side. Special Envoy Lodi Gyari’s press statement started with a positive spin: “Today there is a better and deeper understanding of each other’s position and the fundamental differences that continue to exist in the positions held by the two parties.” But went on to hint at a more serious impasse: “This round of discussion also made it clear that there is a major difference even in the approach in addressing the issue.” Although Lodi Gyari did not elaborate, we can deduce that the “major difference even in the approach” in his statement refers to China’s complete rejection of the Middle Way Approach. This is made amply evident in a recent article in Beijing’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, which also explains why China sees this as representing “the Dalai Lama’s ulterior motive: eventually seeking Tibetan independence.”

This is the clearest indication yet from China about its position with regard to the Middle Way Approach and it comes hard on the heels of its renewed attack on the Dalai Lama. Despite this, Samdhong Rinpoche stressed in a recent statement that, “In order to resolve the issue of Tibet, which is the main objective of the Tibetan community in exile, we intend to make more efforts towards continuing the current Sino-Tibetan dialogue process, based on the mutually beneficial Middle-Way Approach.” In a recent Australian documentary, he stated, “Unless that Chinese proves they are not trustworthy [sic], until then we will have to trust them.” Pressed by the reporter whether they had not already proven that they were untrustworthy, he replied, “They have proved in the past. And in this moment, for the last few years we are in dialogue and they have not proved as yet.” This implies that despite all evidence to the contrary, Dharamsala still believes that the Middle Way Approach is not only a viable basis for dialogue with China but is actually “mutually beneficial”. But is this really the case?

The main component of the Middle Way Approach as outlined in the official website of the Tibetan Government-in-exile is that “Tibet would not seek separation from, and remain within, the People’s Republic of China”. By itself, this should be an attractive proposition to China. But this concession is predicated on a number of preconditions which must first be agreed upon by Beijing. These are:

  1. Without seeking independence for Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration strives for the creation of a political entity comprising the three traditional provinces of Tibet
  2. Such an entity should enjoy a status of genuine national regional autonomy
  3. This autonomy should be governed by the popularly-elected legislature and executive through a democratic process

It is clear from the recent People’s Daily article that Beijing is deeply resistant to the idea of the creation of a greater Tibet and sees this as a call for what it has, in the past, termed “disguised independence”. Before the Chinese invasion, the Lhasa Government did not exercise control over the areas beyond what is roughly the Central Tibetan province of U-Tsang, the region today demarcated as Tibet Autonomous Region. While all Tibetans shared common cultural and religious traits, and Lhasa was unquestionably the spiritual heart of the country, most of the province of Kham and all of Amdo were de facto independent territories with shifting political loyalties, sometimes paying tribute to Lhasa, and sometimes to the Chinese, and more often than not, to neither. China immediately took advantage of these ground realities. The 17-Point Agreement, which it forced upon the Tibetan government in 1951, applied only to Central Tibet, the area controlled by the Lhasa government. Amdo and most of Kham were appended to the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Szechuan and Yunnan.

It was only after coming into exile in 1959 that the concept of a greater Tibet — comprising U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo — evolved to reflect the aspirations of refugees from all three provinces who had fought together against the Chinese, and represented a renewed awareness of Tibet as a nation-state. In recent years, anti-Chinese activities and expressions of Tibetan nationalism have taken place in both Kham and Amdo, pointing to the fact that the ideal of a united Tibet, which was forged in exile, has taken root inside Tibet. This is a worrying trend for Beijing and any move towards the unification of Tibet’s traditional provinces would, in its estimation, further encourage such nationalist tendencies and necessarily pose an even greater threat to its rule. I believe this fear alone will keep China from ever acceding to this key pre-condition to the Middle Way Approach.

In a statement issued to commemorate the Lhasa Uprising of 10 March 1959 earlier this year, the Kashag made the case that the demand to unite the three provinces of Tibet into one autonomous region conforms to the provisions of China’s Regional National Autonomy Law (RNAL), which was set up to safeguard the culture and identity of minorities. Dr Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan legal expert, has pointed out in a recent paper in the Harvard South Asia Journal that within the provisions of RNAL, the concept of “unity” assumes greater importance than that of autonomy, “thereby creating paradoxical and contradictory approaches to autonomy for minorities.” “Unity” here includes in its definition, unity of the motherland and unity under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. But even if this ambiguity did not exist, we know that China has a very poor record of abiding by the strictures of its own constitution. We have seen time and again that Beijing does not tolerate anything that remotely threatens its power base and has no hesitation in trampling upon even the most basic rights of its own citizens. And we can be sure that in the case of Tibet, what China sees as a threat to her “unity” will always outweigh any concerns about regional autonomy, and indeed, this is the crux of their argument in the recent People’s Daily article. Therefore, presenting this demand as a legally viable option within Chinese law gives China more credibility than its record would suggest.

The other pre-condition set out in the Middle Way Approach is that even if China were to agree to an enlarged Tibet Autonomous Region within the meaning of the RNAL, this region must be “governed by the popularly-elected legislature and executive through a democratic process”. Given that China is a totalitarian state, there is no way it can accept such a demand without itself first undergoing a major transformation. It has been argued that this demand has precedence in the One Country, Two Systems approach operating in Hong Kong. But there is a great difference in the situation between these two regions; the Basic Law under which Hong Kong retains its special characteristics was negotiated by the British as an integral component of their agreement to hand over the colony to China. Additionally, it was advantageous for China to maintain Hong Kong’s uniquely capitalist set-up as part of its own burgeoning economic strategy. No such precedence or compulsion exists with regard to Tibet.

Therefore, while the Middle Way Approach makes a huge sacrifice in terms of giving up the claim for Tibet’s independence, it does so by placing pre-conditions that, as far as China is concerned, are no different from actually seeking independence, and far from being “mutually beneficial”. This impression is not helped by the fact that Dharamsala continues to inadvertently send out mixed signals. For example, on the Dalai Lama’s 71st birthday on 6 July this year [2006], the Kashag strongly reaffirmed the “determination to engage in dialogue for resolving the issue of Tibet through the present Sino-Tibetan contacts”, but concluded its statement by exhorting: “May the truth of the issue of Tibet prevail soon!” Most Tibetans would understand “the truth of the issue of Tibet” to mean only one thing: Tibet’s independence. The Chinese must surely recognize that this underlying sentiment exists in the hearts of all Tibetans, no matter what their official stand is, and it is this that leads them to mistrust our intentions. Nowhere is this more starkly evident to them than in the influence that the Dalai Lama continues to wield inside Tibet.

The Chinese know that it takes the Dalai Lama to make just one appeal, e.g., to stop using furs, and before they know it, they are confronted with spontaneous public burnings of fur from Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region all the way to Karze in Szechwan and Rebkong in Qinghai. They know that the destruction of a statue of Dorje Shugden — a Tibetan Buddhist protector deity — in Ganden Monastery near Lhasa earlier this year by a group of monks was in direct response to the Dalai Lama’s denouncement of the worship of this spirit. They know that, although they have abducted the Dalai Lama’s selection of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and replaced him with their own puppet, the Tibetan people are not fooled. They have seen that even in the furthest reaches of Qinghai, it only takes a rumour of his return before thousands gather in anticipation. There are so many instances that demonstrate his pervasive influence throughout Tibet and the continuing devotion and loyalty he commands there, that in order to truly consolidate their hold on Tibet, their battle with the Dalai Lama must necessarily be “a fight to the death”.

This explains why Beijing is willing to escalate its anti-Dalai Lama diatribe even at a time when it is supposedly engaged in talks with him, because to China, the talks are not about discussing the Middle Way Approach; they are about how to neutralize the Dalai Lama’s influence, once and for all, both inside and outside Tibet. Gestures of goodwill on the part of the Kashag, like appealing to Tibetans and their supporters not to demonstrate against visiting Chinese dignitaries, will ultimately mean nothing to China, other than to give its international image a public relations boost. The only “conducive atmosphere” as far as Beijing is concerned is one where the Dalai Lama ceases to exert influence of any sort in Tibet, and this, so long as he is alive, is impossible.

Given that this is the situation, I believe that unless there is a major change within China’s political setup, we can assume that as long as Dharamsala insists on the Middle Way Approach in its present form as the basis for negotiations, Beijing’s intransigence will continue. And if this remains the state of things until the Dalai Lama passes away — as China surely hopes — what then will be the fate of Tibet’s national struggle? Will the Middle Way Approach remain a viable option without the Dalai Lama to give it credibility? These are difficult questions but ones we Tibetans in exile must be prepared to ask and discuss while we still have the Dalai Lama to lead us.

In November 1996, when he was the Chairman of the Tibetan People’s Deputies, Samdhong Rinpoche proposed a programme to launch a Tibetan Satyagraha movement, which ended with an emotional appeal: “When Gandhi-ji gave the call to ‘Do or Die’ there was no other choice. As I propose my people to ‘Do or Die’ there is no other choice either. The return journey back to homeland must commence here and now. Only then we can say, ‘Next year in Lhasa’.” That was ten years ago. Unless we seriously reconsider the direction of our struggle, whether we return to Lhasa will not only remain as elusive as ever, it will become increasingly irrelevant.


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