The Tibetan Impasse
I have spent much of the past three decades representing His Holiness the Dalai Lama in talks with Chinese leaders. Through these many years of intermittent dialogue, I have sought to make the Chinese leadership understand the will of the Tibetan people and the vision of His Holiness in finding a common road to peace and reconciliation.
Over the years, I have also witnessed a drastic change in the nature and structure of Chinese leadership – from the sweeping boldness of the Deng Xiaoping era to the statesmanship and broad-mindedness of Hu Yaobang , to the institutional constraints and lack of assertiveness in recent years.
When there was a visionary leadership, we could see that China was able to take steps that helped preserve the unity and integrity of the country, promoting the interests of all its citizens and creating a positive international image.
The attitude of the Chinese leadership to the Tibetan issue has a direct bearing on the building of a harmonious society in China and its image on the world stage.
As part of my work I have tried to understand the reasons behind the current attitude of the Chinese leadership, and can think of three possible mindsets. The first one is the view that China is rising and all ethnic peoples need to modify their individual aspirations to fit in with this new identity.
The holders of this viewpoint in China seem to disregard and undermine the distinct identity of the Tibetan people. Beijing seems to mistake the artificial stability in Tibetan areas as a sign of Tibetan acquiescence. But this is not the quiet of complacency or contentment. Rather, it is the silence of growing desperation and bitterness – the kind that multiplies under repressive conditions. It is, frankly, the kind of silence in which the seeds of future violence and instability are sown.
The second mindset is that if the Chinese authorities are successful in improving economic conditions in the Tibetan areas, the Tibetan people’s concerns will be addressed and the whole issue will go away.
This is, again, a very narrow approach to resolving the Tibetan problem. The economic marginalisation of the Tibetan people is a reality that the Chinese leadership needs to address, given that official statistics place the Tibetans at the low end of the scale of economic development.
However, as Chinese scholars and experts on the Tibetan issue know, Tibetans have a high regard for their distinct culture, which has made a positive contribution to the development of the new China.
This cultural and spiritual identity needs to be given space to flourish and prosper among the Tibetan people. That cannot be achieved solely through economic development, however well intentioned it may be.
Economic integration without any respect and sensitivity for their culture will lead to more resentment by the Tibetan people. This was the clear message that the Chinese authorities should have received from the 2008 protests all over the Tibetan areas.
The third mindset is that China should wait until the passing away of the present Dalai Lama, when the Tibetan issue will naturally disappear. This thinking is based on the belief that a leaderless and disoriented movement would fragment into pieces and eventually become irrelevant.
This is a misplaced mindset for many reasons, and very counterproductive to China’s own future. Those who subscribe to this view do not understand that fragmentation today no longer means irrelevance; it means radical unpredictability and vastly greater risk. Far from fading away, the Tibetan political movement will reinvent itself in the absence of the current, Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and become something far more complex and unmanageable in the process.
It is disheartening to see just how far China’s leaders have drifted from the early days of bold reform. The leaders I came to know in the early 1980s shared a conviction about their historic role in bringing about the difficult transition that was needed in post-Mao China. Leaders like Hu Yaobang understood that the greatness of China’s future lay in the responsible actions of its leaders to conduct the necessary groundwork for true stability. Hu called for courageous policies relating to Tibet. Because he was open and honest, dared to act, dared to face reality and dared to bear responsibility, he won the hearts of the Tibetan people.
It is my hope that today’s leaders will seize the opportunity and have the courage to confront the difficult truths of contemporary Tibet, reflecting the kind of boldness of vision shown by Deng and Hu.
For our part, we have formally clarified His Holiness’ position in the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People, presented at the Eighth Round of talks in November 2008. Through the Memorandum and the related Note, presented in January this year, we have stated in clear and definitive terms that we seek only genuine autonomy within the framework of the People’s Republic of China, its constitution and its laws.
We have made it abundantly clear that we will respect the People’s Republic of China’s core interest of sovereignty and territorial integrity, including respecting the authority of the central government and adhering to the regional, national autonomy system.
But the central government must also fully respect the legitimate rights of the Tibetan people to maintain our distinctive and unique identity, as this is our core interest.
The Chinese leadership needs to take responsibility and make a serious commitment to finding a real solution to the issue of Tibet. The urgency of that responsibility is all the more palpable because of the uniqueness of this current window of time. Never before has there been a Tibetan leader like His Holiness, who has so firmly and persistently pursued such a challenging and treacherous path to achieve visionary change for the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.
The PRC proclaimed itself a multi-ethnic state with all nationalities having equal power and rights, rather than a state where a majority has political dominance over the minority.
China’s leaders have a historic choice to make: will they steward China towards a peaceful future in which Tibetans finally find a sustainable home within such a modern Chinese state? Or will they look the other way as the seeds of alienation are sown, with negative consequences for the distant future?
I know His Holiness the Dalai Lama has chosen the right side of history. I can only hope China’s leaders will see fit to do the same.
Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari is the Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama and head of the Tibetan negotiations team in the talks with the Chinese leadership
This op-ed originally appeared in the South China Morning Post, http://www.scmp.com.
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