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Little Can Be Achieved through Negotiations on Tibet

Irreconcilable differences exist on the nature of autonomy demanded by the Dalai Lama and what the Chinese are willing to concede. This has stalled any moves for a lasting settlement of the Tibetan question, making way for recurrent periods of unrest.

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Little Can Be Achieved through Negotiations on Tibet

Thomas Abraham

been virtually no progress on narrowing the gaps between the Chinese understanding of the situation in Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s.

The Chinese government has seen the aim of the negotiations as finding a way to

Irreconcilable differences exist on the nature of autonomy demanded by the Dalai Lama and what the Chinese are willing to concede. This has stalled any moves for a lasting settlement of the Tibetan question, making way for recurrent periods of unrest.

Thomas Abraham (thomas@hku.hk), a former editor of the South China Morning Post, is with the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

T
he international response to the current unrest in Tibet has been to call for talks between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. This is a gesture with little meaning. Talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities have been going on intermittently for close to 30 years now, and the demonstrations in Lhasa and elsewhere are a reflection both of how little has been achieved, and how little it is possible to achieve given the huge gulf between the two sides.

The first contacts between the Tibetans in exile and the Chinese leadership began in 1979, when the Dalai Lama’s elder brother Gyalo Thondup was invited to Beijing to meet Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese leader made it clear that the basic condition for any discussion was that the Dalai Lama should accept Tibet as an integral part of China: “So long as it is not accepted that Tibet is not an integral part of China, there is nothing else to talk about.” This was interpreted as meaning that short of independence, China was willing to consider anything else and eventually led the Dalai Lama to drop his demand for Tibetan independence and instead adopt a “middle way” of “genuine national regional autonomy” for Tibet.

Intermittent Contacts

Through the 1980s and 1990s, there were intermittent contacts between the Chinese government and the Dalai’s Lama’s representatives, until a more formal process began in 2002. Six rounds of meetings have taken place in Beijing and elsewhere between the Dalai Lama’s representatives, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen and the senior leadership of the Chinese communist party’s united front department.

While accounts from the Tibetan delegation describe the meetings as being positive, and helping to establish a climate of openness, it is clear that there has get the Dalai Lama back to China and put an end to his administration in exile in Dharmasala. China’s idea of a solution was first set out in a five-point proposal in 1981 by the then communist party general secretary, Hu Yaobang to the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup. Hu suggested that the Dalai Lama could become a vice chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, and said that his followers would be well looked after as well.

Deep Differences: For the Tibetans in exile in Dharmasala, the issue has been to secure fundamental changes in the way that Tibet is governed and a reduction in the Chinese government’s role in Tibet to foreign affairs and defence. For China, this is completely unacceptable.

The talks between the Dalai Lama and China have floundered on a number of basic issues. While the Dalai Lama has given up the demand for independence, the vision of Tibetan autonomy that he and his followers hold is still far removed from anything the Chinese leadership are either willing or able to conceive. There are two core demands that the Dalai Lama and his followers are sticking to which the Chinese have refused to budge on. The first is on the geographical extent of the autonomous Tibetan region and the second is on its form of governance in Tibet.

The Tibetan population in China is spread among a number of contiguous provinces on the Tibet plateau: The Tibet autonomous region itself which by one reckoning has only around half the Tibetan population in China, and Tibetan areas in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. The Tibetan exile administration has consistently asked for all these areas – corresponding to the three provinces known in Tibetan as U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, to be integrated into a single autonomous province. The Chinese response has been that historically the

april 5, 2008

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Tibetan-speaking areas have never been under a single administration, and secondly, if all the 55 odd ethnic minorities in China founded their own unified administrations, this would lead to inter-ethnic conflicts and social disorder. According to the Tibetan side, China has also pointed out that the area claimed for the Tibetan autonomous region would amount to a quarter of the land mass of the People’s Republic of China, and China is clearly wary of creating an entity with substantial political autonomy covering such a large portion of China, especially when this autonomy might become a springboard for independence.

The differences over the geographic extent of a Tibetan autonomous region might conceivably be resolved. But a far more intractable issue is the political system that the Dalai Lama conceives of and the kind of autonomy he envisages. The Dalai Lama’s “middle way” calls for a democratically elected legislature and executive and an independent judicial system. This would in effect mean the end of Chinese communist party rule over Tibet, or at the very least a system under which the communist party would have to stand for election with other political parties to win power over Tibet. For the Chinese communist party to allow people in any part of China to vote it out of power would be little short of an act of political suicide, and would run counter to everything the party has done to cement its grip on power since 1949. The extent of autonomy that the Tibetan side wishes for is also beyond anything that the current Chinese political system is capable of conceding.

Demand for Substantial Autonomy: The Tibetan side conceives of an auto nomy similar to what Hong Kong and Macau enjoy. Hong Kong and Macau were integrated into China under Deng Xiaoping’s so-called “one country, two systems” formula through which they were allowed to keep the political, social and economic systems and the way of life they had enjoyed when they were under British and Portuguese colonial rule. The Chinese argue that there is no similar precedent for Tibet enjoying a similar degree of autonomy. A white paper on Tibet published

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by the Chinese government in 2004 argues that unlike Hong Kong and Macau, which were reintegrated into China with a preexisting social system, Tibet has always been under Chinese rule and reverting to a pre-existing social system would in effect mean returning Tibet to feudal rule.

The Dalai Lama’s decision to give up his demand for Tibetan independence for substantial autonomy was intended to make it possible to arrive at a negotiated agreement with China on Tibet’s future. But it is clear that the alternative to independence is still far more radical than anything the Chinese system is either able or willing to deliver. The Dalai Lama’s minimum demands for autonomy would effectively require the repealing of communist party rule in Tibet, and potentially open up the unravelling of the political structure of the People’s Republic of China.

So what does the future hold for the relationship between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s exiled administration, and for the relationship between the Chinese government and the Tibetan regions?

Chinese Response to Unrest

This is not the first time that China has been faced with demonstrations in Tibet. The most serious demonstrations prior to the current unrest occurred in 1987, when monks in Lhasa and elsewhere demonstrated for cultural and religious freedoms. The current Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was sent to Tibet as party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region to restore order. There were also demonstrations in 1989 and 1993. The Chinese response has been on the three levels. At one level there has been an intensification of political control and repression in order to stamp out support for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence. The 1987 unrest was met by a “strike hard” campaign and “patriotic re-education campaign” for monks and strident criticism of the Dalai Lama and his “splittist tendencies”.

Along with this, China has relied on economic modernisation and greater cultural rights for the Tibetans as carrots to wean away Tibetans from thoughts of independence. Thanks to huge public investment and large state subsidies and the growth in tourism, the Tibetan economy has being growing at doubledigit rates for the last seven years. Tibetan language is being increasingly used in schools and universities. A Tibetan middle class that has benefited from this growth is arising, though the main beneficiaries of the boom are widely thought to be the Han Chinese who have moved to Lhasa to take advantage of new economic opportunities.

The third strand in China’s response to Tibetan unrest has been a blow hot-blow cold strategy towards the Dalai Lama. Each instance of unrest is blamed on the “Dalai clique” and is accompanied by strident official denunciations of the Dalai Lama. At the same time, the door to talks has never completely closed. After frozen periods during which all dialogue stops, talks between the two sides have always resumed. Thus, after the 1993 unrest, there was a four-year freeze accompanied by a hardening of political control over Tibet. But by 1997, talks had resumed between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and high level Chinese officials. Following another hiatus after 1998, contacts resumed in 2001 and continued till 2006.

The Olympics

The main focus of Chinese attention is to ensure that the Beijing Olympics, which are meant to symbolise China’s coming of age as a modern, global power proceed without a hitch. It is unlikely now the Olympics will be affected, as it is clear that there is no appetite in the west to risk relations with China because of Tibet.

Having ensured that the Olympics will not be affected, the Chinese strategy is likely to follow the normal pattern of a crackdown on the monasteries in order to identify the leaders of the unrest, as well as on the students, who seem to have played a major part in demonstrations. The violence by Tibetans against Han Chinese in Lhasa has provoked real outrage in Beijing and there is little doubt the crackdown will be heavy.

Economic Growth: Rapid economi growth has legitimised the communist party’s rule in the rest of China, but this formula has not worked in Tibet. The unevenness in the distribution of the benefits

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of growth between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese, as well as rising inflation has fuelled discontent. If China is to succeed in dampening unrest, it will need to find policies to address these issues.

In the short term, there is no doubt that China will succeed in restoring peace in the region. But there are long-term dynamics at play which could make the Chinese hold on Tibet untenable. Since 1949, Tibetans have been living as a minority in a larger China. While in earlier historical times, different Chinese dynasties have been accepted as suzerains over Tibet, there has never been direct Chinese rule over the region. Tibetans are also seen by the Chinese as a backward people who are being helped to modernise by China. This is a relationship close to colonialism, with China helping to modernise a backward colony and help it into modern times. The regular periods of unrest in Tibet speak of a situation where the Tibetans are resentful of their role as junior partners and a minority nation in a larger China. The spread of education, economic opportunities and a growing Tibetan middle class, is likely to intensify demands for Tibetan self-rule and for an end to Tibet’s minority status within China. This helps to explain why unlike in other parts of China, economic development and modernisation has not led to social peace, but rather periodic eruptions of unrest.

China has locked itself into a position in which it has little room to adapt to the emerging situation in Tibet, without calling into question all that it has done there over the last five decades. Unlike the time of Deng Xiaoping, there is no towering leader in the current Chinese government who is strong enough to overthrow the dogma of the past and adopt radically new approaches to problems, even if they wanted to.

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